3 Reasons Field Services Work Needs Modernized Technology

Today’s utility field crews are facing new and constantly changing conditions. They have to manage both aging legacy infrastructure and more distributed energy resources (DERs) than ever before. They must contend with multiplying cybersecurity threats to our critical infrastructure — and the more decentralized grid resources become, the more opportunities there are for breaches and intrusions by malicious actors.

At the same time, growing electrification and continuing climate instability are straining the very field services assets needed to make the energy transition a success and provide reliable power. Outdated computers and inflexible on-premise software make meeting these challenges even more difficult. 

In short, this isn’t the power grid of yesteryear, so utility field service technicians shouldn’t be using yesterday’s technology. 

Instead, power and water utilities must equip their field services staff with rugged mobile technology that can handle today’s challenges and facilitate the delivery of clean, reliable electricity. These field assets must connect back to flexible cloud-driven platforms that can manage a smart grid of decentralized assets.

With all the complexity confronting utilities, here are three key reasons to modernize your field technology.

1. Increasingly complex field services assets require rugged laptops and mobile devices

The proliferation of DERs means utilities are now managing 10 times the number of assets they were 20 years ago. In addition to the sheer number of assets under utility management, those assets will also be increasingly complex — many DERs contain sensors, monitors, and inverters to convert DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current) power. These systems allow utilities to better optimize these resources, but they create a huge amount of data for utilities to analyze. Utility field personnel also rely on geographic information systems (GIS) to locate poles, substations, and vegetation hot spots. 

Field service technicians require powerful, rugged technology to analyze and display all of this data. They also often need these capabilities in one user-friendly device so they don’t have to juggle multiple pieces of equipment in the field.

As McKinsey has noted, “Fragmentation of experience across apps and tools is one of the most common pain points for utility field workers today. Reusable UX components and cross-platform development help deliver consistent and seamless experiences in the field.”

Enter Panasonic TOUGHBOOKⓇ solutions. Rugged devices such as the TOUGHBOOK G2 feature reliable connectivity to access cloud-based GIS data and download schematics from anywhere. The TOUGHBOOK G2 offers modular solutions and options such as a thermal camera and expansion areas (xPAKs) for connecting diagnostic equipment, plus a touchscreen for easy use in any weather. Equipped with TOUGHBOOK devices, field technicians can manage and maintain multiple types of DERs in variable field conditions with just one rugged device. 

The growth of AI-powered solutions for utilities will only make these devices more critical. From vegetation management to truck rolls, AI is transforming utility field work — utilities saw up to 30% field services productivity improvements with AI-based scheduling. As these efficiencies keep improving, all field technicians will require technology that can support AI. Rugged laptops and mobile devices are the keys to unlocking digital transformation for field service technicians. The TOUGHBOOK 55, for instance, offers the high-end CPUs and GPUs required to compute advanced analytics.

2. Cybersecurity threats call for sophisticated enterprise mobility management

With more digital connections linking more assets, cybersecurity is and will remain a consistent challenge for utilities. Gartner predicts that by 2026, 25% of utilities will experience grid disruptions due to cyber-physical attacks on distributed energy assets, compromising wide-scale energy availability and service delivery.

Regulatory agencies are aware of these risks, and are crafting new regulations to counter the continuously evolving threats from malicious actors. Specifically, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is updating its Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards to include low-impact bulk electric system assets. This update requires responsible entities to have methods for determining and disabling remote access. 

Utilities must therefore utilize enterprise mobility devices with cutting-edge cybersecurity measures, including both hardware and software solutions, built in. For example, Panasonic TOUGHBOOK devices feature hardware-based encryption that requires a passcode to access all hard drive data. Multi-factor authentication is another crucial form of protection. TOUGHBOOK devices have smartcard readers and fingerprint scanners built in, meaning two-step authentication only requires one device. Field technicians don’t have to access the computer plus a phone for an authenticator app.

Software security is critical too, which is why TOUGHBOOK laptops and mobile devices are loaded with AbsoluteⓇ PersistenceTM asset tracking software at the factory. This software can remotely wipe data from a lost or stolen device and render it unusable. Its tracking abilities allow utilities to ensure their devices’ security even as maintenance locations and utility assets become increasingly dispersed.

3. Rugged technology meets the needs of an evolving field services workforce

New types of energy generation aren’t the only big change facing utilities — the field services workforce is evolving, too. Staffing needs will grow significantly as utilities nationwide overhaul their grids and increase transmission capacity. According to a recent Deloitte survey, the power sector workforce could triple by 2035 to more than 8 million jobs.

These employees will need rugged laptops and devices that can facilitate the variety of tasks they must complete. These devices must be able to handle any elements and tough working conditions, and they need to last for years to provide a manageable cost of ownership. TOUGHBOOK devices are designed for utility field technicians — they’re built to withstand weather and drops onto hard surfaces. These rugged laptops and devices can last for years, and we offer extended warranties so utility staff always have the technology they rely on.

High-quality technology is important for another reason: it’s what younger workers expect. Just as smokestacks at power plants aren’t attracting Millennials and Gen Z employees to the utility sector, neither will outdated technology or infrastructure. Moving to cutting-edge, mobile-first solutions and cloud-based platforms will help utilities attract younger workers with much-needed digital skills — the same potential employees who are enthusiastic about renewables and the energy transition.

More immediately, these powerful solutions can make existing staff more productive. As long-term workforce development proceeds, TOUGHBOOK devices with modular capabilities running cloud-based apps allow field services staff to more efficiently locate assets, run diagnostics, and complete repairs. 

Today’s grids need tomorrow’s technology

For utilities to successfully tackle the multiple challenges they face, they must have the right tools in the field to handle anything from rough weather to changing cyber threats. With greater computing power to connect DERs and maintain infrastructure, solutions from Panasonic TOUGHBOOK can make the energy transition a reality.

By equipping field service technicians with rugged laptops and devices, utilities can transform multiple challenges into multiple improvements. 

Learn more about how Panasonic TOUGHBOOK devices modernize utility field services.