Never has it been so pressing to watch our energy consumption: with climate change and geopolitical tensions, this issue has come to the forefront of our attention. Several countries around the world have started to take this seriously, with governments mandating the replacement of analog energy meters with digital ones: allowing people to more closely monitor their consumption and to automate the collection of data not only participated in reducing energy consumption overall but also resulted in savings in operational costs thanks to remote meter readings.
While some countries have completed the roll-out of smart meters (the Scandinavians, Spain, Italy), others are in the middle of it (Ireland, Belgium) or are just beginning the process (Poland, Germany, and more). Consequently, many European field service companies in the utility sector are needing to adapt to meet the deployment deadlines, while taking into account two key operational aspects:
- Ensuring the installations of smart meters are compliant with quality standards, to ensure the good functioning of meters in the long term.
- Guaranteeing these installations are safe (for example avoiding a gas leak when setting up a smart gas meter).
In the end, those two objectives serve one purpose: to provide excellent quality of service in order to satisfy their customers, in the person of utility grid operators.
However, field service companies are also faced with the very specific challenges of a post-Covid era; among them, is the effect of the “Great resignation”, with thousands of workers having left their job in the aftermath of the pandemic. Many positions were left vacant and companies are having a hard time filling them. In addition, the new generation of workers is less loyal to companies than their predecessors: they change jobs much more frequently, choosing flexibility over compounded benefits. And the sector of field services is no exception, resulting in a lack of skilled workers that have sufficient experience in the field.
As a consequence, companies haste in hiring new agents. They don’t always provide the training needed to deliver on the job, with newly hired technicians only getting a few weeks of training before being put on the field. According to Service Council, 2022 Voice of the Field Service, technicians’ knowledge and skill gap is among the top pressures for 40% of service organizations.
On top of this, there is increasing pressure to execute a high number of operations and carry out numerous tasks in a short time frame. The administrative ones (such as documenting and reporting) are the first to suffer from those constraints. Over 50% of technicians say that “paperwork and admin tasks” are painful, according to a study carried out in 2022 by the Service Council. Technicians are required to take photos of their installation works and so they do, but most of the time the photos end up being blurry, not centered on the right element, with poor lighting conditions, etc..
Or worse, technicians perform their tasks too quickly, which generates installation defects. With close to 30 visual tasks to perform to install a new electricity meter, for instance, it is a tricky process to perfect.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Here are a few tips to deliver a great quality of service for smart meter installation.
Tip #1: Unlock the power of field photos to document your installations
Photos are making their way into the world of field services, but their full potential is still untapped. Unlike other communication languages, such as texts or emails, photography is universal: both the sender and the recipient understand it instantly, which makes it a convenient way to report and exchange information.
Photos are also quick and easy to provide, as opposed to, say, filling out forms. A photo is worth more than 100 words. It is efficient reporting and contains valuable information by showing the result of actions performed by the technician: is the meter correctly and safely installed? Are the cables correctly positioned? Is the number displayed on the meter screen accurate?
However, this is true only if the integrity of the data is guaranteed, which requires the photo to be verified. Data integrity is at the center of a system built on trust, like the world of infrastructure roll-out and field services. Checking photo integrity involves making sure that it contains the expected element, which must be fully visible, and that the photo is not blurry and was taken with good lighting conditions. That’s why image recognition is the key to turning photos into trustworthy data for field operations. Routine field photos verified in real-time by AI are the new ways for technicians to report their work and break free from the hassle of long forms to fill out.
Tip #2: Out with the old quality and safety control process, in with the new AI-based first-time-right
Just like the reporting process, quality and safety control is still carried out in a manual way in the utility sector. To make up for the lack of skills of field workers, companies have started systematically verifying each operation manually by sending someone on-site to perform the checking, or have given up that process altogether- none of which is a viable solution.
But with AI-powered tools, companies can count on real-time quality control and automated safety inspections that are integrated within the smart meter installation. Thanks to immediate task analysis and live feedback to technicians, workers on the field have the ability to do right during the first visit.
Tip #3: Leverage AI to bring trust between all the actors
One of the ways to compensate for the lack of field workers is to hire subcontractors for utilities. But this comes with challenges for grid operators, who need to ensure their quality standards will be complied with. Unfortunately, the multiple layers of subcontracting make it difficult to obtain tangible information about field operations.
The notion of trust is key in this kind of ecosystem, and AI is the key to restoring it by holding agents accountable on the field and alleviating companies from having to closely monitor each one of their installations so they can focus on the most problematic ones.
Interested in knowing more about Visual Automation and its use in the deployment of smart energy meters? Watch our webinar “How can field service companies automate their quality & safety control? A concrete example with the deployment of smart energy meters”