Wheels, Watson, and the Wide World of Mobility ROI

Seemingly simple inventions, have changed the world in unexpected ways…

  1. The wheel has been used to increase advantage from generation to generation. Its addition to wagons (then planes, trains and automobiles) made it possible to move more possessions across further distances. Cities became more practical as farms could become larger and their produce could be transported via a new network of roads.
  2. Elevators were initially invented to move ore up from mines and cargo onto ships. Then elevators enabled skyscrapers, which would be impractical without them.
  3. Even computers were first thought to have a single, very succinct focus. Thomas Watson, president of IBM, himself said in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

It’s easy to underestimate the impact of inventions at the point of inception. The evolution of the aforementioned is proof that there is a linear extrapolation that can be made early on – but also a set of unanticipated longer-term benefits that is nearly impossible to predict. That’s because technology doesn’t always advance in a linear or logical way. (We put a man on the moon before we put wheels on our suitcases.) And while Watson may have been right that the world only needed five room-sized vacuum tube computers with limited capabilities, he was wrong about how computers, as their development, could change how the world works.


A similar trend is now unfolding in the wide world of mobile technology – especially in the Utility sector. It’s not uncommon to see utilities embrace rugged mobile tablets based solely on the direct cost-benefit analysis. The industry is still fairly early in its adoption of mobility tools, and it’s pretty easy to determine the immediate cost savings or productivity gains using straightforward calculations.  Technicians routed to the right call – based on skills, priority, and tools – at the right time will reduce wasted time by X hours per week. At a rate of $Y per hour that equals a total benefit of $Z. Utilities can also anticipate the benefits of more accurate repairs or technicians who spend more time in the field and less time at the office. Plus, utilities see almost immediate cost savings on paper supplies and storage when paperless workflows are implemented. These returns on investment (ROI) are all easy to quantify. The immediate cost savings justify the use of rugged tablets enough for utilities to make some mobility investments immediately.

Often though, the biggest ROI for utilities isn’t in the above list. It is in the benefits which are harder to quantify in advance: the ability to improve customer satisfaction and the ability to have service be a profit center. This second tier of ROI is difficult to predict on day one – or even day 30 – and can lead to cautious hesitation. Utilities may be reluctant to embrace the full potential of mobile technology across the entirety of their organization if the bigger picture growth opportunities aren’t clear out of the gate.

The first phase of mobility has given technicians more accurate information about each service call, more efficient routing to the call, and the tools to accurately diagnose and repair issues. Their real-time documentation of progress is providing HQ-based experts and managers with real-time visibility into field service productivity and the opportunity to improve workflow processes. The quantifiable, and anticipated, ROI is evident. The next step is to leverage these same mobile technologies for services beyond (break-fix) repairs.

Power utilities, perhaps best recognized for their residential grid services, are at a turning point in the commercial customer segment. Thanks to the mobile technologies now at their disposal, utilities are ideally positioned to improve their bottom line in the lucrative commercial sector. They can leverage existing rugged tablet technologies, and the real-time data they provide, to:

  • Implement time-shift/demand response programs. They can conduct power usage analysis and, while still on-site, give customers clear guidance on how to be more efficient with water use, off-peak electricity, etc.
  • Predict when commercial equipment should be serviced and offer preventive maintenance services to customers.
  • Coordinate more closely with customers and renewable energy experts on the design and installation of commercial projects. Or manage the entire project themselves. An uptick in solar energy generation is a win-win all around.
  • The maintenance of non-Utility supplied equipment as a secondary service.

Consider this scenario: The availability of higher efficiency air conditioning and heating equipment and mandated energy savings are driving replacement of older units. There are often rebates available for moving to these newer units but, due to the complexity of these systems, it’s not as simple as “install model X, get a rebate.” Assessments must be completed to determine the appropriate equipment upgrades, specific installation guidance must be followed to achieve the desired efficiency benefits, and then a post-installation audit must be conducted – all before a rebate is issued. Each of these steps require on-site technical experts, and each expert requires access to specific tools to measure the load, make appropriate recommendations for new equipment (i.e. installation requirements and cost), and complete inspection checklists.

The most efficient way to accomplish this level of service is via rugged mobile PC technologies that provide real-time access to every piece of information needed at each stage.  If used properly, rugged tablets can reduce the number of install-related visits from 4-5 to two or three, or fewer. Utilities not only save fuel and time from fewer truck rolls, but they improve customer satisfaction levels. That’s an ROI that could pay dividends.

Just keep in mind that most of the services capable of yielding a greater ROI require more sophisticated customer interactions. Utility technicians need a lot more information at the ready:  everything from the customer’s history and the facility’s relevant code and efficiency requirements, to scheduling and installation. That’s the primary reason all of these value-add services and customer interactions become either inefficient or impractical with a paper-based system. It’s also why mobile technologies are such strong growth drivers.

The rugged mobile PCs that many utilities have put into the field – perhaps at first to just save on the cost of paper for break-fix repairs – are adaptable enough to support any type of service expansion desired. Though once a single-focused investment, these rugged mobile computing technologies quickly deliver all of the hardware and software capabilities needed in the field at a moment’s notice to support higher-value services.

When utilities are ready, the opportunities for their mobility usage – and the opportunities for secondary ROI gains – are endless.