Steve Smith | 08.30.17
Summary >

In utilities, many projects span multiple stages, and include parallel and sequential tasks, often with dependencies. Despite this fact, many utilities professionals default to Microsoft Project or other project management solutions. But things get complicated when third-party contractors, crew, or complex reservation scenarios pose increasing difficulties. Simply put, most project management software cannot handle the complexity involved with long-cycle utilities work. In order to succeed, utilities professionals need both software, and a sound strategy.

In this post, we explore three methods for simplifying long cycle planning.

Making Short Work of Long Cycle Planning

Utilities face unique challenges when it comes to field service management. To build and manage roads, bridges, dams, and even municipal water plants, they rely on funding from state, federal, or local groups. Maintaining this intricate infrastructure and related equipment requires long cycle thinking and intense planning, involving multiple contractors, legal bodies, and government groups.

But with ultimate accountability falling on the utilities owning the project, it’s essential to call upon proven ways to streamline approaches and activities.

1. Master Asset Management

When it comes to determining what activities need to be performed on utility infrastructure, all involved need an accurate view into existing capital assets and their age, condition, performance, and criticality. The practice of asset management is a proven way to provide this insight. By managing infrastructure-related assets systematically, utilities organizations make it easier for stakeholders to best plan when and how to maintain, repair, and replace these assets. This in turn helps with funding decisions. In essence, asset management helps put in place a plan to ensure that tasks get performed as needed and are adequately funded.

When handled well, asset management helps utilities and interested third parties minimize the cost to own and operate the infrastructure, and it maximizes their availability and performance.

To run such a program optimally, utilities must:

  • Create and maintain a detailed asset inventory
  • Outline and schedule operation and maintenance tasks
  • Provide input for long-range financial planning

Utilities wishing to launch such an initiative can take advantage of an asset management best practice guide published by The Environmental Protection Agency that outlines a framework and best practices.

2. Get Geographically Smarter

The ability to better visualize all infrastructure and assets is crucial for planning purposes. But this is no small task considering that utility infrastructure can include many assets and cover tens or even hundreds of thousands of miles.

That’s where geospatial data comes into play. Geospatial data captures the geographic location associated with a record in a database, making the database more accurate and useful for planning, building, and maintaining assets like bridges or dams.

As reported in WaterWorld, the San Jose Water Company effectively uses geographic information systems (GIS) data to streamline daily operations. Founded in 1866, this investor-owned public utility serves more than one million customers and has about 350 employees.

According to Jeff Hobbs, GIS coordinator for the San Jose Water Company, “Our infrastructure includes water mains built about 110 years ago, as well as those built 40 to 50 years ago when San Jose experienced explosive growth. With an information-based management system, we can easily pinpoint water main leaks and determine which water mains need to be replaced and rank them by priority.”

The utility organization can even use the technology to determine things like who will be impacted most if it closes a particular valve, or what the short term implications are for particular neighborhoods and businesses.

3. Adopt a New Business Model by Outsourcing Networks

Some utilities organizations are addressing long cycle planning issues by embracing a completely new business operations model. Sound a bit overwhelming? Stick with us.

One option is for utilities to call upon pre-built networks, such as the proprietary LTE communication networks AT&T and Nokia, which are already rolling out across utilities. In practice, utility organizations could offer private networks for enterprise customers. In this scenario, the utility owner would maintain the network in the same way it manages the infrastructure.

Another business model many are considering is to outsource their networks. While it may seem a bit extreme, it might not be far-fetched at all.

Navigant Research predicts that the global market for utility networking gear and communications services will top $75 billion in the next decade. By doing so, it says, they are building networks that “could ultimately become the backbone for far more.”

With the rise of renewable energy, distributed resources, and demand management strategies, utilities are calling upon new services and technologies, such as cloud-based software. This enables them to capitalize on the value contained in customer data. By doing so, they minimize their investments in capital assets with one hand while gathering, analyzing, and acting upon customer data created by connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) with the other hand.

In turn, they can offer new services, and realize better and faster returns.

All three of these methods – asset management, using geospatial data, and outsourcing networks – can empower utilities to change long cycle planning for the better.

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