Designing for Success

Bottom-line Improvements Based on Model-Driven Visualization and Design Tools

Peter Manos
Principal Strategy Consultant – McDonnell Group


What do you think will help improve the bottom-line performance of a typical utility more—software standardization or business process standardization?  

For many utility executives this is not a “chicken or the egg” question.  It’s a hard boiled problem.  Why?  It’s because decision-makers often have to choose between software centric vs. business process centric options.

And another classic choice may also still present itself, between a one-stop shopping software portfolio (e.g. for O&M work across distribution, transmission and substations, etc.) and different best-of-breed tools tailored for specific areas. 

Design tools and related workflows are a case in point but have an additional layer of complexity:

  1. Some of the “big footprint” software centric solutions are based on asset data and include design tools, typically in a GIS environment
  2. Other design solutions are business process centric, based on engineering calculations and standards, and include visualization, modeling, and design tools, typically in a CAD environment

The care with which I just described the division between GIS and CAD stems from the fact that the term “GIS” is applied so widely, we sometimes forget the fact that GIS is a technology, not a solution in itself.  And like GIS, CAD is also a technology, not a solution.  Both GIS and CAD are associated with older solutions as well as leading edge solutions, in fairly equal measure.

Recent McDonnell Group research related to the enterprise-wide benefits associated with improved design, visualization and modeling tools was completed in late 2012.  More than 30 utility decision-makers participated, from US, Canadian and European utilities providing electric, gas and/or water service, at investor-owned, municipal, cooperative and provincial utilities.

Along with wide-ranging findings of interest related to design (available per the links below), the research also uncovered vital trends involving demographic shifts among utility personnel and how these considerations impact the classic one-stop shopping vs. best-of-breed debate.

Specifically, the influx of younger, tech savvy personnel has a significant impact on the ROI associated with improvement initiatives.  So-called Gen X or Millennial employees were widely praised by survey participants for their ability to jump right in and quickly get up to speed when they are equipped with tools that facilitate transfer of knowledge of experienced employees who may soon be retiring.

And utility workforces are getting younger.  Only 34% of survey participants across distribution, transmission and substations have design groups mainly staffed by older, more seasoned personnel. 

Fully 95% of participants considered the quality and depth of capabilities of their design solution very critical or critical to helping their utility meet its goals.  These goals are centered on operational excellence, providing good service and related capital project execution.

The majority view that came up as a repeated theme regarding the impact of the wave of younger tech-savvy personnel on utility improvement initiatives was well expressed by the following participants’ comments:

•    "We need tools that are functional and reliable, that support not just through-put but quality—and also enable you to more quickly get new people up to speed."

•    "Drawings need to communicate and translate into real world operational construction functions and real work.  This way you don’t get into those situations where the crews get out in the field and they cannot complete the work.”

Not only is it important to get newcomers up to speed quickly--numerous participants emphasized that having the latest and greatest tools also helps leading utilities attract and retain the most talented personnel.  Business process improvement starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result.

Design team managers referenced the fact that the top young design, IT, or engineering personnel now interviewing or recently hired at utilities are less likely to take the job, or stay at it, if the utility does not demonstrate ongoing investments in the best software tools tailored to the specific design area.  Some may say that employee loyalty is not what it used to be but the more positive insight is that the incoming generation wants to feel they are accomplishing something and optimally utilizing their technical skills.

Participants said the younger tech-savvy workers need to see tools that have “cool stuff” including increased utilization of 3D design, modeling and visualization capabilities. 

There is an additional big benefit pointed out by higher-level executive participants in the survey concerning collaboration with increasingly demanding and savvy stakeholders.   They noted the value of 3D visualization tools in moving projects from the conceptual to the tangible, helping internal stakeholders, contractors, and customers, understand what a prospective project will look like, making it easier to achieve project approval and successful completion.

For more on this topic:

  1. Attend or review the presentations at the DistribuTECH panel session “Hand That New Kid a Mouse Glove--Intelligent Modeling and Visualization Tools for Enterprise Work Flow Optimization” which includes:
    •    Debra Brooks, Senior Project Manager, T&D Business Process & Technology Integration at Southern California Edison
    •    Arnold W. Fry, Manager, Engineering Standards - Transmission Asset Management at Duke Energy
    •    Peter Manos, Principal Strategy Consultant at McDonnell Group
  2. For more information, please refer to the comprehensive article in the January/February 2013 issue of Electric Energy T&D Magazine. The published article includes additional insights related to the panel session and the findings from the research study.
  3. McDonnell Group released the findings from the research study in December 2012. Click here to download the white paper, "Designing Operational Excellence:  Financial and Service Performance Improvements and the Role of Intelligent, Model-Based Design and Visualization Tools."

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