The global utility market is on a growth curve. The Business Research Company forecasts the industry will reach $5996.57 billion in 2025 at a compounded annual growth rate of seven percent. To achieve this growth, energy and utility providers must embrace digital transformation and overcome five key industry-wide challenges.
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Assets are the beating heart of the utility industry and what most workers strive to preserve. The challenge in maintaining these assets is two-fold. First, many are aging rapidly and are often insubstantial to meet the needs of a changing industry.
Second, there is a dwindling pool of skilled talent that can efficiently maintain these aging assets. Entities like smart grids are becoming a part of the everyday vocabulary in the utility industry.
However, integrating physical assets or operational technology (OT) with information technology (IT) remains a struggle for many companies. Most are left grappling with this question: How do we modernize our assets without reinventing the wheel?
Predictive maintenance of assets is one of the key advantages the industry can harness through digital transformation. For instance, sensor-driven data helps workers tell when assets are about to fail so they can use their time more efficiently.
Rugged mobile devices are critical platforms for accessing data and making decisions on the field. Even the status of the devices themselves can be closely monitored. For example, technology such as the Getac Device Monitoring System allows repairs and upgrades to be made proactively rather than reactively.
Inefficient Use of Personnel
The utility industry workforce faces the constant challenge of stewardship of assets, which can be difficult. In addition, they must collect valuable data about assets, a job that might not be their primary focus. Field services have always been the company’s face, but that job has become more complicated in today’s customer service environment. Customers are getting more demanding and need faster service, increasing the pressure on the workforce.
Moreover, the utility industry must also deal with decreasing profit margins and decreasing availability of skilled talent. Utility companies must ensure the right person is being dispatched efficiently on the right job at the right time.
The industry is changing rapidly, with varying energy sources coming from renewables and traditional sources. These, combined with digital transformation and the smart grid and smart meters, mean organizations must quickly ramp up worker training. Rugged mobile devices on field sites help workers handle the frequently evolving challenges of their job.
One exciting advance in employee training involves virtual reality (VR). Detroit-based energy company DTE Energy harnessed VR to train employees in high-consequence scenarios from the safety of their office. This includes operating at great heights, repairing down wires, and shutting off gas lines.
Problems Related to Data Gathering
The modern digital transformation of the utility industry – dubbed Industry 4.0 – could reasonably run on data. Too often, there is excessive redundancy in the data collection process. Antiquated protocols mandate workers gather the same data repeatedly for input in various data management systems.
Such procedures keep workers away from the real job of attending to assets and increase frustration. Many companies still rely on pen and paper, which is also not the most reliable method of data-keeping. As a result, workers must transfer data from one format to another. This wastes time and increases the potential of introducing errors.
The utility industry challenges also manifest in other ways. With digital transformation in place, sometimes companies end up drowning in too much data from too many assets. It isn’t easy to know which data to focus on and what they tell us.
Centralized asset management systems and digitized information help make sense of the data gathered. Mobile devices are critical in accessing the correct data at the right time. This enables field service workers to make decisions efficiently and get broken assets back on the grid faster.
Software solutions are arising to help utility companies gather better-quality data. One example is FlexiBill, developed by the New Zealand company Flux Federation. This software enables energy retailers to handle increased data volumes to price cleaner energy forms effectively.
It is essential to have consistent communication between the onsite worker and the dispatch or home office. Too often, each person is working with a different set of information leading to confusion and delays in asset management.
Everyone is on the same page when workers use rugged mobile devices with the appropriate enterprise asset management (EAM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Workers can have real-time access to information. The bonus of having real-time data is delivering better customer service. Workers can update customers seamlessly about the status of repairs.
Canadian energy utility Spark Power introduced a mobile app solution to bolster communication across their operations. This app is spread over 35 locations in Canada and the United States. Keeping employers informed and engaged in the face of a vast geographical scale is a common challenge for utility providers. Better technology, hardware, and software lie at the heart of the solution.
The uncertainty of extreme weather and natural disasters can cut off access to assets for extended periods. These problems lead to increased reactive maintenance and responses by field workers. At the same time, worker safety in heavy industries is paramount. Dispatch and workers must balance the need to get utilities back up and running with safety and access challenges.
Digital transformation is helping utilities stay ahead of the curve with predictive maintenance of assets that might be about to fail. This allows the workforce to stay on top of emerging problems before they worsen. Mobile devices likewise play a critical role in accessing data and the correct information while on the road. Intrinsically safe tablets have an essential part to play in ensuring workers’ safety in hazardous environments.
A Data-Rich Future
Real-time information is critical for field workers to do their jobs efficiently and quickly.
The energy and utility industry is facing many complex challenges. Mobile devices help workers address these challenges efficiently.
Rugged mobile devices also facilitate all kinds of work in utilities. These include vegetation mapping and management, smart water reading, surveying, and GIS tasks. These jobs, too, have pain points mobile devices can address well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the critical challenges of the utility sector?
The utility sector must grapple with dated infrastructure, inefficient labor usage, data-gathering challenges, poor communication, and the industry’s inherent unpredictability.
What is one current industry trend in energy and utilities?
A move towards automation is one significant trend. In recent years we have seen significant technological advances. The Internet of Things (IoT) devices take measurements that once would have required human oversight.
How can the energy industry be improved?
There is a widespread reliance on legacy processes that, in some cases, is becoming a significant barrier to efficiency. Much data collection is manual, and technological solutions are misspent. Addressing these areas could see significant efficiency gains in the energy sector.
What is the future of utilities?
The utility sector isn’t going anywhere, but many elements will rapidly change in the coming years. The move from legacy energy systems towards renewables is slated to have a big impact. Significant technological adaptation will be necessary.