The Pipes, the Pipes Are Calling - for a Change

16 Jul, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

It’s not just the gas pipelines that are getting old. So, too, are the people working on them, according to the market research and consulting firm UtiliPoint International. To compile its report Aging Workforce and Aging Assets Trends 2007-2012 (released April 2007), the company surveyed 42 electric, gas, and water utilities "to determine the state of the aging workforce and aging utility assets from 2007 through 2012.” According to the executive summary, “45% of utilities report having at least 20% of their workforce considering retirement this year, increasing to greater than 60% over the next 5 years.” The authors warned, “The far-reaching effects of workforce retirement may prove to be more of a tsunami for utilities than a wave -- and they are coming faster than anticipated.”

The Pending Exodus
According to Ethan Cohen, director of utility and energy technology at UtiliPoint, “aging assets and environmental needs will require increasing capital investments” (Utility Automation & Engineering T&D eNewsletter, February 17, 2006). The report states, “As many as 94% of utilities agree that asset management is core to utility performance, and 60% agree that addressing the aging utility infrastructure is a very high priority.”

Liam Speden, Autodesk’s product manager for MapGuide Enterprise, has had numerous first-hand encounters with these aging assets, some dating all the way back to the time India was still a British colony. “In one of the projects I was involved in,” he says, “the customer still had utility data written on linen, dated in the1880s, which shows a lot of the old pipes underneath the city of London.”

He was amused to discover that a critical footnote in this ancient map advised the field crew to bring along a “three-foot-long, 45-lbs metal wrench,” also manufactured in the 1880s, because the pumps would yield only to the equally ancient apparatus.

Somewhere in the foreboding statistics released by UtiliPoint, Alan Saunders, Autodesk’s senior industry manager for telco and utilities, finds a silver lining. “This may be a compelling argument to motivate the industry to look at some of the outdated processes, to figure out ways to become more efficient,” he observes.

Jon T. Brock, chief operating officer of UtiliPoint, suggests, “Some utilities are addressing this by hiring new workers and attempting to train them quickly before the experience retires. Some are attempting to replace retiring experience with automation. The best utilities are doing both.”

Plugging into the Web
Anticipating an incoming workforce that’ll be tech savvy and Web reliant, UtiliPoint’s Brock observes, “The advantage is that the utility of the future will be ‘smart’. This is from automating an electric grid, gas pipeline, or water main to informing the utility of real-time loading, pressures, temperatures, while also providing valuable consumption data to the residential customer.”

This month, Autodesk is releasing updates to Autodesk MapGuide and Autodesk Topobase, two complementary products well-known in the utility industry. A hybrid environment designed to give a centralized, enterprise-wide view of spatial information, Topobase seems well suited for managing the aging assets and the technical difficulties associated with them.

Topobase encompasses three major components:

  • Topobase Client, the CAD/GIS desktop client based on AutoCAD Map 3D

  • Topobase Web, the lightweight Web-based interface for database access, built on Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise 2008

  • Topobase Administrator, the Oracle-compatible environment for managing data structure, creating business rules, modifying dialog boxes, and regulating database access

Saunders says the Topobase release "further Web-enables a lot of the functionalities introduced in the previous releases.” In the 2008 version, Topobase Web, a lightweight Web-based interface for accessing databases, will become a complete environment for creating, editing, and managing jobs and for handling logical topology, the connecting relationships between features.

“In the utility business, one of the current challenges is around integrating CAD and GIS,” Saunders notes. “That’s to let [utility workers] design and manage their assets in a single interface.” CAD has traditionally been the tool for collecting and recording points and shapes, whereas GIS has been the preferred environment for managing the collected information.

Topobase’s AutoCAD editing tools address what Autodesk’s Alan Saunders believes to be one of the biggest challenge in utility: integrating CAD and GIS.

Topobase Administrator lets users in supervisory roles manage the Topobase system using visual design tools, user forms, business rules, user groups, and topologies.

Opening Up to the Community
“Topobase is built on Autodesk MapGuide and AutoCAD Map 3D,” explains Autodesk's Speden. “So it lets you easily bring CAD and GIS data together using the open feature data object (FDO) technology, which Autodesk supports. Furthermore, MapGuide’s openness -- through our participation in the Open Source initiatives and in providing the code [for MapGuide] to the community for free -- makes the product much more consistent with the Web 2.0 vision; that is, to make the API accessible for the others to create add-on applications.”

One of the most significant additions to Topobase is the new gas industry module. “For the gas industry, that means the ability to create feature classes for pressure zones, supply zones, meters, and pipelines,” Saunders explains. “The model also addresses industry-specific workflows, connectivity, style templates, and so on.”

Connecting to Oracle
Saunders points out, “It’s very common in the utility industry to bring together, for example, data from an outage management system, a customer information system, and a GIS system.”

According to Autodesk, “Topobase adheres to the Open Geospatial Consortium’s specifications and has a powerful application programming interface (API), in addition to native, industry-standard Oracle database tools for facilitating rapid point-solution development. The use of native Oracle database elements and structures and direct connectivity to Oracle eliminates the need for proprietary middleware, tools, or add-ons to connect with external data sources for custom solution development.”

“Utility field crews often still take paper maps to the site,” Saunders says, “although they’re now starting to look at other alternatives.” Portable computing devices, such as tablet PCs and rugged PDAs, are gradually making their way into this sector, but the paper data, which has been around since the 1800s, will probably remain an integral part of the utility industry for the foreseeable future.

Not Everything Can Be Automated
“It’s a fascinating challenge to come up with some mechanism to let our customers capture these vellum- and linen-based data dating back to the Colonial time,” Speden muses. It’s not just graphical information, either. Let’s not forget the need for better metadata features, which is probably the only way to convey the need for an 1880-era metal wrench to the field crew.

UtiliPoint’s Brock points out, “It’s hard to completely automate 40+ years of human experience in some cases.” One of those cases, he recalled, is “an old timer, a lease operator [who] knew how to service the firm’s sucker-rod pumps from the sound they were making as he drove by with the window down.”

For more, read “Integrating CAD and GIS Using Topobase” on

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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