When Hot Rodding and Technology Collide, SMART Things Happen
From scruffy to scalable, MinMax attributes success to first customer, Weatherford Electric.
About twenty minutes west of Fort Worth sits the small, historical pioneer town of Weatherford. Covering approximately 52 square miles, Weatherford Electric serves a population of more than 13,402 residential, commercial and industrial customers, and manages and monitors 139 miles of underground and 174 miles over overhead lines all powered by four substations, with a fifth one under construction to accommodate the city’s growth.
According to Weatherford Electric’s website, the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) or the average number of minutes that the electric system experiences an outage is 32 minutes per customer per year. The Customer Average Interruption Duration Index (CAIDI) or the average number of minutes that it takes to restore power to a customer after an outage is 65 minutes.
To maintain this positive track record as the city grows is all the more reason Doug Evans, Electrical Engineer for Weatherford Electric, and his colleagues supported the idea of playing an advisor and co-developer role in MinMax Technologies’ SMART solution for electric utilities.
“We thought if you’re [MinMax] coming up with something that will help us, we will help you,” recalls Evans.
A self-proclaimed “hot rodder,” Evans is described as the inventive type and will do anything to explore other ways to make something work. That’s why working with MinMax was right up his alley.
“I’m known as the friendly, neighborhood, mad inventor,” proclaimed Evans. “I solved the endless problem people have in kitchens where you hang pots and pans. Because many people can’t reach the top of it or it’s down too low and in the way, I motorized mine to go up and down. I also built an elevator to get stuff up and down from the attic. The bottom line is that my personality is that I’m a “hot rodder.” I stuffed a 500 cubic inch Cadillac V-8 into the back seat of a Corvair because I was told it couldn’t be done. I turbo-charged my 69’ Chevy Pick-up that I drive now. I work on a lot of house remodeling projects, built a motorized skateboard for my nephew, and I have a single-engine pilot license.”
“One of the things that sets me apart is I’m not a real engineer in the sense that I have a lot of education and training. I went to college long enough, but learned that wasn’t for me. I’m self-taught, an expert generalist. Both by inclination and as part of my job, I have to be involved in pretty much everything. What I enjoy doing more than anything else is substation design, which I haven’t done a lot in Weatherford, but mostly did that for the electric utility in Colorado Springs where I worked for 30 years.”
“The “hot rod” mentality is if it doesn’t fit, you can bash it into shape. Essentially that’s what we did in the software sense with SMART,” Evans proudly described.
“I had started writing a macro in Access trying to do a lot of the programming. The IT guys were saying ‘you really need to talk to MinMax.’ I saw what MinMax was doing and we agreed it would be good to work together on building out SMART versus what I had started doing internally,” explained Evans.
Unending hours of meetings hammering out what the solution should include ultimately landed Weatherford Electric as MinMax’s first customer as they beta tested the SMART digital substation and distribution inspection program.
“We put on a few pounds because we found an Indian restaurant nearby and would have our extended meetings there,” Nand Singh, MinMax Technologies founder and CEO, fondly reminisced.
Before Weatherford Electric started using SMART, Evans said his team would walk through substations monthly, taking notes on paper and entering information into an Excel document.
“We had a pretty good substation inspection schedule before,” said Evans. “Some of the things that drove us to want SMART wasn’t necessarily product, but more assurance and clarity that our field guys were looking at everything they were supposed to be looking at to remain compliant with utility regulations.”
Evans said compliance is a big component to what they do and reporting has greatly improved using the SMART software. For example, each time a monthly report was submitted manually, it overrode the previous month’s data. With SMART, you can see the history of each inspection.
“I explicitly went into working on SMART to create a best practices inspection program,” Evans emphasized. “We didn’t have a bad program, but we didn’t store the information well and we didn’t necessarily know if we were hitting all the right points all of the time. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
Evans explained that when they started working on SMART, one of the biggest hurdles was getting everyone to recognize that it needed to be developed with two categories of users in mind: the team out in the field and the team in the office.
“We had to argue things out, work out procedures and patterns to be user-friendly for both sides,” said Evans. “We wanted to have a product that was easy, off-the-shelf and gave the field team the ability to fill in the blanks.”
Evans said there were quite a few eye openers working through this process.
“The overall driving impetus was to make it something that could apply to scenarios and the mindset of the electric field team members. These are people who, if they can’t fix it with their crescent hammer, they’re not going to use the product. The product has to provide a direct, tangible benefit.”
Evans said one of the main game changers was using tools and knowledge from the past to develop a list of pre-scripted options that covered every possible scenario for which this inventive team hashed out tirelessly over a two-year period.
“You can enter in your substation and equipment with pre-populated questions, and customize the queries for the data you need. We had a standard list of questions you can just pick from,” said Evans.
“SMART is wonderfully more advanced than what we started with,” said Evans. “Whenever I think of SMART at the beginning, it looked like a scruffy, 12 year-old kid that has now turned into a grown business man in a suit.”
When the MinMax team has new ideas, Nand said Evans is the first person they call and that certain SMART features are internally named “Doug’s features.”
“Doug has been very influential in shaping SMART. Our work with him is where it all started. Weatherford was a game changer for MinMax. They were our first inspectors,” said Nand. “He was part of recognizing there was a need and that SMART would be beneficial to organizations beyond the utility world,” said Nand. “The underlying engine of SMART could be an inspection system for anything requiring asset management and maintenance. Just by changing the questions, you can customize it for any industry that requires monitoring and tracking.”
“It was a blast working on the development of SMART,” said Evans. “I like coming up with solutions. It was so wonderful to see our solution start to bear fruit.”
Another pivotal point for MinMax Technologies was when Weatherford Electric asked them to host SMART instead of them housing it internally. While Weatherford’s substations were all within their company Internet range, the IT department saw SMART as a “support hog” and was concerned about data back-up.
“This was music to our ears. It gave us the ability to offer a NERC-compliant, cyber-secure, cloud environment and flexibility to provide rapid enhancements,” said Nand.
Today as Weatherford Electric’s substations continue to be seamlessly monitored and tracked, Evans is waiting for daylight savings time to return so that he can hit the road every evening to ride his bike – yes, he “hot rodded” his bicycle, too. A balanced life, miles on the road can be spent dreaming about his next personal and professional goals which Evans said are one and the same — retirement.
“As Mr. Evans rides off into the sunset each day, MinMax Technologies salutes you,” Nand said with gratitude. “We will forever be grateful for your inventive and invaluable input to create a software that is improving the compliance responsibilities for electric utility inspectors around the world.”
Doug Evans Weatherford Electric March 2, 2016