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Help from space and the supermarket

Fri, 11/30/2001 - 7:00pm
James Careless Contributing Editor

In these tight times, nothing matters more than operational efficiency: doing the same tasks for less time and money. Although there are doubtless dozens of examples of innovative thinking, two new ones aimed at cable TV plant managers have risen to the top. One comes from space; the other from the supermarket.

Without a doubt, one of the most time-consuming tasks for plant managers is mapping out a network prior to construction. Typically, they've had to send crews into the field to note the locations of poles, amplifiers, power supplies, and any other features relevant to operating and constructing a cable TV plant.

Once this data has been compiled, it has to be transferred to some kind of in-house mapping system. This can be done via paper maps, or input directly into a CAD (computer-assisted drawing) program. Either way, actually logging this data consumes time and resources.

Worse yet, after all this work, the final product can still be inaccurate. Perhaps the writing on the maps is indecipherable. Maybe the CAD artist couldn't decipher the field notes correctly, and guessed. Or perhaps all the written data is right, but the actual locations on the map are wrong.

The bottom line: there are many, many ways for network maps to be wrong.

This is where Perley Cable Construction Inc. of Metamora, Ill. comes in. It has devised a virtually foolproof alternative to traditional network mapping: one that takes advantage of the GPS satellites orbiting overhead.

"We've written software that allows us to integrate GPS location receivers with AutoCAD," explains Chuck Schlattman, PCCI's general manager. "Known as 'GPS Walkout,' this product lets you accurately map the location of every single device in the field, straight into the computer."

Here's how GPS Walkout works: First, PCCI sends a specially-equipped 4x4 to a customer's site. Inside, there's a GPS radio receiver and a dash-mounted laptop: PCCI's crew uses this to accurately map the streets. "We've set the laptop up to capture a GPS reading every 25 feet," says Schlattman. "We then adjust the data to account for the actual center line of the road, and use a laser measurement device to determine the road widths."

Once there's an accurate electronic map to work with, PCCI's crew returns to the streets, taking location and component-type recordings at every single cable plant element. "Ninety percent of these can be captured right within the truck," says Marshall Mueller, PCCI's GPS field engineer.

As for the other hard-to-reach plant components? "We have a backpack that also contains a GPS receiver and AutoCAD-enabled laptop," Mueller replies. "So any point that the truck can't get to, I'll go out and backpack to it, to get an accurate reading."

After all the readings have been taken, PCCI compiles them. The result is a 100 percent accurate representation of every road, pole, tap, amplifier, and anything else, in an electronic format that can be easily accessed, manipulated and stored.

Where this really pays off is in troubleshooting. Thanks to the combination of component-type and location data, isolating problems is often simply a matter of keystrokes. "Say there's a certain type of amp that you want to check," Mueller notes. "You just type it in, and the map will automatically pull up every one of those amps that you've got deployed. You can even set up your system so that your technicians and dispatchers view the problem onscreen at the same time, while they talk the job over," adds Schlattman.

Of course, PCCI's GPS Walkout doesn't come for free. To get these maps, you have to hire them to drive your turf. But what savings might a user see? Compared to the cost of MSOs sending their own people into the field to do an actual walkout, plus the time needed to compile this data either on paper maps or into a CAD program, "you will save anywhere from 25 to 30 percent by using the GPS Walkout," Schlattman promises.

However, there are other savings as well. But they're harder to quantify. For instance, how much is it worth to a cable operator to use his crews on projects other than walkouts? What's the cash value of a truly accurate electronic network map–especially one that can be linked to a database? These are questions that each cable plant manager will have different answers to.

Hitting the bar (codes)

Cable TV plants are made up of parts. Lots and lots and lots of parts.

Parts that need to be inventoried and managed. Parts that need to be replaced on a regular schedule. Parts that ideally should be logged into a database somewhere, so that managers know what's out there.

As Plant Maintenance Manager for Cablevision Systems in New Jersey, Bob Zito knows a lot about parts. And plant management. However, it wasn't until he was signing for a courier package one day, that Zito realized how to bring the two together.

The brainflash came as Zito watched the courier scan the bar code on the package–a standard technique used by FedEx and other package delivery companies to track parcels. Suddenly it struck him that the same bar codes that give each package an individual identity–the same technique used in the supermarket to speed the checkout lines–could also be adapted to effectively monitor and manage power supplies.

Here's how it works: First, Zito created a database linking each power supply's record with a unique bar code. Then he generated a series of bar code labels–think of them as "power supply license plates"–each of which was affixed to its corresponding unit.

Once the labels were in place, Zito gave each of his technicians one of the FedEx-style bar code scanners. To say the least, these devices are sophisticated: in fact, they're programmed to ask the technician a series of questions about each unit. (These are answered using the scanner's built-in QWERTY keyboard.)

"At the end of the day, you take the scanner back to the office, drop it into a docking station, and the computer downloads all the information," says Zito. This data then goes into a program (Zito calls his "Z3PM," for Zito 3 Plant Mainten-ance). Written by Zito himself–as was the program within the scanner–Z3PM uses the field information to provide a wealth of information.

For instance, "It will tell you when the next service appointment is for that power supply," he explains. "In fact, it will automatically book it for you in Microsoft Outlook."

But that's not all: Z3PM will also let the user specify the optimum lifespan for batteries–say two years–then book replacement appointments for the entire plant. As well, with this data, Z3PM can estimate how many batteries need to be purchased each month, and how much the purchases will cost. As a result, there's no longer any need "to fill your warehouses with batteries," Zito says. "That's a savings in itself."

Z3PM's database can also be used to study problems over time. A case-in-point: a cable TV system typically suffers one leak per mile per quarter on average, says Zito. "I oversee about 3,500 miles of plant, so I have to close out 3,500 leaks every three months."

Normally, such leaks are just a cost of doing business: you fix 'em, and that's it. But by integrating Cablevision's Cumulative Leak Index (CLI) work orders with Z3PM, Zito has been able to detect patterns among the leaks. "You can see how many times we've been at one house to fix leaks," he says. "And what was the cause."

As well, Z3PM can solve a plant manager's greatest bugaboo, the "No Problem Found" dilemma. By cross-referencing equipment malfunctions in areas where this annoying message keeps popping up on the diagnostic equipment, it's possible to find the real sources of interference.

Beyond these factors, Zito's Z3PM solution can also help monitor staff productivity. That's because the scanner units have internal clocks, which track when the technician arrives on site, and when they close out the work order. "If the job took four minutes to complete, then Z3PM will tell you so," he says.

Taken as a whole, Z3PM harnesses the power of the bar code to integrate the provisioning, maintenance and monitoring of cable TV plants.

So how much money does it save? At this point, that's hard to say. After all, Zito wrote the program himself, and has so far only tested it within part of Cablevision. (By press time, he should have had the program patented.)

However, Z3PM must be doing something right. Otherwise, Cablevision wouldn't have decided to roll it out system-wide.

Meanwhile, plant managers who want to cash on in Zito's brainstorm will have to contact him directly at rzito@si.rr.com to learn more. That's because there isn't a commercial, off-the-shelf version of Z3PM that they can get in the stores. At least, not yet.

Cutting costs

Although different in many ways, PCCI's GPS Walkout and Bob Zito's Z3PM have one key quality in common: they harness existing technology to provide smart, cable-specific plant solutions. In addition, both products give managers more decision-making power, and more say over what's happening out in the field.

Finally, GPS Walkout and Z3PM point out what's possible whenever people think outside of the box. As experienced plant managers know, that's where most savings can be found.

 

GPS Walkout

  • integrates GPS and AutoCAD to create accurate network maps
  • can be associated with databases to track component performance
  • reduces mapping costs as much as 25 percent to 30 percent

Z3PM

  • uses bar codes to create detailed, accurate inventory of power supplies
  • can schedule future service calls
  • can reduce battery ordering to just-in-time basis
  • can measure and track employee productivity
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