Get smart! Plan ahead for smart meter rollout


By Simon Morris

Several things have to happen for smart meters to enjoy smooth, rapid adoption on a global scale. Early pilot project successes in Italy, the UK and elsewhere are sparking interest in other geographies. That momentum must continue as utilities work with regulatory agencies, internal project teams and customer focus groups to lay the groundwork.

However, how well a utility plans the logistics in advance will ultimately determine overall success or failure of a smart meter rollout. As with any new technology, if the deployment and near-term maintenance go smoothly, customers will have more confidence in the utility’s commitment to making the new technology work. Delays, improper installation, service and operation problems can lead to frustration and reluctance to embrace smart meters. Broad scale apathy could scuttle pilot projects.

Proper planning and efficient execution are critical. Utilities need to be able to coordinate internal crews and subcontractors (if they are using them) to ensure completion of everything from routine tasks, to emergencies and on-time smart meter deployment. This article discusses the many decisions utilities face in planning the deployment, and the technologies available to help ensure the change goes smoothly so customers adopt and reap the benefits.

Installing smart meters requires different skill sets, which means additional training. Moreover, it requires a substantial investment of work hours over and above normal operations. There are several ways to handle the additional load. If utilities view the load as temporary – most of it related to deployment and ending once the transition is completed – some of it can be assigned to subcontractors. However, the skills and certifications will still be needed after the bulk of the deployment is done to handle maintenance, repairs and future deployments. Therefore, it makes sense to assign the internal workforce to handle at least some of the rollout.

The next question for those opting to direct some of their internal workforces to new meter deployment is whether to assign the task to an existing or new group, or whether it should be spread over several existing groups. The first option carries the advantages of guaranteed capacity, shared learning and continuous improvement under centralised management. The second option can deliver higher utilisation and faster rollouts.

Utilities may choose a mixed approach, such as assigning some portion of the rollout to dedicated resources (outsourced or internal) that will only perform smart meter deployments, and distributing the rest across resources that are also responsible for other tasks. For example, rollouts in dense urban areas may justify a dedicated workforce, while rollouts in rural areas may be better served by local teams.

The decision hinges on many factors, such as part availability, initial smart meter demand, training and certification time and costs, technician installation efficiency, impact of added workload on routine and emergency jobs (in terms of time and costs), etc. Understanding how these factors will affect utilities and their smart meter deployments will help them determine how to distribute the installation workload.

Smart ahead1

Work schedule status
displayed on a PDA

Whether launching a small pilot programme or a full-scale smart meter rollout, utilities should start planning now. Attempting such a radical change without careful preparation can lead to rows of vans and trucks clogging streets, missed appointments, improperly installed meters, frustrated customers who don’t know how to use the smart meters and other headaches.

As mentioned earlier, even if a utility plans to slowly phase in installation, it will likely need several crews of subcontractors to replace the meters. Regular maintenance, repairs and emergencies such as downed power lines, broken water mains or gas leaks will continue to require field technicians’ attention. Thus, when it comes to scheduling meter installation, the available choices are set by the higher level decisions made during planning. These decisions, in turn, are made in order to meet forecasted workloads for all types of work, including meter installation, regular work, and infrastructure and construction projects. This may create the impression that decisions flow only in one direction: from forecasting to planning to scheduling.

However, the ground level reality of scheduling should affect planning and forecasting as well, for two reasons. First, most utilities have projects and tasks which are scheduled well in advance, and thus reflect decisions and capacity commitments already made. These must be considered in the forecasts and plans. Second, scheduled operations often provide the first signals that events are not unfolding according to expectations. Signals such as work delays and lower technician productivity must be evaluated, potentially leading to another cycle of adjustments for forecasts and plans.

The most urgent part of such adjustments will be for the short range – e.g. how to overcome a lack of field technician capacity which already threatens to delay service or installations for the coming few days. Yet these adjustments will not achieve full resolution of the capacity problem if they do not consider the probability that the same thing would happen again in a month or two, and if they do not suggest ways to forestall such events. For example, the organisation could consider additional training, temporary relocation, or subcontracting.

There is one more important factor utilities must consider when determining how to plan for smart meter rollout: environmental impact. It is one of the most important benefits of smart meters because it helps utilities better balance supply and demand, which means they keep generation at top efficiency and minimum emissions. But the added mileage for sending more crews out to deploy the meters means a bigger environmental footprint. The bigger the rollout, the larger the impact.

Good planning and scheduling can help minimise this footprint. For example, a small workforce dedicated exclusively to meter installation may drive longer routes than a much larger workforce, if that larger workforce adds meter installation to its list of tasks. The opposite might also be true if this larger workforce is continually interrupted by other tasks, often requiring its technicians to leave the rollout location in order to handle routine and emergency service, only to drive back and continue the installation.

Which of these opposites would happen in reality? It depends on the details, such as typical workload mix for the months in which the rollout is performed, geographical distribution of customers and technicians, and many other factors. A combination of forecasting, planning and scheduling, with ‘what if’ simulation capability, will provide utilities with the details to answer such questions.

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A visual view of work scheduling, indicating
the locations of different field workers

Once utilities have determined who will be conducting the deployments and how they plan to roll out deployment over time, they need to consider how they will manage everything from workforce demand forecasting to capacity planning, scheduling and reporting. An integrated and optimised forecasting, planning and scheduling system should account for variables such as skills matching, training, problems encountered with conventional meters that are difficult to access, post-installation problems and maps. It should also be able to react in real time to unscheduled events, automatically rerouting and rescheduling technicians based on emergencies and initiating customer service calls to re-book appointments.

Again, efficient meter replacement will affect customer satisfaction, so utilities will want to automate scheduling decisions such as which technician with what skills and tools to send to which job, when and where. Route optimisation should be one of the key functions of that scheduling system to ensure technicians go from job to job, maximising their time completing replacements and minimising time on the road.

Street-level routing using geographic information system (GIS) data points will ensure each technician has a clear map of where to go throughout the day. Automated traffic updates connected to the scheduling system enable utilities to make fast and effective decisions about how to reroute technicians to avoid traffic jams. Responding in real time to this sort of information helps utilities reduce travel time and increase customer satisfaction by ensuring on-time arrivals.

Global positioning system (GPS) technology enables utilities to stay on top of progress and ensure timely job completion and productivity, because they can monitor precisely where technicians or their trucks are throughout the day. Providing technicians with mobile devices for report entry gives managers up-to-date information about jobs as they are completed, and allows workers to file reports as they go, rather than waiting to do them all at night.

Utilities can also use integrated reporting tools to gauge smart meter rollout efficiency, identify problems and resolve them. Reporting applications that allow managers to capture, analyse and present the data in the manner that makes sense to them are critical to gaining a comprehensive view of the overall rollout. Key performance indicators (KPIs) ranging from the average number of jobs per technician per day to on-time arrivals are crucial in determining how to manage schedules and technicians.

First impressions are extremely important in determining how consumers view a new product or service. This is particularly true with new technology, and smart meters will be new frontiers for both utilities and their customers. For utilities to capitalise on the economic and efficiency benefits of smart meters, customers need to buy into their benefits. Painless replacement of older meters and helpful instruction on how to use smart meters will go a long way toward acceptance and adoption. With the proper planning, including forecasting and resource allocation, and automated scheduling in place, utilities can turn smart meter rollouts into opportunities to strengthen relationships with their customers, increase revenues, cut costs and take another step toward becoming green.