Making Sense of Developments in Mobile Workforce Management Solutions in 2019
image credit: Seth Dunn from ServiceMax
- Dec 16, 2019 5:15 pm GMT
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At first glance, the relationship between California’s wildfires and mobile workforce management may seem tenuous. But the connection is not so slight, when you consider that vegetation management, ostensibly the cause of the fire, is part of a field worker’s duties. Outage management is also key to disaster response. “They (natural disasters and mobile worker management solutions) are inextricably linked, if you are absolutely looking to streamline your operations,” says Michael Kelly, research analyst at Navigant Research.
In a year marked by natural disasters and distinct shifts in the energy mix powering grids, mobile workforce management (MWM) solutions gained ground as the utility industry continued its embrace of technology. Spending on mobile workforce management solutions at utilities is expected to grow from $335.3 million in 2018 to $518.2 million by 2027, according to a report released by Navigant Research last year.
A Change in Hardware and Software Systems
Much of that spending is on hardware. Ruggedized devices mounted on vehicles have been a favorite with field workers for years. In recent times, however, their form factor has changed. Kelly says 2019 witnessed a “bigger pickup” towards tablets and handheld device for field workers in the mobile workforce industry. This is primarily because smaller devices are cheaper and can be repurposed for a variety of tasks beyond field visits, he says.
Another notable change that continued in 2019 from previous years was the trend towards module-based software architecture. Previously software systems at utilities consisted of disparate platforms, each serving a different unit of its operations.
Seth Dunn, industry director for mobile workforce solutions at ServiceMax - a company that provides cloud-based solutions to field workers, says utilities are thinking “more holistically” about their operations. “In the past, decision-making related to outage management systems and mobile workforce management was done in vacuum and isolation,” he explains. “Now they (utilities) are thinking: how do I make sure the system works upfront and also results in optimal scheduling assignment dispatch.”
Modular architecture focuses on building software systems that, while residing in different modules, communicate with each other and generate a more comprehensive view of operations. Kelly refers to such systems as interoperable, integrated IT systems. “Any time you have systems talking to each other, you will have more efficiencies,” he says.
To a great extent, that change relies on the adoption of Service Oriented Application (SOA), a software development paradigm in which different modules of a software exchange data and communicate through services programmed into the system. An example of this approach can be found in Swedish company ABB’s software solutions for utilities, which enable SCADA monitoring, asset performance management systems, outage management, and DER management within one solution. ServiceMax has also deployed solutions that not only manage outages but also quantify equipment damages at utilities in Chile.
Mobile apps have also undergone changes. They are increasingly integrating GIS models that enable workers to remotely update internal systems. The benefit of this approach is that it “removes bureaucracy and layers of complexity” involved in updating systems, says Kelly.
State regulations mandating online marketplaces for utilities, such as the one in California, are also changing the roster of duties for utility workers to being sales and services professionals. In a sense, the change is a natural one. Asset maintenance, once the central focus of a utility’s operations, is being replaced by customer service. “Rethinking of MWM solutions is not only about scheduling workers to read meters but more about enabling and empowering workforces,” says Dunn.
What's in Store for 2020?
While changes in utility business models are reflective of an industry in change, the pace of ferment has been fairly slow. T&D companies have been hesitant to conduct large scale experiments using new tech. For example, virtual reality headsets have failed to take off, barring their use in training setups for substation environments.
For the most part, this is because utilities are waiting for more substantial use cases for MWM solutions. “They need examples of previous use,” explains Dunn. But their hand is being forced by recent developments. These include smart meter installation, aging equipment, and natural disasters.
With its bushfires and high solar penetration, Australia is fertile ground for new mobile workforce tech. “What’s happening there is remarkable,” says Dunn from ServiceMax. He was in Australia during bushfire season and noted that there was “a lot of interest” in better mobile and connected utility capabilities. He says European utilities are reconsidering their approach to Mobile Workforce Management solutions in light of smart meter growth. American utilities, meanwhile, are cautious. “They are thinking: this is something I’ve had for the last 10 years. What’s going to take me through the next ten years,” says Dunn.
Kelly from Navigant cautions that several developments within MWM are “nascent”. “Funding for MWM solutions still represents a (relatively) small portion of the overall pie due to the high cost of building mobile applications,” he says. That said, he adds that MWM is still a growing market. As form factors for hardware shrink, smartphone usage to track and monitor line activity and provide services will become popular in 2020, says Kelly, and adds that it might shift towards wearables in the future.