Leading utility anticipates doubling its distribution design project capacity using Spatial Business Systems’ Automated Utility Design™ (AUD). 

Around 2019, a large electricity provider in Canada started to realize that their workflow and output in designing and implementing over 20,000 new distribution projects each year should have been proceeding more smoothly and efficiently. The perceived culprit— the utility’s third-party design software. 

Challenges with previous software: inflexibility and manual operations 

The utility’s distribution engineering technicians, designers, and estimators faced challenges due to the existing graphic design tool that had been in place for over 16 years. The current tool was entirely manual, with no automated validation or standard checks, leaving too many details to be added by the project’s designer. Manual intervention was also necessary to rectify product discrepancies or mismatches; variations in the color or type of symbols on the plans posed difficulties for the field teams; the cost of setting up two comparable buildings could vary significantly, based solely on the discretionary decisions of the assigned designer. 

The complex system made it difficult for designers to become proficient, taking up to 18 months to complete an apprenticeship and up to 4 years to master. With employee turnover and promotions, the cost of training was becoming exorbitant, leading to an increased backlog of their design workflows. 

The need for more flexibility in updating the system to new engineering standards was another significant hurdle, requiring the manufacturer to alter the base code. Making a simple change with subsequent testing could take a year or more. 

The utility needed to catch up in its ability to perform required network analyses.  While the deployed geometric GIS had been adequate, an upgrade to ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Utility Network was necessary to achieve advanced network analysis and improved security. 

New AUD Intelligent Design Solution: like “night and day” 

An RFP (Request for Proposal) for a new solution led to the selection of Automated Utility Design™ (AUD) by Spatial Business Systems (SBS). Presented as an Intelligent Design Solution, AUD pointed to a dramatic improvement in configurability and ease of use. Changes could be implemented in-house quickly, with added rules and validations. The familiar AutoCAD platform facilitated a smoother transition for designers. The support from SBS during the process was notably impressive, accommodating late-breaking changes and unique requests. 

A critical aspect of AUD’s success is its seamless integration with advanced mapping, analysis, and mobile tools like those found on Esri’s ArcGIS and Field Maps. This integration allows designers to create comprehensive design packages, merging Work Order and GIS data for field validation and field notes. Introducing field conditions into the design process drastically decreased change orders during construction, inhibiting cost overruns.  By utilizing Esri mobile solutions, known for its advanced spatial analysis, real-time data integration, and comprehensive asset visualization, the utility now has timely as-built information, essential in today’s utility management for optimizing network performance, enhancing decision-making accuracy, and improving service reliability. 

“AUD is definitely exceeding expectations,” remarked one of the executive leads assigned to the project. In the past, updating the software was a challenging task, only feasible on occasion; now, enhancements are straightforward and frequent, often incorporating ideas from the design team, leading to enthusiasm about these developments. The rapid adoption of AUD is partly due to its foundation on the well-known AutoCAD platform, contrasting with the proprietary nature of the previous software. This familiarity with AutoCAD’s interface allows even new designers, including recent graduates, to adapt and become proficient quickly, a significant improvement over the older software. 

“AUD is definitely exceeding expectations”

Of course, the objective measure of the success of any project lies in its operating metrics. For this utility, the key metric was the number of designs entered and approved for installation, proceeding through the workflow. After implementation, the client reported that the number of designs produced exceeded their most optimistic projections. 

User adaptation was swift despite initial hesitation, and productivity levels matched and exceeded previous benchmarks. The team is optimistic about doubling their output for routine, less complex tasks, viewing this goal as a conservative estimate. 

Successful implementation, and looking forward

Despite the challenges of integrating half a dozen software systems, the transition to AUD was smoother than expected. 

The critical transition for all software systems occurred over a long holiday weekend in May 2023. This period was tense for the team as they meticulously monitored the sequence of software activations. The transition went well despite initial concerns due to careful planning and testing conducted beforehand.

With AUD now fully operational, the team sees tangible benefits for their organization and its customers. They are well positioned to leverage robust network management and data modeling tools through modern GIS systems like ArcGIS Utility Network for even more efficient and improved design workflows. The deployment of Esri’s Field Maps—integrated with AUD—has enabled seamless data sharing and asset correction during field operations.  

Moreover, AUD’s intuitive CAD-based interface has significantly reduced the apprenticeship period for designers from 18 months to just 3 months, saving 2,400 hours per designer and enabling them to realize their potential and become productive in record time. 

For utilities, operational efficiency isn’t just a goal; it’s a necessity. By embracing SBS’s Intelligent Design Solution, this utility far exceeded their expectations. Their experience with various software tools over the years underscores the exceptional quality and value of AUD, making their decision to switch a logical step forward. They advise peers and other utilities to be open to changing old methodologies, as it can lead to positive changes they may have been seeking but didn’t know how to implement.