Power for the Road

For any corporation, getting timely information out to where it’s really needed is a challenge. For Calgary-based TransAlta Utilities Corp., that meant giving 200 mobile customer service reps access to real-time enterprise data — from their trucks!

The enterprise systems include: SAP R/3, which schedules regular maintenance via the SAP Maintenance and Service Management application; and the CUBIS system (legacy VAX customer billing information software) that call centre operators use when entering customer requests.

The service reps (informally called linemen) handle a variety of tasks, such as maintenance, connecting new customers, fixing street lines and conducting line patrols, explained Dan Nabata, supervisor of applications support at TransAlta.

In the old days (before June 1998), the service reps reported each morning to one of 60 offices spread throughout Alberta, to pick up paper work orders. Today, there are now only about 20 remote offices, plus a call centre in Calgary, said Nabata. “There were definitely cost savings,” he said. Many of the reps don’t even go into an office these days. Instead, they park the truck at home, open a ruggedized Panasonic touchscreen notebook (166MHz, Windows 95), and see the day’s service orders.”

Ray Mack, customer service account manager for Vancouver-based MDSI Mobile Data Solutions Inc. said each order is listed as a single line on the screen. The reps can click on an order to see the details. As jobs are accepted and completed, the reps input information into the notebook, which is wirelessly fed back to headquarters and into relevant databases. (The modem is an external MP200 Series wireless unit from Vancouver-based Sierra Wireless Inc., Mack said.)

Back in the office, dispatchers can view the progress on their PCs — graphically, in the form of little icons, such as a lightning bolt to signify “dispatched,” a truck to signify “en route,” a house to mean “on site” or a check mark to show the job has been completed.

Behind the scenes, the SAP server and the CUBIS server are connected via a LAN to MDSI’s Advantex-Utility server software (which sits on an IBM RS/6000 server running AIX), Mack said. Advantex reportedly matches work orders to the most appropriate field technician — based on such factors as geography, skill set and availability. Messages are transferred to and from the enterprise servers using the MQSeries protocol.

Mack noted there are three tiers to the Advantex application: the server; the WINDISP application that sits on dispatchers’ PCs; and the mobile application. Those three components of MDSI’s solution are “constantly polling each other” Mack said, using wireless Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) technology from Telus, Alberta’s phone company.

TransAlta connects to a Telus dispatch centre via a dedicated land line. The CDPD network operates at 19.2Kbps, and works wherever Telus’s cellular phone service is available, said Kathy Dolan, communications manager for Telus Mobility.

The MDSI implementation took about 11 months, Nabata said, noting there was a lot of work to be done on the interfaces. “None of

the interfaces had been built. We were kind of on the bleeding edge of that.” He said there was also a lot of work to be done on retraining the customer service reps on the new system.

For example, the SAP data format (IDocs) needs help communicating with Advantex. Enter Calgary-based InfoPrag Inc., with its PICO2

product that translates the SAP data for Advantex and vice versa, explained Tim Reimer, InfoPrag president. “It’s important to understand this happens transactionally, in real time,” he added.

MDSI claims this is the “first time that an interface between a mobile workforce management system and an SAP enterprise business solution has been established.” (Of note, MDSI is now advocating a translation system from TSI International Software Ltd. called Mercator, Mack said.)

“The interface between the SAP and MDSI solutions is a natural fit that streamlines the workflow and enterprise management of the resources delivering TransAlta’s field work,” said John Drummond, utilities solution architect for SAP Americas, in a statement.

Of note, Gary Moore, SAP Canada’s vice-president of new initiatives, was actually the CIO at TransAlta during the investigation into the MDSI technology. He said that with deregulation of the industry and increased competition, there’s been a big move to increase customer satisfaction and lower costs. “Time is money,” he said. The new MDSI system helped to ensure that the customer service reps were “going to the right place and doing the right job.”

Meanwhile, MDSI is now involved in SAP-related solutions at a few other utility companies, including Reliant Energy in Houston, Tex., and GPU Energy in Reading, Pa. An agreement is also in place with England’s Yorkshire Water.