Technology: visual intelligence

Andy Hutt, CEO of triOpsis, looks at the need for visibility in industries that rely on physical assets and the steps that can be taken to avoid failures.


A perennial challenge for blue-chip enterprises across the globe is obtaining visibility into what is actually happening at the sharp end of the business. In water utilities, this can be an installation of a pipe or replacement of a meter. Historically, head office staff are isolated from front line operations and their only means of viewing work completed was to get in a car and drive.

The ideal scenario is that all jobs, ranging from capital projects to routine repair and maintenance, are completed on time to budget and to the right standard. This avoids costly inefficiencies and health and safety issues with their associated risks and liabilities. However, despite this being a critical and—you would think—basic requirement, job failure is common. It’s estimated that one in eight jobs are aborted, incurring substantial expenses and severe time delays. The root of the problem? There is a real disconnect between head office and the field. The former cannot see what is going on outside of their four walls, but rely only on what the gangs describe. This ‘chinese whispers’ effect results in errors, delays and further costs.

However, gangs are still sent out without visibility of the job prior to arriving on site. This considerably increases the risk of the job being aborted, simply because they couldn’t complete it as they didn’t know what to expect. An added frustration is that these jobs are often aborted for a range of preventable reasons, such as turning up with the incorrect equipment.

These are issues that can arise before work has even started. Problems can also occur while the job is being carried out, for example when a gang has set up site and started digging, only to run into an issue. Traditionally, the gang would phone the office for advice and then either abort the job or try and complete it. The first naturally leads to delays and the second could well lead to a reduction in the quality of the completed work, which will inevitably result in remedial work being raised. Either alternative is costly and time-consuming.

The staggering fact is that this is not a new issue and for too long, water utilities have been flying blind when it comes to maintaining full visibility, control and quality of their most important distributed assets. The repercussions of not having this grip on reality are plain to see. It was reported in June that councils in England have charged utility companies £31 million in fines for over-running of roadworks over the past three years.

An essential part of delivering quality assets is ensuring all completed works are in accordance with best practice, government regulations and health and safety guidelines. Failure to meet these regulations can result in substantial fines or remedial costs.When you consider that organisations can face fines of up to £100,000 a day for delays, the last thing they need is added penalties as a result of non-compliance.

So what can be done and what has been lacking until now? It all stems back to actually being able to see what is happening on site. It’s this lack of vision, throughout the company, that is the root of all the delays and issues.

The advent of mobile photography is currently an untapped yet rich resource for the water utilities industry, which can not only resolve existing issues, but also bring added benefits. Gangs can now arrive on site and follow a clear robust process, where they photographically record key stages of each job and send it to head office in combination with contextual information. This then provides real time visibility of the work carried out. It brings the ability to actually seewhat is happening out in the field.

Head office can respond, in real-time, to any issue raised and give immediate support to the workers while they are still on site, saving the cost of having to re-schedule the job and send another gang out. It’s a real drain of funds to send gangs out, bring them back in to report the issues, then send them back out with new instructions. Instant direction is a much more cost-effective and efficient way of working.  

Using this kind of visual intelligence can also increase collaboration, both internally and externally. For example, when contractors are used, the organisation can monitor the progress of the work and compare performances. It also allows them to share best practice and identify common errors, which can then be prepared for.

Internally, it brings a new way of working to the water utilities sector. Previously, the worker in the field would often get the blame for an aborted job or any form of delay. Now that the whole company can access this intelligence, management has no excuses for failing to make decisions instantly to avoid costly repercussions. Being able to provide photographic evidence of work completed or issues faced covers a gang against complaints or future claims. It also provides a powerful incentive for behavioural change to drive quality improvements. It’s not really in their interest to photograph poor quality, so this encourages the rectification of any issue before the picture is taken and sent. Instilling this level of quality from the outset will naturally lower remedial works too.

For too long, the water utilities sector has struggled with its levels of efficiency because it hasn’t been able to accurately monitor what is actually going on in the field. Organisations need a reality check or they are going to continue to be subject to ever increasing levels of fines and continue to pour money down the plughole, thanks to common failures and high levels of remedial works. The sooner the water industry realises the need for visual intelligence to obtainthis real-time view of operations, the sooner these situations can be avoided.