High-Tech Tools Open Doors: Connecting workplaces for efficiency and productivity

Shutterstock / Klyaksun / Tele52
Shutterstock / Klyaksun / Tele52
Published On
Sep 15, 2022

Many essential tools of the electrical trade—pliers, hand drills, cutters, etc.—haven’t changed in decades. Today they are competing with high-tech solutions and devices for a place in the electrician’s toolbox. How much difference do smart tools make for everyday projects? Depending on what is coming in the future, and how valuable they are, these tools may help contractors stay nimble and competitive—for securing new contracts and retaining the latest generation of electricians.

Some of the most common innovations making an impact are software, robotics and automation, which can do repetitive tasks currently performed by human workers. Drones, for example, have quickly penetrated the construction market. They take photos and videos of the work site to provide a project overview, even when a supervisor is off-site. Drones also provide a quick look at otherwise hard-to-reach areas.

Wearable technology such as smart watches help electricians and supervisors track activities and identify safety concerns. A variety of wearable exoskeletons, some emerging form the world of prosthetics, offer better safety and productivity for workers when worn on arms and torsos.

It could be a dizzying set of options for any company wanting to offer the best and newest technology, so taking a step back and a measured approach can be the best way to proceed.

Taking it to the cloud

Access to data stored in the cloud has had a two-pronged effect on electrical contractors by changing the way work is done and how buildings are wired. Smart meters are one part of the connected building trend, because they track energy use for utilities, building owners and tenants. Electric utilities are already managing remote grid information on a wide scale, and electrical contractors are often doing the installation. Such metering systems collect data and enable upgrades to happen seamlessly. For the utilities, that means reduced capital expenditure costs and reinforced cybersecurity, said Ruth Gratzke, president of Atlanta-based Siemens Smart Infrastructure in the United States.

The cloud also affects what systems are being installed in buildings as more communication takes place virtually, Gratzke said, with building health accessible remotely through automated building technology. Employees can monitor and control facility systems remotely, which helps reduce travel, improves employee efficiency and increases job-site safety. More applications will be integrated into building management systems in the coming years.

Electrical contractors with knowledge of cloud-based platform data management, as well as the meters and sensors that feed data to those platforms, are poised to serve this market.

The cloud also aids contractors seeking to access data about conditions on their own work site, using virtual reality (VR), which creates 3D modeling of a project as it evolves.

Whether such cloud-based technology is being installed or adopted for the construction process, it is necessary to build workers’ comfort level when using it, Gratzke said. To help contractors adjust, many companies offer early training and workshops.

Siemens, for example, provides support for contractors and workers learning the ropes around VR. Gratzke said that “with more digital natives entering the trades, we designed a training platform centered around VR technology.”

The challenge is that many training programs, materials and hands-on instruction are time-consuming and expensive. Subject matter experts and instructors must travel to multiple locations, and there is little way to ensure consistency in what information is being shared.

Shutterstock / Vladgrin
Shutterstock / Vladgrin

Electrical contractors with knowledge of cloud-based platform data management, as well as the meters and sensors that feed data to those platforms, are poised to serve this market.

“It can take vast amounts of time to organize and facilitate the training sessions,” Gratzke said.

So Siemens provides flexible, accessible, digital and remote training, a trend that is underway among many technology companies.

Safety tools for the work site

Technology also aims at safety, in a world where the average tenure of a construction or electrical worker is significantly less than it was in the past. It’s estimated that 50% of the utilities workforce is set to retire over the next decade, said Gary McAuliffe, vice president of global energy and utilities sector at safety tech company Librestream Technologies Inc., Raleigh, N.C. As new workers come on-site, fewer will have the experience and safety training their predecessors had.

Companies such as Librestream help electrical contractors and utilities focus on safety issues by embedding them in the work itself. For instance, the Librestream software system provides mandatory safety checks, such as PPE confirmation, in a digitized work process. The system tracks conditions while work is underway, and an automatic escalation takes place when critical equipment readings—such as temperature, vibration or pressure—are outside of safety ranges. The system also includes an instructional video delivered to the worker on a wearable device that demonstrates the proper and safe way to conduct a task while in the field.

Librestream has provided its tools over the broad energy sector—predominantly oil and gas—for nearly two decades, and the company began focusing on the utility sector in late 2020, which also has expanded to electrical contracting.

“Our technology has been leveraged in a number of use cases over a half-dozen projects,” McAuliffe said, including its distribution design system to help companies plan new electrical service.

Its generator rounds application helps users capture critical readings on electrical and mechanical plant equipment inspections. In this effort, companies are using Librestream’s equipment to conduct audits of substation equipment and troubleshooting at remote generation sources such as wind farms.

The goal is to help workers focus on the proper steps and techniques, as well as escalations if unsafe conditions occur, McAuliffe said.

“Using the platform to accomplish similar tasks with less people and avoid dispatching a secondary worker to fix a problem can save labor costs,” he said.

Automated reporting of field events also could mean better and faster data collection on routine inspections. Quazxlity is another focus by instructing less-tenured employees on proper technique and processes and delivering knowledge from more experienced employees to field workers, when needed.

Managing the fleet

Many safety risks on a work site are centered around vehicles, and tracking trucks, vans and cars is a way to better manage what is happening in the field. Knowing where vehicles are and how they are being used could boost safety and efficiency before and after the workday. Numerous solutions related to tracking vehicles leverage simple GPS data capture. Others are customized for construction or electrical contractors.

Technology company GPS Trackit, Roswell, Ga., has built a solution based on users’ evolving needs, said Ed Montes, GPS Trackit CEO. The company started as several independent firms founded by entrepreneurs. The majority of the consolidated company’s customers deploy a sensor- or multisensor-based solution in conjunction with a data application to view where each of their vehicles are, as workers go to sites. Sensors can range from hard-wired, onboard diagnostic plug-ins, to battery-powered asset trackers or vehicle cameras.

In fleet management, gaining operational visibility is knowing how many vehicles are needed to provide good service, understanding the driver behaviors, taking advantage of route optimization and securing vehicles, assets and tools.

Shutterstock / NTL Studio / Naulicrea
Shutterstock / NTL Studio / Naulicrea

Today the company has more than 3,000 contractor customers, including 400 ECs.

“We have several major utility companies that have been long-standing customers,” Montes said.

 Contractors use the system to increase fleet efficiency and productivity while lowering operational costs through fuel savings and risk mitigation.

“We also see contractors utilizing our asset devices and programs on heavy equipment and trailers as an inventory management and loss prevention tool,” Montes said.

The maintenance module allows companies to prevent downtime by detecting how long a vehicle has been used since its last maintenance or inspection and how it is running. The technology aids in scheduling, tracking and recording service calls on the cloud-based server.

“With this solution, you are able to record costs for parts or services, run diagnostics with engine fault codes, capture service history and set calendar reminders so you can avoid costly repairs,” Montes said.

When it comes to selecting and deploying technology for fleet management, there are still numerous challenges and benefits, he said. Ultimately, a fleet management system should provide data that supports the business, increases productivity and reduces expenses.

In fleet management, gaining operational visibility is knowing how many vehicles are needed to provide good service, understanding the driver behaviors, taking advantage of route optimization and securing vehicles, assets and tools. Those contractors with many crews traveling to work sites can typically complete more service calls each week by tracking in real time, planning routing, stops and job sites.

“The goal is to keep mobile workforce organized and empowered while also enabling management to connect to electrician technicians in real time with live traffic view,” he said.

With Google Maps and customized email or text alerts and two-way messaging, drivers get notifications for missed messages and new stops, which keeps everyone up to date.

To prevent misuse of vehicles, assets and tools, the system can include geofences to send alerts when a vehicle leaves a preset area, for instance. However, fleet management system users should ensure that the parameters they would want can be customizable, actionable and easily accessed.

As another alternative, Irvine, Calif.-based Teletrac Navman’s system offers a location-tracking, job dispatch and routing system, as well as driver behavior management. Rand McNally Fleet provides a connected vehicle platform that includes the company’s hardware installed and its Rand Platform software to manage the data.

Whether the tools are in the cloud or on-site, and whether they consist of hardware or software, contractors are best advised to learn the options, select mature technology (from established companies) and properly train users. The goal, technology providers agree, is a more connected, efficient and safer work site.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.