Utilities are among the most data-reliant industries today, with the quality of their services heavily dependent on real-time insight into system demand and asset performance. That is why the utility sector has been one of the most reliant on mobile computing technologies for the last 20+ years.
Tablets, handhelds, and 2-in-1 laptops are used in multiple applications out in the field and inside the four walls of plants and other facilities to help utilities collect, distribute, analyze and act upon real-time data. They are a primary enabler of intelligence distribution between IT and operational technology (OT) systems and people. And though perceived as commonplace in today’s enterprise environments, the game-changing role that mobile computers play in daily utility operations should not be underestimated as more advanced data systems come online. Nor should the value of truly rugged mobile computers be discounted. That is because there a direct correlation remains between utilities’ performance and the performance of mobile devices used to monitor, analyze and control utility operations.
Whether your organization is responsible for the production and distribution of electricity, natural gas or water, or charged with the installation or servicing of utility infrastructure, you must find a way to manage highly distributed assets. This necessitates a workforce that can remain productive while highly mobile. Thus, the natural reliance on tablets and other mobile devices that offer full computing capabilities in and out of the office. However, the frequent dispatch of crews to hazardous locations – and their exposure to a range of extreme environmental elements – also necessitates a mobile computing solution that takes worker safety and device reliability into account.
It is not sufficient to equip workers with consumer or business-grade tablets that are enveloped in rugged cases. These devices are not suitable for use around gasses, fine dust particles, vibration-laden vehicles or water main breaks. Nor will they survive drops from shoulder height, long days under direct sunlight or drops into snow and ice. And though utilities understand the need for rugged tablets, handhelds and 2-in-1 computers, the increased marketing of consumer devices as “rugged” warrants a reminder about the benefits of devices that have been engineered rugged-to-the-core.
Despite the widespread implementation of sensors, drones, AI, IoT, and other advanced digital technologies in the utility industry, mobile technologies remain the fundamental source of mission-critical data for the many different parties involved in utility service delivery. Everyone from equipment installers to inspectors, plant operators to infrastructure planners, and system engineers working in a back office to lineman scaling a 10-foot pole require a reliable source of information – and a very specific set of workflow tools – to proactively identify and mitigate issues that could cause service disruptions. They need a way to monitor asset performance and load balance, manage demand response, and diagnose issues remotely. Real-time insights and reliable communication channels are also mandatory for fast, effective action by utilities’ “first responders” – those dispatched to the scene of emergency outages, often in the aftermath of natural disasters.
All scenarios demand that crews be equipped with well-connected and highly secure mobile computers that can withstand rough handling and extreme weather conditions. Any lag in data transmission speeds or disruption in mobile device connectivity will delay worker action. In other words, utilities must continue to invest in truly rugged tablet, handheld and 2-in-1 technologies that empower frontline workers with the right tools for their specific job, such as:
- Powerful processors that can run robust utility software applications
- I/O ports that can connect the mobile device to legacy systems for diagnosis and control, such as RJ-45, True Serial and HDMI-In ports
- Multiple data input options to support device use both in the office and while walking and working, including glove/wet touch, digitizer pens, barcode readers, HF RFID readers, NFC and detachable keyboards
- Bright, sunlight-readable displays that enable easy viewing of schematics, GIS data, asset performance reports, checklists, etc.
- Hot-swap the batteries that enable workers to recharge their devices without having to shut down their software and interrupt workflows
- 802.11 ac Wi-Fi cards that offer high-speed uploading and downloading of large volumes of data, CAD files, schematics and images
- Multiple 4G LTE, MIMO WWAN, MIMO WLAN and GPS antenna technologies that facilitate a constant wireless connection both inside utility facilities and off-site at remote asset locations, including pass through antenna capabilities for in-vehicle computing solutions
- TPM, encryption, multi-factor authentication and SmartCard/CAC readers that control user access to systems and enhance data security, a necessity given the perceived vulnerabilities of utility systems
- Physical security features such as Kensington Locks and Secure Mobile Docks that deter against theft of the device itself
- Internal and external design elements that offer IP, MIL-STD-810G and HazLoc-rated protection against dust and water ingress, drops, vibrations, shocks, humidity, fluid contaminants, and explosive elements
Ensure that the rugged mobile computer you choose – whether a tablet, 2-in-1, or handheld device – is designed specifically for utility applications and field-proven to maintain its marketed performance levels. At a minimum, ask the sales rep these questions. Ideally, though, it is best to follow the detailed guidance provided in this mobility buying playbook. Doing so will ensure you are employing reliable enterprise-grade devices that can be scaled to meet your evolving business demands for a minimum of 3-5 years. This will eliminate mobility investment risks while giving workers consistent insight into potential operational risks and increasing both their efficiency and agility. Following this guide will also help you lower the total cost ownership for your entire mobility solution, as well as connected IT/OT systems.
To learn more about the ways that rugged mobile computers can help you optimize your utility operations in today’s data-driven business environment, visit Zebra Technologies booth #11535 at DistribuTECH 2019 to speak with our utility mobility experts. You can also view our current Solutions online or contact our team.
Blog Author: Bob Ashenbrenner
President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.