Satisfied with their asset management software solutions, most utilities are now shoring up their field service management (FSM) capabilities. Recent changes in the FSM software market have disrupted that ecosystem, as has the arrival of a new generation of FSM software solutions. The evolving solution landscape is more complicated and driving utilities to integrate at the enterprise level, uncovering an important reality: many core field services processes are ripe for next-level digitalization.
Regulations and infrastructure-management issues have made utilities cautious to embrace new software and technology. Planning, scheduling, and dispatch processes remain highly manual, and some process knowledge is carefully guarded. These manual processes, plus gradual field force turnover and unstructured knowledge transfer, are limiting digitalization improvements and process optimization. This cannot continue.
Maintenance operations are facing steady pressure to improve services and optimize cost, and the energy transition is bringing new asset classes and processes. This requires new digital solutions to rapidly deploy new field procedures. How many electric utilities, for example, will be prepared to service thousands of widely distributed EV fast-charging stations within the next decade? The next few years will test utilities’ resilience in numerous ways, including in field services management. Utilities need to transform maintenance teams into efficient, future-proofed business units.
Future Field Service Management Enablers
Given the prevailing trends, utilities are now seeking to build agile, digitally enabled maintenance operations that can effectively share knowledge and adapt to the energy transition in real time. To accomplish this, they will need to adopt new cloud-based solutions, embrace automation, provide an intuitive user experience, explore new technologies (particularly AI/ML and AR/VR), and evolve their workforce models.
In the near-term, many utilities will continue trying to get away from recently discontinued FSM software solutions while implementing new enterprise-level FSM solutions that can cater to all their field force needs. They will also seek to better integrate their FSM systems across EAM, GIS, ERP, HRMS, and CRM. The next few years will provide opportunities to build a truly integrated IT architecture for FSM and work with an increasingly diverse, mature solution ecosystem.
Field operations typically account for upwards of 60% of an electric utility’s overall maintenance spend, and as high as 80% for water and gas. Field operations are thus a key candidate for continuous improvements in metrics like first-time fix rate and cost-to-serve. Automation is a powerful cost optimization tool to achieve this.
Currently, work packaging/bundling and opportunity maintenance are performed manually, partly because most standard industry products lack advanced automation functionalities. Expensive inefficiencies compound because field services work is highly unpredictable and subject to erratic weather conditions. Further up the value chain, capacity planning is also manual and mostly based on historical trends.
Automation and adaptive scheduling algorithms will help centralize scheduling and dispatch functions to cater to all types of work, while enabling holistic capacity planning that takes into account more-precise maintenance forecasts and customer growth predictions.
Intuitive User Experience
To support distributed assets and achieve new efficiencies, field workers will need seamless access to better structured data in areas including network and spatial data, maintenance history, and customer history. New mobile solutions will need to facilitate ease of data entry and consider the field working environment, multi-modal inputs, and time constraints. Any delay capturing field information will impact crew efficiency and downstream data accuracy, and therefore the corresponding decisions, and hamper the effectiveness of maintenance operations that do not achieve strong mobile interactivity.
Next-Gen Technologies: AI/ML and AR/VR
As AI and ML tools mature, they will be used to monitor and manage the field services workforce to drive productivity. Better AI-driven image processing techniques will reduce manual inspections (such as line inspections), and AI will enable a move toward image/sound/video analytics for drone inspection results. Introducing these techniques will require a pronounced change in field force behavior. Skill development will be needed to prepare field services teams to leverage enhanced analytics.
As the capabilities of advanced devices like wearables and auxiliary devices improve, utilities are also exploring how AR/VR can enable remote collaboration, simulated training, guided maintenance activities, and non-intrusive inspections. In the long run, AR/VR will enhance worker safety in hazardous working condition and lone-worker situation, and AR/VR collaboration tools will improve communication and coordination between field workers and back-office staff such as control room staff, engineers, and planners. While AR/VR solutions for field service operations are not yet fully mature, utilities should keep an eye on how AR/VR capabilities are impacting industries like construction and manufacturing, and adopt these technologies as they become more cost-effective.
New Workforce Models
Utilities will have to get creative in their workforce management strategies as they face inevitable skills gaps and worker shortages during the energy transition. Increasingly, they will turn to contractors and even contingent labor to support their experienced core labor force. Specifically, utilities will adopt operating models in which certain non-critical work (meter install/exchange/un-install, inspection work, Repex work) can be assigned to gig workers and freelancers. If the industry can cultivate a capable yet flexible pool of freelance talent, they will reduce costs and improve agility in field operations.
The FSM Transformation Imperative
To prepare for the coming energy transition, utilities need to re-think their maintenance operations. While manual dispatch and other pre-digital workflows were once sufficient to drive growth, digitalization is now an absolute necessity for field services. Experienced field technicians are one of the greatest assets utilities have. By supporting field technicians with the right digital tools, utilities can ensure that knowledge flows freely across the field services landscape. Far from displacing field workers, these new tools will ensure that the field services workforce of the future is equipped to build careers and drive maximum value in a dynamic, evolving industry.