Located in the north west of England, United Utilities provides services to nearly three million homes and businesses in the UK and 35 suppliers of electricity, gas and water. The company manages and maintains more than 600 wastewater treatment works and over 100 water treatment works. In addition, the company maintains 80,000 kilometers of pipes and sewers, 60,000 kilometers of electricity cables and nearly 32,000 electricity sub-stations.

United Utilities’ 150 field service engineers are the link between the company’s headquarters and the meters at their customers’ sites. The engineers are responsible for installing new meters, replacing old meters and also cutting off supply if required. They are also required to track the type of meter installed at each customer location, change the meter when requested, schedule meter repairs and monitor the results of work assignments. 

CHANGES INTRODUCED BY DEREGULATION

With the imminent deregulation of the electricity market, United Utilities was required by government legislation to overhaul its IT system. The company looked forward to the opportunity to update its technology: a new IT system would result in improved accuracies and customer service – changes that were very important given that deregulation would open the market to competitors from across the nation.

United Utilities’ field engineers were already using handheld computers to capture information while they were at customer sites, but the handhelds did not allow for information to be sent and received in real time. Each morning, the devices had to be docked into a port so the day’s work could be downloaded. This meant that over the course of the day, information would become outdated which led to inefficiencies. The lack of real-time connectivity also meant that impromptu schedule changes had to be communicated by phone and then documented in paper reports. Productivity was impaired, along with the engineers’ ability to resolve issues.

The implementation of a new IT system included the opportunity to select new handheld devices that would overcome the challenges of a batch system and allow engineers to send and receive information on the go. United Utilities’ network services division chose the netpad, a rugged handheld tablet from Psion Teklogix. Via GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) the device enables the company’s field service engineers to connect to the host system.

The netpad combines a large screen (1/2 VGA) with a rugged design to bridge the gap between lightweight consumer devices and heavy-duty industrial computers. Dynamic switching between portrait and landscape mode allows easy access to and manipulation of complex documents, schematics and spreadsheets, providing a flexible option that can be tailored to suit any application.

System integration of the netpad was done by Wheatley Associates of Bacton, UK, who developed the front-end appointment booking system. Wheatley also provided the host data management system, which collects meter information. The devices are loaded with Wheatley’s Today software, a field operative data capture and retrieval system. Today allows field staff to see their workload for the day, and return the relevant data in real time to the asset management system in the back office.

KEEPING ABREAST OF WORK INSTRUCTIONS

The implementation of the netpad has enabled field service engineers to stay up-to-date with the latest changes in their work instructions. In the morning, they sign on and download the jobs for that day. When on site, they enter data and retrieve information via easy-to-use drop-down menus and tick boxes, minimising the potential for errors. They are able to leave the GPRS connection open, or to work offline if their jobs entail travel beyond the range of the wireless network.

An additional advantage of the real-time communication enabled by the netpad is accuracy. After an engineer transfers information – for example, repair results to the host – the information can be validated against data that has already been verified. If there are any discrepancies, the system sends a message back to the engineer asking for a check. Prior to real-time updates, the utility could have lost two or three days before it was able to deal with data discrepancies. By that time, the technician could have forgotten about the issue or would be out of the area and unable to return to do the check.

The deployment of netpads from Psion Teklogix has made it easier for United Utilities’ engineers to enter and transmit data and has allowed the company to comply with government regulation. It has also resulted in new business for the company: a five-year, £250 million multi-utility metering contract.

Currently United is using the handhelds for its gas and electricity businesses only, but plans to roll them out to its water metering business as well.