Staying Connected Down Under

Electricity company Powercor uses Afaria to manage all 500 of its mobile devices (Photo: Bavaria Film)

In the short time that Powercor has been using Afaria from SAP to manage its field devices, the Australian electricity distribution company has rapidly expanded the number of devices under management from 50 to 500 and added new business processes that enable it to effectively coordinate its field crews.

Powercor is already planning to expand its mobile program even further. Confident that Afaria can support its business strategy, Alan King, Manager, Field Mobile Applications at Powercor, says, “Afaria gives us consistency and ensures we have a truly mobile workforce. The Field Mobile Applications team is confident that all devices are up-to-date and reliable.”

Based in Melbourne, Powercor owns and manages the poles, wires, and equipment that deliver electricity to 1.1 million customers throughout central and western Victoria. The company’s top priority is to provide a stable and reliable electricity network that is free of disruption.

To support its crews in the field, Powercor has equipped them with ruggedized Motorola MC 75 and MC 75a mobile devices.  These devices are critically important to the company’s smart meter roll-out program, asset inspection, and faults management processes. (To learn more, watch a recent video about how Powercor uses SAP’s Afaria).

Powercor selected Afaria, a mobile device management program, to ensure that data is stored and transmitted securely on its field devices. Decisive factors in Powercor’s selection of Afaria were that it conformed to the company’s security requirements as well as its practical requirements for managing an on-the-go workforce.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Powercor delivers electricity to over 1.1 million customers. (Photo: Bavaria Film)
After implementing Afaria, Powercor was able to expand its mobile device network from 50 to 500.

Smart meters for all customers

Driving the rapid expansion of Powercor’s field device program is a government mandate to roll out 1.2 million smart meters to all electricity customers across the state of Victoria by the end of 2013. In the two and a half years the program has been underway, Powercor has installed 600,000 smart meters. Victoria is among the first places in the world to begin the rollout of smart meters to electricity consumers.

The extensive time in the field, as well as requirements for device and data security, have made Afaria the solution of choice for supporting Powercor’s smart meter rollout program. “Before this rollout, we had fewer than 50 devices using Afaria. Now as a direct result of the rollout, we have just under 300 additional devices,” says King.

From mountains to high rises

One of the key challenges for Powercor is the diversity of its geographic service area. The city of Melbourne is a densely populated environment characterized by high rises and urban structures. However, other areas that Powercor must service include sparsely populated rural regions marked by vast open expanses and mountains.

For King and his team, this means that the devices they send out into the field must work dependably for extended periods of time, away from accessible support. King has found that among the top attributes of Afaria has been its reliability and range of use with Powercor’s mobile devices. According to King, his team can build a device within 10 minutes (a feat that used to take 2-3 hours using a previous manual process) and send it 200-300 kilometers into the state with good performance. They can even extract information from field devices and troubleshoot remotely. Also, transmitting files bigger than 2MB poses no problem with Afaria.

With Afaria, King and his team are able to remotely handle scheduling, software upgrades, and support in a timely manner. King’s team can push software updates and add new processes and connections to devices in the field, even for those devices in remote areas with patchy 3G coverage. Crews rarely return devices to base, except for when hardware needs to be replaced. “[Afaria] helps because we can deploy software updates to our field force by scheduled channels,” says King. “It is completely impractical for me to try and manage a network the size of ours and updating circa 500 devices at each deployment – not to mention the business impact in doing this and downtime the users of key business processes would experience.”

Australia plans to roll out 1.2 million smart meters to all electricity customers across the state of Victoria by the end of 2013. (Photo: Bavaria Film)
Powercor finds it easy to teach employees how to use the system. (Photo: Bavaria Film)

More devices, more processes, minimal maintenance

Among the factors that have gained Afaria favor at Powercor is that the platform requires minimal maintenance and is very user friendly. King has found that the system has a very low administrative overhead, requiring only 0.5 full-time equivalents (FTE) to manage 500+ devices. “It’s a product that interacts across multiple operating systems. That makes our lives a lot easier,” he says, adding, “It’s been easy to teach others how to use too. And the product support that we get from Sybase, and now SAP as well, has been very helpful for the product to gain visibility in the business.”

Powercor has recently broadened the range of devices covered by Afaria to include the company’s iPhones and iPads, which are also used for in-field business processes such as creating process flows and inspecting substations. King says, “There is a lot of functionality in the iOS area and that is where Afaria really stands out among its competitors. To date we have a small pool of iOS devices running Afaria but the plan is to grow this across the company. The functionality we have been able to demonstrate and apply is far superior to that of any competitor we have found.”

King is very positive about the outlook for the mobile program at Powercor, in large part thanks to the solid performance of Afaria in the organization. He says, “Afaria has certainly justified the business case for its implementation and the ROI has been very quick.”