Here is the latest article in an eWEEK feature series called IT Science, in which we look at what actually happens at the intersection of new-gen IT and legacy systems.
Unless it’s brand new and right off various assembly lines, servers, storage and networking inside every IT system can be considered “legacy.” This is because the iteration of both hardware and software products is speeding up all the time. It’s not unusual for an app-maker, for example, to update and/or patch for security purposes an application a few times a month, or even a week. Some apps are updated daily! Hardware moves a little slower, but manufacturing cycles are also speeding up.
These articles describe new-gen industry solutions. The idea is to look at real-world examples of how new-gen IT products and services are making a difference in production each day. Most of them are success stories, but there will also be others about projects that blew up. We’ll have IT integrators, system consultants, analysts and other experts helping us with these as needed.
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Today’s Topic: How No-Code Development Charged Up App Development at Kentucky Power
Name the problem to be solved: Using digital technology to solve traditional problems is a major challenge in the utility industry that is surprisingly more analog than digital. In fact, many utility companies still use paper-based management systems and lesser software solutions to run day-to-day operations, which are closely monitored for operational excellence and cost optimization.
According to McKinsey researchers, U.S. utilities have achieved only a moderate level of digitization, with safeguarding large longtime assets, minimizing operational risks, attracting digital talent and complex legacy operations and IT environments all inhibiting rapid digital innovation. While the challenges utility firms face relative to digital transformation are very diverse, thinking ahead and understanding the benefits of new technologies is key in reshaping this extremely competitive and sensitive market with its many fluctuations and broader ecosystems.
A company on the front lines of digital transformation is Kentucky Power, an Ashland, Ky.-based subsidiary of American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest electric utility providers in the U.S. Moreover, with Paula Bell’s help, a 30-year company veteran and Lean Team member, Kentucky Power’s push toward digital transformation is on a rapid trajectory with no-code application development at the core.
Describe the strategy that went into finding the solution: Kentucky Power delivers electricity and custom energy solution to nearly 5.4 million regulated customers in 11 states. AEP ranks among the nation’s largest generators of electricity, owning nearly 32,000 megawatts of generating capacity in the U.S. AEP also owns the nation’s largest electricity transmission system, a nearly 39,000-mile network that includes 765 kilovolt extra-high voltage transmission lines than any other U.S. transmission systems combined. In 2015, Kentucky Power initiated its Lean Team to identify ways to improve productivity and eliminate wasteful processes. As the team determined, paper was holding the company back (just about every internal process and workflow was tracked via physical documents), Kentucky Power started using Smartsheet, a SaaS communication and collaboration app to manage work orders.
Yet, the ability to scan barcodes when collecting transformer serial numbers (not available in Smartsheet), coupled with having the ability to collect and manage from the field and interface directly with Smartsheet, still required manual intervention. AppSheet’s combined declarative no-code model with platform intelligence allows Bell and her fellow Lean Team members to design custom modernized field apps quickly and cost-effectively.
List the key components in the solution:
- Built-in scanner and photo feature: With AppSheet, Kentucky Power crew members can avoid having to manually input data while conducting field inspection.
- Fully customizable: AppSheet’s no-code app development platform makes it possible for Kentucky Power to update and edit forms, not just add new ones.
- End-to-end capabilities for app security, management and IT governance: AppSheet’s robust security measures right out-of-the-box allowed the Kentucky Power team to quickly gain IT security approval and run through a comprehensive risk assessment review.
- Ease of use, less training: Bell, the main app creator at Kentucky Power, had no coding experience beyond building hyperlinks and macros in Excel, and no time or desire to learn. AppSheet empowered Bell and others to create super-compelling business apps through clever automation and without having to write a single line of code.
Describe how the deployment went, perhaps how long it took, and if it came off as planned: In April 2017, Bell started tuning into AppSheet’s educational webinars, growing her knowledge and brainstorming ideas. By October 2017, Bell was in advanced discussions with AppSheet and had developed a proof of concept. Close to a year later, Kentucky Power signed up With AppSheet to support 100 users. Following approval, Bell was able to immediately roll up her sleeves and start designing apps. Currently, the company is using approximately 10 enterprise-grade apps developed with AppSheet’s no-code app platform to automate the Kentucky Power team and organization.
Describe the result, new efficiencies gained, and what was learned from the project: AppSheet has completely changed the way Kentucky Power solves problems. According to Bell, when the team runs into problems running the business, they know an app can be quickly developed to develop a solution. Additional benefits Kentucky Power has experienced using AppSheet include:
- Reduced errors. Scanning serial numbers has decreased errors, saving time for office personnel to make entries and field personnel to retrieve items.
- Less paper. Replacing paper processes with electronic tools has resulted in improved efficiency and a safer work environment. For example, pole tickets now go straight from the app into the office. Workers no longer walk out into the yard to retrieve paper tickets from the mailbox, eliminating the potential to slip or fall.
- Happier workers. Kentucky Power workers embrace AppSheet-based apps with lesser pushback based on minimal training, easier adoption and user-friendliness.
Describe ROI, carbon footprint savings, and staff time savings: Bell started playing around with AppSheet’s mapping features, figuring out a better way to handle repairs. Now, the team has a single map view for open work orders along with different symbols to signify various tasks. As a result, service orders can be completed much faster and with few errors. Other key apps developed via AppSheet allow Kentucky Power linemen to track transformers taken in an and returned when a failed or damaged transformer is replaced; a pole tracker app, in conjunction with Smartsheet’s reporting feature, notifies stores when poles are taken, and notify technicians when a work order is needed; and, freeform entries have been eliminated by utilizing drop-down menus in a Circuit Inspection Tracker-geared app.
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