Intelligent Process Automation is the Future of Utility Operations

There is no doubt that utilities have begun adopting process automation solutions at an accelerating rate. Much commentary on this trend, however, suggests that “Robotic Process Automation” is the only type being harnessed today, with “Intelligent Process Automation” still mostly theoretical for the utility industry (we explain the difference below).

However, based on HEXstream’s experience working with some of the largest utilities in North America, this simple dichotomy is inaccurate. Utilities are already applying intelligent process automation today and doing so across a variety of core operational use cases. In this blog, we explore some of the most important. While IPA solutions will require more extensive investment and organizational change than RPA, “the future is now,” when it comes to intelligent process automation for utilities.

The State of Process Automation for Utilities

Process automation can refer to any technology used to automate a business process. The advent of more accessible, economical, and flexible AI/ML solutions has driven the rapid maturation of process automation across a wide variety of workflows that have been dominated by human labor in the past. Process automation solutions are commonly divided into two high-level categories:

  1. Robotic Process Automation (RPA): the automation of repeated procedures which do not require complex decision-making. Common examples include invoice processing, routine customer service request processing, and regulatory compliance monitoring.

  2. Intelligent Process Automation (IPA): solutions that leverage methodologies like deep- and machine learning to automate processes that require continuous real-time decision-making.

We provide a more in-depth summary of process automation and its impact in our blog here. Both methods can help utilities improve the customer experience, streamline operations, gain a competitive edge, and ultimately focus human professionals on the workflows where they can provide the most value compared to automated systems. In customer service, for example, automated systems can easily handle routine requests like changes in billing information, balance checks, address changes, etc., freeing up human customer support staff to focus on more complex cases.

While there is little doubt that both approaches will be critical to the future of utility operations, RPA is often presented as the more realistic, proven, and commonplace solution at present. Many utility professionals have the perception that while IPA solutions may have potential value, RPA solutions are the only low-hanging fruit at this time. This conventional wisdom is aging fast, however. Today, utilities should recognize that the adoption of IPA solutions has already begun.

Intelligent Process Automation for Utilities Has Already Begun

While not every experiment will be successful, intelligent automation is already being deployed across a broad set of use cases including:

  1. Scheduling: utility operations require complex, highly interactive scheduling, with the timing and priority of many tasks dependent on the completion of others. And the teams performing these workflows may be in different organizational silos ranging from customer care, to maintenance, to asset management, to finance. IPA solutions are a natural fit for accommodating these complexities, updating timing dynamically based on factors such as the completion of preceding tasks, weather, and operational priority.

  2. Anticipating Storms and Storm Damage: utilities are already making use of more data than ever to prepare for storms and other extreme weather. Accurate data on storm paths, vulnerable assets, critical customers affected, etc. is vital to minimizing the impact on service reliability. With more granular detail on a storm, a utility can pre-position maintenance crews and spare parts for faster restoration, provide more proactive customer updates, and improve ETR accuracy. And IPA solutions can play a critical role in translating complex storm path data into actionable insights in near real-time.

  3. Automated Digitization of Field Notes: the notes taken by field technicians and customer service agents often contain valuable operational data, but this documentation may only take the form of informally typed text, or a scanned or tablet-recorded hand-written note. For many utilities, this data is not systematically captured and stored. Natural language processing (NLP) allows for the automated processing of this text data, and this capability may be integrated with a broader IPA system for classifying incoming data and routing it to the correct business unit if further action is needed.
  4. Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Data Processing: smart meters and other AMI have the potential to dramatically enhance the sustainability, financial equity, and flexibility of the grid. By allowing consumers to save by responding to non-peak-load power usage incentives, utilities can directly incentivize more efficient energy use.
    Realizing the full benefits of AMI, however, requires substantial advancements in real-time data collection across a huge number of individual metering assets. While static, historical data may be sufficient for establishing broad peak-load billing standards, a real-time data pipeline for AMI will only become more and more critical for
    an increasingly dynamic, renewables-driven grid.

Learn More: From Process Automation to Operational Automation

IPA is not the final frontier for utility automation. RPA/IPA solutions seek to automate existing, discrete workflows throughout the organization. As a utility’s automation strategy reaches maturity, its focus may broaden to leveraging automation to completely transform day-to-operations. For a deeper look at the strategic possibilities of true operational automation, please see our blog here. Greater adoption of any tier of automation will depend on the foundation of data infrastructure needed to reliably provide timely data to automated systems. Data pipelines must be integrated with a broad variety of different business units, source systems, and customer communication channels.

HEXstream has the proven ability to deliver automation solutions that are founded on enterprise-quality data infrastructure. We take pride in not only offering deep technical expertise but extensive ground-level experience working in the utility industry. If you are interested in learning more about using process automation to unlock new efficiencies at your utility, please connect with our team.

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