Utilities have already invested in technology and digital innovation. However, there is still a treasure-trove left to be discovered including IoT and artificial intelligence, says Graeme Wright

The world has seen three industrial revolutions take place, all of which have changed the face of industry. Each time a change in the factors of production has taken place: labour to energy, financial capital to intellectual capital and now land to data.

Now we are in the midst of a fourth, which is unequivocally our most advanced and technological revolution yet. The rate of change even over the past decade has surpassed expectations. Moore’s Law, for example, which once set the pace of technology’s advancement, is now on the cusp of becoming obsolete.

We are in an age when technology enables us to pay for items with the touch of a fingerprint, cars drive without drivers and even cows are connected to the Internet of Things. Technology is at the epicentre of our world and, from banking to farming, there is no escaping how it touches our everyday lives. One sector that is not exempt from this digital transformation, but perhaps goes under-recognized, is utilities.

Utilities companies are on a constant quest to improve safety, effectiveness and efficiency in an increasingly complex and regulated sector, and are on the hunt for new tools and technologies to help them achieve this. According to our research, Technology in a Transforming Britain, utilities companies are embracing innovation and technology to help drive their business and the sector forward.

It seems, however, that this is unknown to the UK public, as only 7 per cent believe the industry is most responsible for driving the UK forward and innovating to improve life. The findings reveal 84 per cent of utilities leaders are positive about the change that technology is making in their organizations, and suggest IoT (42 per cent), wearables (40 per cent) and artificial intelligence (AI) (40 per cent) will be implemented in the next 12 months. Utilities is one of the top sectors for investing in these innovations.

When it comes to consumer awareness of innovation, it is often limited to smart meters and home devices such as Hive. It is not surprising, therefore, that consumers are unaware of the investments and innovations that utilities companies are making. For most utilities companies, the innovation that occurs is behind the scenes, helping to underpin the infrastructure of utilities and how energy and water are delivered, all out of the public eye.

Impact on the future workforce

Perception is everything, especially when it comes to recruiting talent. With a new generation entering the workforce, they will look to work for industries and companies that are digitally advanced, driving innovation and provide the same level of technology they experience in their day-to-day lives. The perception therefore from consumers that the utilities sector isn’t technologically savvy or driving forward innovation could result in fewer new entrants into the industry. If the industry is to continue to move forward and see success, not only in terms of innovation but as a magnet for top talent, it needs to demonstrate that it is not comprised of working in silos with just a toolbox.

Up until now, many of the IT and technology functions within utilities organizations have been very focused on the digitalization of the back office. The attention here has been on improved call handling, better billing and financial management of assets.

In the field, there has been less progress – for example, enabling engineers to be safer with technologies such as AR has only recently progressed. This has resulted in the public impression being that the utilities sector is undeveloped and lacks digital innovation.

The traditional IT function hasn’t got to grips with how the people in the field work. For the sector to advance, there needs to be a change in approach, with greater focus placed on the activity of those on the front line and how technology can be used to make their work what I call ‘frictionless’.

Even simple changes such as a more apparent use of connected devices for making calls and sharing data and information when in the field can have a significant impact on employee efficiency. Utilities companies can harness data to improve the engineers’ output and enable employees to do the job better, faster and with more reliable information. This can alter the perception of the sector, demonstrating it as a more dynamic workplace and helping to attract more talent to the sector.

So how can technology help transform utilities as a business?

The sharing of knowledge

Technology can be a fantastic facilitator for sharing knowledge, skills and expertise. Thanks to an aging workforce, combined with a new generation entering it, the industry faces the challenge of a knowledge and skills gap.

With portable devices, vastly better wireless communications and the ability to provide two-way video, younger, more able-bodied engineers can call upon the expertise of older and more experienced engineers, who may not be able to physically perform the same tasks anymore.

AR mounted head displays – whereby a hardhat enables a two-way video call – can effectively provide over-the-shoulder advice from engineers situated at another site or head office in a safe and effective way. Not only does this provide the next generation with the skills needed for their role, but it also enables soft retirement and offers a place for staff who are of retirement age, but still enjoy working.

The connected uniform

Another area the utilities sector can benefit from is wearables. By adopting wearable technologies, utilities companies can help to look after their workforce and empower employees to look after themselves better. It is important, however, for employees to view such technologies as being there to help them, without being perceived as a Big Brother initiative.

Let’s look at driver drowsiness for instance. For many engineers, driving long distances to different sites is part of the job description. This can have a big impact on their energy levels, resulting in tiredness and fatigue. A driver drowsiness device can monitor the pulse and movement of the driver and alert them when there is an increased level of risk. This results in maintaining the driver’s level of alertness and helping them avoid drowsiness when accidents may occur.

Monitoring the vitals of engineers is another great example – whether it be tiredness, stress levels, overheating or when a break is needed. Through monitoring of many factors, engineers can take steps to manage their wellbeing and take the rest they need in order to ensure they prevent any accidents related to their health and vitals. All too often we have seen that lone worker solutions, in the past, only enable the reporting of incidents, e.g. fall detection, rather than help staff to be aware of their body and take the right actions to avoid problems.

By using such wearable devices, over time the behaviours of engineers and other workers in the field can evolve to create a safer working environment, minimizing risk.

Through this communication and frictionless flow of data between employees and the companies they work for, companies can be continuously aware of their employees’ wellbeing. This in turn can help them identify where and when employees may be at their most vulnerable to injury. As a result, companies can make changes to working conditions and hours and can make their workforce more rested, content and efficient in the process, a far more robust approach to health and safety.

IoT and AI

The conversation around IoT has changed. Previously, it simply focused on sensors and connecting any number of ‘things’.

The challenge, however, was that people and companies were not thinking about what these devices were being connected to, how and where the data is collected, where it is processed, and then what to do with it. Utilities companies have had a wealth of data for many years thanks to the multitude of systems, but until now it was rarely used across the business as it resided in operational systems and often never left the location where it was generated.

However, as we move into the era of AI, utilities companies can now begin to make sense of, derive value from, and act on the data in real time.

Whilst ‘machine learning’ is currently being used to encode the rules of past events and anomaly detection is a key area, utilities companies can use their data to analyze machinery and identify what may lead to a problem and prevent it before it does. However, the development of deep learning systems will likely lead to a step change in the nature of work, improving the efficiency and services of the business and consequently increasing its productivity.

Sensors, for example, can monitor devices and appliances and issue an alert in real time if they are going to fail or become inefficient, automatically calling out for an engineer. This will save both time and money for companies and the customer. Customers will be able to have maintenance performed on their appliances before any damage occurs or service is interrupted, and for the utility companies themselves, this real-time efficiency will enable an increased level of productivity, changing the way they work from time-based to condition-based maintenance.

The engineer can then focus on making things continue to work rather than fixing them once they have failed. A connected workforce can prioritize the assets that need to be looked at rather than having to regularly monitor assets that are working smoothly, which can be an inefficient use of time, money and personnel.

New business ventures

Technology is having, and will continue to have, an undeniable impact on the utilities sector, bringing better and safer ways of working as well as improving efficiencies for both companies and employees. But why stop there?

As utilities companies continue to harness technology and innovate their business infrastructure, they will unlock new opportunities for their business.

Not only does this offer the opportunity to increase revenue, but it also ensures the entire service a customer needs from maintenance, spares and expertise and delivers a new business model and payment profile for utilities companies to add value to their services.

Utilities companies have already taken steps when it comes to investment in technology and innovation. As we have seen, the sector is surpassing some of the UK’s more thought-of industries when it comes to driving the digital agenda forward.

But there is still a treasure trove left to be discovered. By taking the time and investment in innovation, the utilities sector can transform itself to meet the digital 21st century. With a focus on making technology, work and the
flow of information ‘frictionless’ using new IoT and wearable innovations, companies can improve employee safety. By providing better monitoring of people out in the field, real-time incident reporting and analytical insight into areas of risk, performance and environmental factors, we will see greater predictability, affordability and resilience of the services provided to the public.

Companies can profit from increased efficiencies by supporting them with new and improved digital tools, which can enable employees of all ages to continue to share and grow their expertise and deliver a collaborative working environment. It is through technology that utilities will evolve and will help build a connected infrastructure, which in turn drives operational excellence and secure its future.

Graeme Wright is Chief Technology Officer for Manufacturing, Utilities and Services at Fujitsu UK and Ireland