This is a transcript of a recent “fireside chat” between Mark Scott (VP of Marketing, ProntoForms) and Darby Brennan (Chief IT Program Manager, PG&E).
Darby: My role at PG&E is to manage the planning portfolio for all the gas technology initiatives we have from an IT perspective. I run the partnership between our IT organization and our gas operations organization.
I came to know ProntoForms through a program I ran over the last few years called Mariner, a very large IT program with a budget of over $150 million. Mariner was the result of the gas pipeline safety incident that occurred in 2010. We had a 30-inch gas transmission line rupture in the suburb outside San Francisco, which resulted in 12 lives lost and 38 homes destroyed. An investigation by The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Department of Transportation (DoT) showed that we could have improved the chances of preventing the incident with better record keeping. The Mariner program was a technology program designed to directly and very aggressively address that. In order to improve our records we needed better visibility into our asset information; where are the assets, what do they consist of, when were they put in the ground, what is the planned maintenance associated with it, what is the preventative maintenance associated with that particular asset, and how do we maintain compliance.
The first thing we did was upgrade our SAP system to improve our asset information and integrate it with our map- ping system. But to make it all come together we’d have to validate the work where it physically occurs. This meant we had to improve our form capabilities. In an SAP environment, with large “as-built files” that tell us how our assets are constructed, the real challenge is to make that form information accessible in the field. Our main concerns were not around being cost-effective, or easy to implement, but digitizing the right forms in a way that made sense from a compliance perspective and a safety perspective. That’s really where ProntoForms came into play.
We piloted a quick solution that digitized a form for capturing atmospheric corrosion meter readings along with some of our key compliance information. The mobile solution got that information back into SAP; it was easy to implement; we got really good feedback from the users; and we were able to make changes quickly. The icing on the cake was that it really didn’t cost that much to implement, especially compared to the major cost components of the program.
Mark: On that atmospheric corrosion, the big kickoff use case, what’s the volume of gas meter inspections you do?
Darby: It is literally in the thousands. We have about 1,200 users who perform several hundred meter inspections on an annual basis, in addition to all their other tasks. Within that user base, we are generating a relatively high transaction volume from a compliance perspective. The real challenge is to validate and collect that work electronically, and upload the data and integrate it into our enterprise systems from the field.
Using the old process, technicians went out in the field to look at an atmospheric corrosion meter, filled out a paper form, went back to the truck, and drove to the next site to do the next reading. At the end of the day they handed a stack of paper forms to the clerk, who, over the next day or three, would go through the backlog of forms. This was a very physical process, with multiple people touching the forms. It introduced many opportunities for errors and compliance issues.
Now, we didn’t view this as a paperwork compliance issue. Corrosion is the biggest contributor to asset failure, so the most important objective for us was to have access to accurate and timely asset data, and the ability to generate notifications if corrective action needs to be taken. When we digitized that process, including follow-up notifications, our field user satisfaction went off the charts. They know they’re getting the information in the system before they even start the truck to go to the next job site. The speed of the process, and reducing the number of touch points to improve accuracy, was a tremendous benefit on our side.
Mark: Building flexible and easy-to-use mobile solutions that take advantage of iPhones and iPads seems to be a common challenge for desktop-first legacy systems like SAP and others. Their mobile efforts are often disappointing and rarely adopted by field users. I am curious as to your feedback on that.
Darby: That is precisely our experience. We’ve used a legacy enterprise platform, SAP, for over 20 years. I believe we were one of the first utilities companies to deploy SAP. The challenge over the last couple of years has proven to be the mobile component of the solution. The ProntoForms implementation began as a pilot project to understand where some of the key needs are. Since then, the PG&E Mobility Centre of Excellence has relied on the learnings from the ProntoForms implementation to improve our mobility strategy, and how we use mobile technology in the field. Because of our need for safety compliance, our strategy for mobility is “technology enablement in the field”, using whatever mobile technologies we have.
Mark: Enablement through technology is a strong theme for field workers across industries. People adopt mobility-based solutions because the tools add real value to their work. Apple is a great partner to ProntoForms, as the ease-of-use of our mobile app matches the simplicity, adaptability, and familiarity of devices like iPhone and iPad.
Darby: Our previous “mobility strategy” was using regular laptops out in the field. These were 9 or 10-pound bricks with poor performance that forced us to go back and physically connect to submit the data. We knew we needed to bring a modern consumer-grade experience to our field users. Groups that work in hazardous environments require intrinsically safe devices, but there are solutions out there that render our iPads safe, so we were able to overcome that hurdle.
Mark: Mobile-first solutions leverage phones and tablets to easily add rich data to service and maintenance records, making them come alive, be more detailed, accurate, and robust. What’s your reaction to that?
Darby: We first deployed ProntoForms just to our inspection teams but quickly started to expand the solution into our core forms, including our ‘A-form,’ a fundamental maintenance form. It’s a very lengthy paper-form that captures a whole plethora of information. We used ProntoForms to convert A-forms and Rectifier forms, capturing key maintenance information into SAP.
From a safety perspective, above and beyond compliance, our most important task is doing planned maintenance on an asset and completing the required form information. Both routine inspections and planned maintenance typically require us to take some corrective action. The ability to create a form that captures that information and generates a follow-up notification is really key, but more important is being able to capture really good information – snap a picture of the valve and say “we need to x this”. ProntoForms makes it easy to embed geotags, images, and other contextual information into forms, and seamlessly integrate everything into our SAP system.
Material traceability refers to a regulatory requirement for utilities to document and track the history, location, and application of all assets in a gas transmission system. If a part fails or is recalled, companies with traceability systems can quickly determine whether similar parts are in service, where they are located, or where replacement inventory is stored – information that is paramount when rapid safety adjustments and decisions are needed.
As-built files represent records of the completed works in a construction project. These are based upon the working drawings and updated to reflect any changes or alterations undertaken during construction.