Mobile Field Operation Gets Tough to Get the Job Done

By  Michelle Maisto — November 12, 2008



"If you watched a water meter installation contractor work, you'd understand why a rugged computing solution is necessary," says Lanney Johns, a project manager for HD Supply Waterworks' National Services Group (NSG), an Arkansas-based business that installs meters and automated meter-reading systems for electric, water and gas utilities across the country. "Contractors carry a toolbox to 60 to 80 locations each day. Everything is thrown in that toolbox and then dumped on the ground at the next location. Every tool takes a beating."

The contractors doling out all this rough-and-toughness are part of the turn-key solutions NSG offers. "We'll get the part for them, put it in, finance it--any or all of it. If they decide they want to do the whole project, as opposed to phasing it in, we can take the project and complete it," says Johns. He emphasizes that by helping customers to fully complete a project, results are expedited: "Automatic meter reading saves a city a lot of time and money -- but to get that benefit, you need the whole utility converted quickly. So if they can just snap their fingers and it's all done, then they start receiving that benefit today."

Back when NSG relied primarily on paper records, replacing a meter entailed having a worker pick up the day's assignments, head out to a site--whether a large business or a single residence--confirm that he'd found the correct meter, read the meter, write down its lengthy identification number, and record the I.D. of the new meter going in. It was a time-consuming process that was prone to error by the field worker copying down the numbers, as well as the office worker who later deciphered the handwriting and input the data in the utility's records.

In 2006, the National Services Group turned to Computer Network, Inc. (CNI), a value-added reseller targeted to the utility industry. The solution they developed together is a customized version of CNI's UMSMobile, a Microsoft .net-based work management application running on rugged Trimble Ranger devices.

The separate bar code scanners they used with them, though, were "expensive and got broken," says Johns, so last year NSG upgraded to the Trimble Nomad, which includes a built-in scanner and GPS reader. "Every project we've done sine then has always had a Nomad on it."

The changes this mobile solution brought to NSG's day-to-day operations are so profound, it's difficult to imagine how they ever functioned without it.

Today, when a utility places an order with NSG (which can be thousands of meters, given that the final customers are municipalities), it goes through sales and billing and appears to Johns as a work order. Johns then hires enough contractors to perform the work, which he oversees.

NSG has a number of Trimble devices on hand that it can lend to contractors for the course of the job; or, if the project is particularly large and expected to last several months, each contractor will purchase a ready-to-go Trimble from CNI. From there, all the information the contractor needs to start working each morning is on the device: customer name, address, type of location, type of meter and service required, etc. The only work the contractor still performs by hand is recording the meter reading. The Nomad reads the bar codes on the old and new meters, records the site's GPS coordinates and makes it possible to sync the data via cable or WiFi (Trimble's new XYZ also offers cellular connectivity) directly to the utility that ordered the job.

Mike McConatha, president of CNI, explains this last detail: "In order to speed up the process and get data back to the utility board in a timely manner, we worked with [HDS] to customize the solution so it allows them to interface with any host billing center. It doesn't matter who's providing the utility board's software. [HDS] puts a computer in place and it connects the host billing system to the handhelds being used in the field. "If they install the meters today, they transmit the data back to the utility board tonight, so the utility board is not waiting on paperwork to flow." Additionally, "The project manager then receives an email overnight of everything that happened during the day. So even if the project manager is states away and managing several projects, he has the ability to see what's going on at any given time, at any given site."

And uniquely, once the project is complete, NSG offers the utility the option to purchase the mobile devices already interfacing with their system, to aid with easy upkeep. "If they want to buy the devices at the end of the project, then fine. And if not, we'll keep them and use them on another project later," says Johns. "It's whatever the customer wants."

The Look of Progress

CNI started in the 1990s with a billing solution, to which it added a work management solution. Later, it created mobile versions of its solutions and paired them with rugged devices. "Three or four years ago, the focus was on just replacing paper," says McConatha. "It has since transformed into streamlining the operation and moving data to the field in a much more responsive manner."

CNI's solution is also "significantly less expensive" than its competitors', which McConatha explains is because "a lot of the larger vendors come in and do an extensive study of exactly what your needs are, and then go back and have some real high-dollar people work on taking a base product and customizing it. We took the approach that: Let's allow the customization to be done in the field by technicians and/or a savvy end users, and eliminate those high-dollar expenses."

NSG, certainly, is thrilled with its investment, and sees "major cost benefits," says Johns.

For example, he says, "We completed a project back in February that had 20,000 meters on it. We used more of the handhelds on that project, and basically had about $25,000 invested in that. But that was very cheap compared to if we had to take the customers' written records and go out into the field with a paper work order--and in some of the bad weather we were in, those paper records would have gotten in real bad shape. But that's not the real big savings. The real savings is if we're doing 100 to 200 meter change-outs per day, the utility would have had to pay somebody -- probably about $75,000 to $100,000 -- to sit at a desk all day, and teach them to input the information in manually."

With the Nomads, the data transfer from those 100 to 200 meters each day was completed in less than five minutes, and with absolute accuracy, explains Johns. "We're now able to do in minutes what used to take all day, and without all the errors."

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