The utilities sector has undergone a few fundamental shifts in the past few years. While traditionally, work processes have been chiefly manually recorded, digitalization has been helping garner efficiencies in incremental ways.
Rugged mobile tablets, connected to enterprise asset management systems and resource planning software, have decreased some of the errors and time inefficiencies associated with all-manual processes. But this is not enough. External forces such as labor shortage, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change are just a few that will strain the utilities industry. Utilities must get more innovative and embrace digital transformation more thoroughly to meet these challenges.
A few factors have already shaped how the utilities sector conducts business. Expect these to gain momentum in the year ahead.
Need for Contactless Monitoring and Work Solutions
Utilities has always been a high-touch, service-oriented industry. The challenges with this model became apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Serial lockdowns around the world challenged businesses to get the job done with as few workers as possible. In many cases, social distancing protocols also moved the industry to remote management.
The field services sector has decades of experience managing business disruptions caused by natural disasters. However, the pandemic delivered a new problem for business continuity. Workforce illnesses and travel restrictions meant organizations could deploy fewer workers onsite. Truck rolls were significantly disrupted. Expect these early impacts to continue to shape the utilities sector in the years ahead. Gartner identified “Anywhere Operations” as one of the movements to watch in 2021. This shift will only accelerate in the coming years.
Utilities will adopt more advanced technologies such as augmented reality (AR) as expertise becomes more valuable. Leaning on remote experts through AR applications on rugged mobile devices will accelerate. Being able to spread expertise over multiple locations decreases the need for travel and truck rolls. It also improves the bottom line. Technologies to make remote expertise available already exist. However, different rates of digital maturity have adversely impacted their adoption so far. Expect this to change.
Monitoring in utilities too will become more automated and require fewer workers onsite. Robots can ease routine maintenance and help utilities do more with fewer workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use cases for labor efficiencies in the industry, and there is no turning back.
Growing Consumer Expectations
Using superior customer service from online retail giants such as Amazon, consumers expect the same from every business interaction. Utilities face the same pressures in attending to outages and other problems. They cannot afford delays. In addition, utility workers are fast becoming the face of the company while on the road. They need access to real-time and accurate information while on the field. This is a crucial aspect for workers to do their jobs thoroughly and with fewer callbacks. Rugged mobile devices on the road help utility workers meet growing consumer demands and deliver a frictionless experience.
Take the case of the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA). Getac tablets help the field service crew deliver a faster response to thousands of customers. With the ZX70 rugged mobile tablet, workers receive an immediate notification of a customer-reported problem so they can prioritize work right away.
In addition, customer service is where utilities can gain a leg up by delivering proactive rather than reactive service. As per research firm Gartner, “By 2025, proactive (outbound) customer engagement interactions will outnumber reactive (inbound) customer engagement interactions.” Here too, digital transformation will play a role in how utilities can push the conversation toward delivering proactive solutions and delighting demanding customers.
Growing Labor Shortage
There is a shortage of skilled technicians in the industry. Workers leaving their jobs en masse further exacerbates the issue. In the United States, the trade, transportation, and utilities sector saw the second-highest percentage of workers leaving the industry in late 2021. Experienced workers quitting their jobs also means valuable operational know-how leaves the company. The utility industry centralizes information so practical knowledge does not leave workers. Utilities are also automating more workflows to modernize traditional approaches to service operations.
Rugged tablets also help utilities and field service companies use personnel more strategically, as the AyA example shows. Device GPS capabilities allow dispatch to geolocate crews and route them to the right place at the right time. This helped the Costa Rican institution allocate workers efficiently.
5G and More Robust Network Infrastructure
The premise of digital transformation is that data-driven insights will deliver efficiencies in every industry that adopts them. In sectors like utilities, which depend on physical assets for revenue, there is a slightly more challenging proposition: extracting data from machines and relaying that information reliably–and in real-time–so companies can harness meaningful insights from them. These insights can take the form of predictive maintenance so utility workers can repair assets before they break down. The machine-to-machine communication needed for such a project depends on a reliable network. The growth of 5G will likely significantly boost efforts in this area.
5G aids with the connectivity of the Internet of Things-based device. 5G also helps rugged mobile devices connect to asset management software in the Cloud. Seamless and faster connectivity will help utilities gain more advantages related to asset management. Reliable network connectivity can also help boost customer service delivery.
The integration of operational technology and information technology continues to be critical in the utilities sector. The growth of 5G and its embrace of the Cloud will significantly and positively impact the industry.
Unfortunately, connected grids and services have a downside in the problem of increasing vulnerabilities to cyberattacks. Nation-state threat actors can target crucial power grids and bring entire systems down. Utilities need not shy away from digital transformation, though. It is possible to switch to digital processes with a robust communications infrastructure while preventing cyberattacks.
Movement on Sustainability Initiatives
Extreme weather means it is no longer “business as usual” for the utilities industry. Severe weather events force the sector to recalculate what business continuity looks like and how real-time planning will help companies overcome these uncertain challenges. More than half of the electricity utility service providers in a Deloitte 2021 survey said extreme weather had negatively impacted their ability to deliver electricity in their regions consistently. Agility on the ground will be vital in navigating the uncertainties related to climate change.
In addition, utilities assets make room to accommodate various renewable energy sources. The industry has been incorporating and routing energy from sources such as wind and solar for years. However, integration with grids continues to be a work in progress. Accelerating climate change headaches will continue to test grid resilience and further complicate the work of the utility sector.
The utilities industry continues to feel the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is a growing call for digital transformation-led efficiencies across the board. With extreme weather events and other factors straining everyday business operations, the sector has a lot of complexities to handle. Indeed, the pandemic and sustainability emerged as the top two factors impacting the industry, according to a 2021 GlobalData report. Preserving worker safety and keeping their engagement high will also be critical in how companies in this sector can augment talent with tech-derived efficiencies.
At the same time, advanced technologies such as robotics, remote monitoring, artificial intelligence, and the Industrial Internet of Things promise to help solve these challenges. It is an exciting time for the industry. There is a chance to fundamentally change how organizations do business today and in the years ahead.