Driving Discipline and Rigor for Utility Asset Management
Spatial Business Systems (SBS) has been consulting with utility customers on the use of geographic information systems (GIS) for more than ten years, with an eye toward systems engineering, business analysis and advanced integration solutions. The company also has a history of working with Smallworld technologies, with Dennis Beck, president and co-founder of SBS having served previously as vice president of Global Business Development for GE Network Solutions. Informed Infrastructure (I2) editor Matt Ball spoke with Beck about the company’s mix of products and services, the evolution of GIS technology, and the inroads that they are making with strategic asset management.
I2: Your focus for some time has been on the utility market — helping companies manage their linear network assets?
Beck: Yes, we have focused on network assets and asset management, with most of our work with utilities, though we’re doing a fair amount of work in telecommunications, particularly out of our Australian office.
I2: I noted that you have both products and services. Did your business start out on the services side?
Beck: Yes, it started out on services and we really began to focus on getting data out of traditional GIS systems and put it in a position where people could receive more value from their data investments. Most organizations in the utilities world have GIS, but getting it to talk to other systems and support broader business applications has really been their challenge.
As we started to do more of this kind of work, we realized that the more that we packaged it, we could take the complexity of a given solution and make it available for a lot of organizations to take advantage of it, rather than coding something new for every separate company.
The mix of products and services varies based on the organization. With some of our products, we’re starting to work with smaller utilities that have the same problems as large utilities. Historically, we’ve worked with larger utilities that have millions of dollars to integrate systems or solve data problems. The smaller utilities have the same problems, but can’t make the same investment. We’ve taken a lot of the smarts, and things that we’ve learned, and have packaged them into simpler and easier to use software. We’ve been able to get solutions configured within weeks at an order of magnitude less in terms of time and cost from what we’ve done in the past.
I2: So, it’s all about efficiency, and helping them do more with less?
Beck: The whole global market has changed, particularly with offshoring of IT services. We are able to compete in a global marketplace by productizing our services, rather than have people pay for higher-cost. In the U.S., they are simply more expensive than they are offshore, at least on a per-unit basis.
I2: On the data integration side, I noticed that you’re a Safe Software reseller, and that’s a powerful tool for that line of work. I know that their FME software is strong for bringing the CAD and GIS worlds together. Is that what you’re using it for?
Beck: Yes, that is one of several areas where we use FME. It can also support synchronization between different spatial environments and such things as network extraction to support technical and business analyses. FME has turned into a platform for a number of our different products, and it really brings a lot of advantages to the table. It supports all of the common formats, and offers a highly productized environment, rather than the custom interfaces that integrators have been done in the past. We’re really taking advantage of their product infrastructure such as support and documentation, and it’s served us well.
I2: Their move to the Server is probably an advantage for broader enterprise integration.
Beck: We like to work with the FME Server environment, particularly for the larger organizations, because it opens it up for so much more that they can do in terms of scalability, and providing the data to a broader user community that isn’t necessarily comprised of GIS professionals.
I2: With AutoCAD Utility Design®, that’s been a fascinating evolution with specific rules-based design tools.
Beck: That is a fascinating evolution. I started in GIS more than 25 years ago, and for the first many years the whole idea was to get everything loaded into the GIS, including all the business processes that maintain and update the data. They all had to live in the GIS. It was proprietary, it had its own model, and its own way of connecting features together. What happened with those systems is that people would still be doing other business processes outside of the GIS, and design in particular.
We’re really seeing that organizations are asserting their workflows, and that they design in CAD because that’s what people are trained in and it really tends to be the best tool for certain kinds of design work. Other organizations are using CAD, but also have other design processes where they just sketch and don’t want to use a full CAD system. We sometimes generically lump design into one thing, but its many different business processes depending on what you’re designing. Organizations are finding that those design processes live very well outside of GIS, but you have to be able to integrate and keep very short duration of time between when the design is done and when it gets recorded in the GIS. The historical, monolithic GIS is disassociating, and it’s an area where we’re doing a lot of work.
I2: So, GIS is the point of truth is many utility organizations? Traditionally, that’s been the ongoing battle between CAD and GIS, right?
Beck: We tell our clients that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. What you want is a spatially enabled database to manage your infrastructure assets, and that becomes the source of truth. We are working with our clients to get the spatial data into their information management architecture. It’s truly about having the right data available in a timely and accurate manner and not done in such a manner where you have questionable data sources that are floating around in various states.
I2: That ties into a fairly new focus for you, with asset management solutions. Is that taking design details as well as conditions, and being able to forecast maintenance expenses?
Beck: I view asset management as an example of a solution available to organizations that move to this database-centric architecture. Again, everybody was looking at putting everything spatial within a GIS, but when you start looking at all the information that is related to spatial infrastructure, it can filter out throughout the whole organization. So, you have this GIS with a lot of good asset information, but you want to know how much does it cost to replace, how much did it cost to install, and how is it performing. That may be existing within an asset management system or as anecdotal information that you may be able to access through an outage management system or real-time sensor-based information. It just doesn’t live exclusively in a GIS any more.
Strategic asset management is a tool that we have worked to bring to the U.S. market. We have partnered with a European consulting firm and a group of European mathematicians to provide a solution that takes this asset information, the reliability data, the financial data, and other information (including what exists in a worker’s head) to model how these assets are performing, and how we anticipate they will perform over time. You can really start simulating what this infrastructure-intensive organization is going to look like in five years, ten, fifteen, and even 50 years from now if they choose to adopt certain strategies for maintaining their assets.
It’s extremely powerful, and if you think of the trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure around the world, it’s a huge portfolio of assets that needs to be managed with the same kind of rigor as you the financial assets in a large pension fund. Those kinds of assets are typically tracked very closely, but with most utility organizations they continue to struggle with where their assets are, how old they are, or what condition they are in.
I2: Infrastructure spans a number of uses and at a number of scales, is there a specific focus for you in terms of your customer?
Beck: We think our sweet spot is with larger utilities, but bridges and roads or facilities are also assets that need to be managed, and the public often doesn’t think about the millions of dollars that it takes to take care of them.
I2: When you’re looking at a maintenance strategy, are you looking at maintaining an older network with older stock versus replacing it with a newer system, and decisions like that?
Beck: When you are looking at replacing versus maintaining, you do need to look at how the infrastructure ages. For instance, looking at how 5,000 utility poles age, and what would happen if they fall over and create fires or other safety hazards are big issues in parts of the country that are arid, and it’s a big issue in Australia where we’re doing some work right now. You’re looking at this broad base of assets, and the long-term implications if they fail.
We’re in a country where a lot of our assets are 80 years old, which is pretty incredible. Something that was put in in the 1940s, is still there and kind of still working.
I2: There is that next level with a lot of this infrastructure, such as the Smart Grid for electric utilities or smart water for water infrastructure. Are you tying in any planning and asset management with these next-generation of sensored networks?
Beck: This is interesting on two fronts. Yes, the sensor-based data is important and is valuable, but I think that the fundamental questions — where is it, who installed it, what is its current condition —are even more foundational than that. You get a little bit of that out of the sensors, but there is really more foundational information that organizations need to continue to build and evolve to.
The other front that I’ll refer to is that all this sensor-based infrastructure is different than pipes, wires and transformers. Much of this infrastructure of sensors and networks isn’t going to have a life of 40 or 50 years, it may have a life of five to 12 years before it needs to be replaced. A whole new asset management problem is being created by adding all of this more volatile infrastructure.
I2: That’s a great point, and something I have not heard before or considered in terms of this smarter infrastructure. With the pace of technology these days, such as upgrading our smartphones every two years, or changing our Internet provider for newer features, there’s almost constant disruption.
Back to strategic asset management, is there a lot of scenario planning? When you come to a decision point, you’re looking at multiple factors and multiple possible plans. Is the software aiding that comparison process?
Beck: It’s all about scenarios, and evaluating strategies and ranking them, and looking at what will happen when I do this versus that. There are certain places where a modest strategy of just maintaining assets makes sense, and there are times where an aggressive replacement strategy makes sense. You just can’t be sure until you start modeling it out, and understanding what the implications are?
It’s very mathematical, and it uses simulation. The work that we’ve been doing is based on system dynamics. It’s interesting that as mathematical as it is, there’s still a huge human element to it too. If you don’t have the information, you really need to rely on the opinions of experts, and then you need to take those expert opinions and turn them into factors that you can simulate.
What gets interesting about that is that when an expert shares their opinions and we show them the simulation, they can actually look at the results of what they just said and then evaluate that. It reveals their thinking, and often results in them understanding that they need to take a different approach.
We’ve modeled such things as customer complaint data, and you can really see the root cause of their complaint whether it is an infrastructure failure or something else. That all of a sudden changes the whole playing field, putting complaints into a model. You begin to understand that millions of dollars invested in doing something different might not change the satisfaction of the customer. That’s really powerful, because it takes all the emotions out of it.
I2: I get fascinated by the word “counterintuitive,” and you pointed out some of the experts that are re-evaluating their opinion and approach. They are experts, and yet maybe they didn’t know the right questions to ask, or weren’t aware of the fundamentals behind behavior for either the infrastructure or the customer response.
Beck: That’s really one of the fundamental things there — What question do you really want answered? A tool just drives discipline and rigor in that area. Tools really help shape and formalize processes.