Taking Utilities into the Twenty-First Century
Westin works to improve the performance of water, wastewater, gas, and electric utilities throughout North America. The California based consulting engineering company guides utility providers through the maze of available information and operation technology, helping them to implement practical, innovative, and cost saving solutions for their business challenges. From mission-critical, core business operations to asset management and customer service, Westin’s suite of IT consulting and automation/SCADA engineering services can handle it all.
“Utilities are public sector agencies –– and in today’s world, with the economic realities and cost of aging infrastructure, they need to operate as efficiently as possible,” President Doug Spiers points out. “The use of technology enables them to enhance their operations, redefine their business processes, put powerful tools in the hands of their employees, and serve their customers much better. The technology is simply an enabler to optimize their entire performance and improve their business processes.”
Technology is only effective if it is properly applied. This is Westin’s core business. “We really guide utilities to optimize the application and integration of the technology to maximize the value to the business,” Mr. Spiers explains. “Our company is passionate about helping these utilities be the best they can be by using technologies to enable better business performance.” With three and a half decades under the company’s belt, Westin has the industry experience needed to be able to match the best solution to the unique situation of each utility provider. “Our focus has been in this area for 35 years. We know all the business applications and how to optimize the use of their technology investments. These utilities spend millions of dollars a year on technology, and we help them understand how to maximize the use of that investment.”
Westin is not aligned with any particular software, ensuring that the team remains neutral when it comes to matching clients with solutions. “We don’t provide any software; we are agnostic. We have no preference. We identify the best solution for that client’s needs – and they are all different. Large utilities have different needs than small utilities.” So to do utilities that offer both water and electric services, versus those that only provide water or only provide electric. “They have different business needs, they have different levels of maturity, they have different budgets, they have different levels of skilled resources. We help them select the right solution for their specific business and technology needs.”
Automation is one solution that Westin can help clients harness effectively. “Some of these utilities can run billions of dollars of infrastructure,” Mr. Spiers points out. “Automation helps them operate all of those systems across a large geographic area reliably and securely. This investment in automation is also used to capture all the data from their operation for regulatory reporting, asset condition monitoring, and performance management.” This consistency is absolutely crucial. “Water, wastewater, electric, and gas are mission critical systems. They need to be very reliable.” Applied properly, automation also enables the utility to slash costs by boosting overall effectiveness and efficiency.
Mobile solutions – smart phones, tablets, and other portable devices – have become indispensable since they broke onto the scene just a few years ago. “It is about arming the field crew and service crews with the appropriate technology so they can get the job done in the most efficient way possible,” Mr. Spiers explains. “A lot of these large utilities may have 1,000 people in the field. Understanding where they are, what they are doing, and how they are progressing is key to customer relationships and managing costs.” Operations become much more efficient and cost effective when mobile solutions are utilized. “It helps speed the transactional business processes.” People in the field can upload data immediately, sending a detailed report to the operational center in real time, without ever saying a word or picking up a pen and paper.
Let’s say, for example, that a crewmember is working on a pump. Using a mobile device, that employee can feed all the information about that pump and its repairs directly into the maintenance management system, so there is never any question regarding the status of equipment or workers. “An analogy is when UPS comes to your door. They scan your package, they bar code it, and the status of the package goes back into the system.” With the addition of condition monitoring through automation, the asset can also generate its own service request instead of unscheduled failures which greatly improves system reliability.
Recent focus has been in integrating the operations systems with the business systems. The automation/SCADA systems are mission critical to the utilities core responsibility of delivering its product (potable water, clean water, electricity, gas) to its customers. The opportunity is to capture cost reductions by optimizing the operation through data collection, analysis and integration with other systems to respond to ever-changing variables in real time. Imagine choosing pumping scenarios based on real-time energy costs, or having a pump alert the maintenance staff that it is beginning to fail and needs service scheduled. Optimizing entire water distribution systems to prevent wasted energy in pumping by tying several geographically separate stations together as a single control unit is another example.
Cloud computing is one of the most significant new solutions available to the utilities industry. From national conferences to water cooler conversations, the technology is one of today’s hottest IT topics. “A big topic is cloud computing and how utilities can take advantage of cloud technology,” says Mr. Spiers. “What applications do they outsource and which applications do they keep in house and why? What are the costs, benefits and risks associated?”
Continuity of service is always critical in the utility industry, and a major reason for considering the cloud. Lowering costs is another key advantage. “There are some significant cost savings for outsourcing many of the applications to the cloud,” Mr. Speirs points out. However, many utility providers are hesitant to abandon traditional data control models and switch to the cloud. As a result, the solution is still heavily underutilized. “They are reluctant to give up control of their systems, operations, and/or data, including customer data and financial data. It is over security and privacy concerns.”
Mr. Spiers notes that these fears are largely unfounded, pointing out that data is better managed and protected by a professional data center than by a utility provider. “What we are finding is that utilities need to focus on their core business and their core business is not operating a data center. Their core business is providing water, wastewater, electric, gas services to the customers… Industrial data centers have the highest security and are the most reliable. They are more reliable than the utility-owned data centers.”
Even if it forces utilities out of their comfort zone, the industry will continue to move toward the cloud. “The push is going to go more to the cloud as servers age and the technology changes,” Mr. Spiers predicts. The cost and complexity of maintaining an independent system will continue to rise, as will the security risks, and older systems will simply be unable to keep up.
Making the switch from in-house data storage to the cloud is just one of the many issues storming the industry. “In the utility industry, there is always something new. Whether it’s drought, El Nino, or the issue of a new contaminants concern, there is always something that continues to drive the industry.”
With this in mind, utility providers will continue to turn to technology to help handle the industry’s complex – and ever present – complications. Boosting efficiency and reliability will remain at the forefront of IT solutions. “On the technology side, the new change is really working objectively with performance management and business intelligence tools on how to continue to best maximize and optimize utility performance.”
We live in a world that is flooded with ever-changing technology. Utility providers are required to keep up and are often forced to do more with less – and Westin is there to make sure that they can. Staying at the forefront of the latest advancements is a core company focus. “We will continue to develop state of the art services based on appropriate technology trends,” Mr. Spiers summarizes. “Technology continues to change, and we as a technology consulting and engineering company need to stay at the forefront of where that is going in order to help consult with our clients as to where they need to go.”