Connected Field of Dreams

Jason Cradit, VP of Information Systems, Willbros Group, Inc.
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Jason Cradit, VP of Information Systems, Willbros Group, Inc.

Utility construction, like so much other infrastructure work isn’t done in a cubical or boardroom or even in a corner office. It’s done in fields. Literal fields. People get muddy, work rain or shine, and they build our nation’s energy infrastructure with backhoes, lift-trucks and welding huts. Paper maps with red pens are spread across dashboards and truck hoods. Safety briefings are delivered on tailgates and signed off. Status reports are delivered back to the construction offices where they get faxed (yes really), scanned or just get mailed back to home base where they can be entered into physical folders or perhaps scanned and stored electronically. This is the way it’s been done for years and pipelines, power lines and distribution networks all work quite well.

You’ll notice, I’m sure, the great void of technology in the field. But why? If you ask the random superintendent or foreman, if technology could improve their ability to deliver on budget, on time and on quality – safely – I bet you’ll get a response similar too; “We’ve been doing this for years and computers can’t build pipelines.” He wouldn’t be wrong. There may absolutely be a time where computer programmed robots build our energy infrastructure. The safety and cost benefits would be great, but that time is not today.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a technology guy, but I believe there are benefits to creating a connected field force and we aren’t far away. Utility construction is ripe for revolution and technology will drive it. Given the technology in play today, the ROI’s could be massive and not just financial. Automating processes to remove paper or non-value-added steps could increase productivity (build quicker) and reduce a lot of over overhead (lower costs or increase margins). These are great business benefits and there are plenty of opportunities to do so, but there are other, non-financial, benefits. What if predictive analytics could spot trends, consuming weather data, location of resources, or even time of a task, and throw a warning of potential harm.We could save lives by being more connected to our fields. Then, what if we had better ways of visualizing corrosion and perhaps reducing field required work? Again, a great safety benefit and perhaps even lower costs for managing and maintaining the asset; by use of drones, robotic inspections or maybe sensor networks.

“Utility construction is ripe for revolution and technology will drive it”

So why not deploy tablets, ePens or even do something silly like RFID tags on helmets? Any reader will have n number of ideas to digitize, automate and use technology that can really make a difference in energy construction; lowering cost and modernizing this industry. I live in this world daily and I have been building information systems to drive manual, paper-driven, processes out of the field and close the gap between the field and the office. Here are the major considerations for delivering a solution for construction groups.

Connectivity-Cloud computing is amazing and we are now asking more and more of our data than ever before, because we can. Yet, if we don’t have the ability to connect to the cloud, it’s useless. This is one of the largest problems facing a digital revolution in energy construction. Of course, there are satellite communication links and all of us in the industry are keeping our fingers on the pulse of Google Loon and Wifi drones. Connecting these field offices with lower latency connections can make the dream of a connected field more of a reality. Right now, a common request I get is for more bandwidth in the field. I think the real request should be less bandwidth and thinner connections; less latency with adequate bandwidth. So, we need to design our systems to consume less bandwidth. Cloud and mobile services make this possible. As systems are developed for tablet, phablet or smartphones they tend to just keep it simple and collect what is possible to send over a cellular network. Yet there is a large coverage gap and offline capabilities are just required. There are some great technologies out there that work offline, consume little bandwidth and work on a tablet. We’ve been implementing them and have seen great success with these design considerations and we can’t wait for more coverage and connectivity.

Yet, there is another problem in the field. Unfortu­nately, trees, mud and rivers don’t have elec­trical outlets. Also, our field guys work pre-sun-up to post-sun-down and the battery life on mo­bile devices hasn’t improved at a pace required to work the same hours. As tablets have gained more computing power, the battery life hasn’t progressed at the same rate. One use case I’ve deployed to the field involved getting location of assets. We wanted to know, within three feet, where a particular asset was. Out-of-the-box, a tablet or smartphone can get close to nine foot accuracy if certain conditions align. So we connected to an external GPS antenna and did some real-time corrections on the device. This took extra cy­cles and we consumed some battery life quickly. The project also was to gather other information on the asset and take a picture. It worked great. If we had data signal, we could send the data back in real-time to track progress. But we could only do that for about four to five hours per day. This is a problem. Paper and pens don’t need recharged and there is a near infinite supply. We need more battery life or perhaps more processing capabilities at a lower power consumption rate. I look toward the work at Stanford University by Yi Cui for a pure lithium anode battery and see the potential, sorry for the pun.

At Willbros we have a keen focus on using technology to revolutionize our construction and engineering work. We are making some bets and investing, with partners, to change the way we work and use technology. However, we need help. More connectivity and more battery life can empower utility constructors to really modernize. One last alarming note is from Gartner’s 2013 IT Enterprise Summary Reportthat shows construction and energy industries spend around 1 percent of revenue. I believe that likely needs to notch up a bit for this technology revolution but the ROI will follow. We can do some great things with some of these core constraints removed; we just have to build it and they will come.

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