Benefits of Inventory Management for Utilities
Utility service fleets and the inventory they carry are in constant flux based on the specifics of the service calls they are destined for, making managing the inventory on every vehicle critical to the success of every call. According to industry watcher Scott Madden, “achieving high levels of service requires maintaining more of the right inventory and improved planning. The challenge is that ‘more’ does not equal ‘better,’ and there is a cost to achieve high-service levels… Knowing the right parts necessary to maintain high-service levels is critical to the optimization equation and is based on a number of factors, including inventory item standardization, criticality, visibility to historical usage (at the highest level of a company possible), and known future work orders.”
Traditional paper based methods of inventory tracking have become hindrances because they require manual updates that are labor intensive, error prone, and are not updated on a timely basis. Today’s mobile technology used in combination with modern inventory management software can maintain accurate information about where inventory is located and assure that vehicles are loaded with the items necessary for the specific jobs they are scheduled to perform before they leave the yard.
Utility companies are faced with multiple issues that affect their operations. But when it comes to providing service, the most important things to manage are those that relate to delivering a first time fix on time. That list includes service staff, vehicles, and inventory. Having the right inventory in hand like cable splices, fuses, disconnect switches, personal protective equipment, power lines, and transformers when the technician arrives at the service location can make the difference between a single trip completion and lengthening the time to repair, adding costs associated with multiple trips and damage to customer relationships. End-to-end inventory visibility can make certain that necessary parts are on the right vehicle bound for the right destination and reduce or eliminate delays and added costs.
Inventory and the supply chain
Today’s concept of inventory management extends from the purchase order to final delivery and is considered to be part of the company’s supply chain. An integrated system brings together the processes and item information so that when a work order is created, the list of parts needed to successfully complete it is checked against the current inventory loaded on the vehicle. If any parts are missing they are flagged to be loaded before the vehicle is dispatched. This kind of coordination of information can eliminate return trips to the shop to retrieve the missing part which reduces time to repair, adds employee time, and increases fuel consumption.
Mobile devices that can read barcode and RFID tags on inventory items offer a transition from paper based systems because service staff simply aim their handheld unit at the inventory tag rather than write product codes on forms. The handheld device recognizes the inventory item’s tag and connects wirelessly to company inventory systems then transmits the item information, associating it with the work order, customer, and inventory quantity controls. Instant updates like this mean that orders for replacement parts can be triggered automatically through the company ERP system when quantities fall below reorder levels. But it also means that billing can be initiated immediately upon completion of the work order, and that can reduce the time it takes to receive payment.
Many utility providers implement this kind of automated system over a period of time based on budgetary and infrastructure considerations so it’s important that the devices they consider can support a wide range of operating systems and any inventory management applications that may be in use both now and in the future. And a range of portable device configurations should be part of the consideration because different jobs call for different devices. For example, a technician working on a pole may be best served by a handheld device while one working primarily inside the cab of a vehicle could use a laptop or a tablet.
Reasons to automate
Every utility company has its own financial metrics to consider when it comes to implementing automation but should start with a review of current operations with an eye to finding areas that can be made more efficient. Some organizations may look for cost justifications and reduced expenses while others may need to meet regulatory mandates like cyber security, or industry-wide changes like smart grids. The issues are different for every company but all lead to the creation of a more efficient inventory management system that reduces excess inventory and puts the right components in the right places at the right times.