Something was missing from GE Energy Mangement Systems' product line. The company already offered electric utilities an arsenal of sophisticated tools for managing their distribution systems. But when it came time to send a field engineer on a trouble call, too many dispatchers were doing it the old fashioned way--talking into a radio.
When a big power outage sends many technicians into the field, the old fashioned way can translate into a communications bottleneck, says Ron Larson, manager of emerging initiatives for GE. It also hampers productivity and limits the speed with which utilities can serve customers.
These are some of the reasons GE decided to offer its utility clients a workforce management system with integrated wireless communications. Through a partnership formed last year, businesses within GE Energy Management Systems will offer iMedeon's Web-based suite of mobile workforce applications and integrate them with its own products.
"Their mobile workforce management system was quite advanced, very configurable and modular, with an architecture aligned toward the gamut of field service productivity solutions we were looking for," Larson says.
Most of the money that utilities spend on transmission and distribution services goes to employee costs, and more than half of the employees work in the field, Larson says. GE is looking for ways to make better use of information technology resources so that utilities can boost productivity and increase their customers' satisfaction.
Under the terms of the partnership, GE entities can enter into an agreement to market, resell, implement and support the entire line of iMedeon products. The first entity to do so is GE Harris Energy Control Systems, which is integrating iMedeon's iM:Work software with its ENMAC distribution management system (DMS). GE Harris demonstrated an early version of the integrated system in February at the DistribuTECH 2001 conference in San Diego.
ENMAC helps power companies manage the grid of medium- to low-power lines that distribute electricity to end users. It monitors conditions throughout the network and, using real time telemetry and customer information, locates and diagnoses problems.
When an outage occurs, a module called Trouble Call helps the dispatcher select the best crew to respond, based on factors such as current location, skills, available equipment. iMedeon's system will add wireless data capabilities to Trouble Call, enabling dispatchers to transmit trouble tickets to field workers, and the workers to report on their progress.
Combined with ENMAC, iM:Work will allow utilities to:
Develop crew schedules for planned work
Optimize assignments based on skills
Equipment and urgency of outage incidents
Reduce radio traffic between dispatchers and crews
A second GE entity, GE Smallworld, is analyzing how to integrate iMedeon's system with its Power-On system. Power-On is an outage management system (OMS). Built on top of a geographic information system (GIS), it gives the user a spatial representation of the distribution network and displays the locations of outages and work crews.
When an outage occurs, Power-On draws information from the GIS and from other sources, such as interactive voice response (IVR) systems and customer information systems (CIS), to pinpoint the problem. It also has a dispatching function. The iMedeon system will add wireless communications.
While both ENMAC and Power-On already help match work crews with jobs, iMedeon's software draws upon more information about resources and crews to aid in those decisions. "It can help optimize the utilization of resources more quickly and efficiently," says Jay Freeland, president of GE Harris.
Using the current versions of ENMAC and Power-On, a dispatcher matching a crew to a job must rely on personal knowledge and judgement along with information from the system, Larson says. The software selects the crew that is believed to be nearest to the problem and it maintains a database of skill sets, he says. But when field workers aren't sending reports over a wireless network, it's hard to determine their real location or status.
iMedeon's software can further automate the dispatching process. "You might say, ‘I need a crew that has a truck with this type of lift.' That truck might not be where you need it to be. There are travel and route logistics to contend with. With the iMedeon system, dispatchers will have all the information they need to send out the right crew at the right time," Larson says.
The iMedeon system will also consider the fact that utility crews often do maintenance and construction work, fill switching orders and respond to trouble calls, he says. "The iMedeon solution will learn a bit more about what they're currently working on and be able to better optimize who is the best person there."
Along with becoming an iMedeon reseller, GE participated in a $15.5 million equity investment in iMedeon last November, led by GE Equity. GE Smallworld's president, Warren Ferguson, sits on iMedeon's board of directors.
For iMedeon, the partnership provides a new sales channel, and being selected by a company as large and reputable as GE "brings us a lot of credibility," says iMedeon's president, Joe Mediate. "It also gives us valuable input from a very big organization about what things we need to be looking at, and what things need to be put in our product."
No customers of GE Harris or GE Smallworld have yet purchased the iMedeon option, but Freeland says the system drew a strong response at DistribuTECH. People who viewed the demonstration "were interested in the product and thought it would provide value to them," he reports.