Civil Engineering

Utility Design Software Simplifies Standardization

17 Feb, 2011 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Southern California Edison implements Autodesk application to improve consistency and reduce design and ordering time.

As one of the nation's largest electric utilities, Southern California Edison serves nearly 14 million people across a 50,000-square-mile service area. Despite its massive size, SCE struggles with the same industry-wide issues that challenge its smaller counterparts: The power grid is becoming more complex. Experienced personnel are retiring, and taking their knowledge with them. And engineering and construction standards, which must be adhered to consistently across the organization, are never static.

In hopes of streamlining workflows where standards and design intersect, SCE implemented Autodesk Utility Design software in its Transmission and Distribution Business Unit, deploying it to more than 600 internal users. The software combines distribution network planning, design, and analysis into one environment.

"Design standards — everything from using the proper symbology to picking the right size conduit — is very important to a utility," said Alan Saunders, senior industry manager (Utilities) for Autodesk. Saunders explained that the difficulty of achieving the reliability and consistency that standards provide is compounded when a utility's workforce is widely dispersed. "This type of design work is typically done in a number of offices across the [utility's] territory," he said, noting that that could be 30 to 50 offices in SCE's case.

Prior to this Utility Design implementation, each SCE office would rely on paper-based standards references. "Designers would have a set of binders at their workstation," said Saunders, and when those standards were updated, it would be difficult for management to be certain that the changes had reached all the utility's designers.

Replacing Retirees

Those binders aren't just a bulky nuisance, they're also considered an anachronism by the latest generation of software-savvy utility employees. "They're coming into the workforce with the expectation that they won't have to pull binders off the wall," said Saunders.

"The changing-and-aging-workforce issue ... has hit utilities pretty hard," he observed. "They've been doing this job for 20 or 30 years, the managers for 40 years ... these people have been retiring and are being replaced by younger, newer folks who don't have that institutional knowledge."

One way to help compensate for that knowledge gap is to use software that new recruits are comfortable with, to reduce training time. When hiring these days, said Saunders, utilities are much more likely to find job applicants with existing AutoCAD skills than with specialized utility experience. Utility Design is built on AutoCAD Map 3D, making for a more familiar interface and easier transition for both those new hires and the existing AutoCAD users in SCE.

Standards for a Slimmer Budget

Keeping everyone on the same page with standards is necessary for consistent design output — which ultimately yields a safe and functional power system — but all that effort also pays off in cost savings. "To the extent that they're able to drive more consistency ... it also helps them reduce material carrying costs," said Saunders.

The Utility Design software can also exchange data with other corporate software systems. "Integration with the ordering system saves a lot of time," Saunders continued. By interfacing with the utility's SAP order management system, SCE personnel can generate construction work orders that include layouts, engineering data, bills of material, and estimated costs.

So just how many hours (and dollars) can be trimmed as a result of these efficiencies? SCE hasn't been that specific about its experience with Utility Design, but Autodesk noted that another utility — Arizona Public Service — recently reported its results after a partial rollout of the software. The APS team designed underground distribution for a three-phase feeder, a commercial development, and a subdivision in 47 to 64% less time than usual.

Inside and Outside

When deploying Utility Design, SCE didn't stop with its own employees. "SCE, like most utilities, does distribution network design work themselves, but they do also use contractors from time to time," explained Saunders.

By enabling their contractors to access the same design tool, SCE employees save themselves a great deal of work. "When they get the design back from the contractor," said Saunders, "it complies with their standards and symbology ... they have much less conversion work to do." Less redigitizing and redrawing means less time wasted, and because only the standards are being shared with the contractors, there are no security concerns involved. "Ultimately the record of what was built and constructed stays behind the SCE firewall," Saunders noted.
The Electric Future

Standards change frequently, and that rate of change has become more rapid, Saunders explained, thanks to an increasingly complex electricity network that incorporates smart grid technologies, charging stations, and even local rooftop energy generation. "There are certainly more changes in [standards] today than there were 10 or 15 years ago," he asserted.

The pressure applied by the evolution in both standards and the workforce is spurring many utilities, regardless of size, to follow SCE's example. "We see similar types of movement across the industry," said Saunders. "It's a matter of degree, but the same challenges are affecting everybody."

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