Hand-held computers improve a Malaysian utility's efficiency

In order to support the impressive economic growth taking place in Malaysia, the government introduced a programme called Vision 2020. Its aim is to encourage and assist industrial organisations to increase efficiencies, so as to meet the long-term national objectives.

Vision 2020 gave TNB the opportunity to re-evaluate its operations. At that stage the utility had major problems with its customer billing system, mainly caused by the conflicts of a centralised billing operation based in Kuala Lumpur and a poor postal service. This meant that meter reading data could take several days to reach the billing offices. It took several days to process the data, and several days for the bill to be returned to the customer. If there was a query, the process of verifying the reading, correcting the bill, issuing a credit and so on could also take many days. To combat this the utility adopted a system whereby the meter reader carried a set of pre-prepared bills, one for each customer on his route. The bills were printed with all the account information apart from the current reading and the total amount due. At the meter, the reading would be taken and the new bill total calculated and hand-written on the spot. The customer could then pay immediately.

Although this system bypassed the postal service, the meter reader needed some three minutes to prepare the bill. In addition there were calculation and handwriting legibility problems; up to 30% of the bills needed correction. The cost of running the system was high, not least in terms of the customer's perception of the service offered. It was clear that improvements were necessary.

The utility's goals

TNB's basic goals were to improve the management of the meter reading and billing data by reducing the system inefficiencies in communicating between the various regions. The utility also wanted to reduce the time taken for the meter to be read and the bill to be delivered to the consumer. So in 1991 TNB issued a tender calling for the installation, commissioning, training and implementation of a fully computerised customer information and billing system (CIBS) for their domestic power users. The tender was split into two parts, Mainhead A and Mainhead B. The Mainhead A contract the main back office system was awarded to Siemens Nixdorf. It consists of 31 Siemens Nixdorf mainframe computers located across Malaysia in the main district offices, plus a further 150 offices networked to the head office.

Mainhead B called for an automated meter reading and billing system. The contract was awarded to a consortium of companies head-ed by Komputer Sistem Malaysia, a member of the Computer Advisors Group; Powercomp Automation, the Malaysian distributor of Radix hand-held computers, and Radix Micro Devices plc, the manufacturers of the hand-held computer and portable bill printer. One thousand of these have been supplied to allow meter readers to capture and store the meter readings, and to produce a printed bill which is left with the customer.

Working together

The two systems operate together. Meter reading routes are generated overnight and downloaded to the district offices. At each office a supervisor uses a PC to check the workload and to download the meter reading routes to the Radix hand-held computer. Each morning the meter readers collect their hand-held computer plus printer and start the day's route. When the route is completed, the meter reader returns the hand-held computer to the loader/charger for the meter readings and bill totals to be downloaded through the route management PC to the Mainhead A system. The hand-held computer is a critical component of the meter reading capture cycle, and can be regarded as the utility's cash book. TNB therefore set some specific requirements for the performance of the portable computing equipment. First, it had to be rugged enough to survive being dropped or knocked. Then it had to work reliably and effectively in Malaysia's climate, which is tropical with high temperatures and humidity all year round. Extensive tests were carried out to ensure that the bill paper was not affected by these conditions.

TNB recognised that the hand-held computer was to be used by non-computer operators, so ease of use was a must. A custom keyboard design was produced by Powercomp Automation, with a great deal of input and feedback from a group of TNB's meter readers. The result is a keyboard in Bahasa Malaysia language with several hot keys or function keys for specific operations. For example, one key shows a No Entry logo (the same as used on road signs) which is used when the meter reader cannot gain entry to premises. Another key carries a pen logo, used when the meter reader needs to record a note against a specific meter or location. Colour coding is used to high-light the various functions on the keyboard; the numeric keys are easily picked out. The bill produced by the portable printer gives the customer a complete statement of his account. The customer can verify the reading at the time the bill is produced, and has all the information relating to any outstanding amounts and the total amount now due.

A barcode is produced on each bill, which allows automatic identification at payment offices and so speeds up the processing and reduces the likelihood of errors. Meter readers can now read the meter and produce a good quality bill in less than one minute.

Increases in efficiency

The implementation of the Mainhead A and B systems has produced the increases in efficiencies that TNB was looking for. The number of meters read and billed per day has increased almost threefold, and the number of bills requiring correction is down to around 1%. In addition staff savings of about 40% have been achieved. Following an agreement with the union, all potentially redundant staff were redeployed or retrained within the utility. The meter readers have identified with the benefits they obtain from the system, including easier working conditions and improved status. Additional systems are now being developed for the utility's large power users, who account for some 70% of total revenue. A Radix hand-held computer with an infra red FLAG probe captures the data from the meter automatically and, as with domestic users, a bill is printed at the time of reading.

This has been a high profile project in Malaysia. In 1994 TNB was named "The IT Organisation of the Year" by the Malaysian computer industry organisation PIKOM for the "implementation of a hand-held computer and spot billing system".