Zpryme On the Grid - The Connected Worker

Zpryme On the Grid – The Connected Worker w/Lonnie Ludwig

Zpryme, a research, media, and events agency focused on the energy industry, speaks with CBT VP of Solution Development Lonnie Ludwig about connecting utility workers to networks that enable them to better perform their jobs. They discuss how this benefits worker safety, operational efficiency, and end customers.


utilities, customers, connected, worker, pump, solutions, repair, deliver, enabled, fish tank, work, asset, technology, device, field, solution, data, ot, dosimeter, quickstart


Lonnie Ludwig, Dylan Lockwood


Dylan Lockwood  00:00

Hello, everyone, welcome to Zpryme on the grid. I’m Dylan Lockwood. Joyce Julie is unfortunately out today, but she’ll be back with us next week. But I have here with me today, Lonnie Ludwig, Vice President of Solution Services at CBT. Lonnie, welcome to the show. How are you doing? So let’s start at the baseline. Tell us a little bit about CBT, as well as what your role is there.

Lonnie Ludwig  00:31

CBT has been around for 20 years, we’re actually celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. It’s quite a milestone to be around that long, and it really speaks to the agility of the company. Our founder, owner and CEO, Kelly Ireland, started the company 20 years ago. And, I’d say we really established our roots in the traditional VAR world, high performance computing, traditional IT solutions, and hybrid IT solutions. And then about five years ago, we started investing heavily in industrial IoT solutions, IT/OT transformation solutions, and also hired folks that are well established and have expertise in the OT world. So that’s kind of the path we’ve been on, and we kind of hold that unique space. The fact that we came into that industrial IoT world from the IT side of the business and we didn’t approach it from the OT side, makes us somewhat unique in dealing with industrial companies like oil and gas. Oil and gas, and utilities is a big vertical for us. We’re known as Domain Expert Integrator. Many folks are familiar with system integrator, but as a Domain Expert Integrator, we bring domain expertise to the table. We have people that have OT experience; we have a mechanical engineer, a digital control system engineer, and someone that worked for National Instruments for over 20 years on our staff. So we really bring that OT expertise and that domain expertise. As for my role, my team’s really responsible for the pre sales technical effort at CBT. We support our Field Sales Team in working with prospects and customers to develop and create solutions. I’m also responsible for partnerships and alliances. As a bit of a Swiss utility knife type of approach, we do a little bit of everything and really have a talented team of folks that I work so well with.

Dylan Lockwood  03:10

So one thing that we talked about before this was optimizing the workforce for safety and operations, and a better bottom line for utilities. You use the phrase Connected Worker, which I actually hadn’t heard before. What is Connected Worker and how are they connected? What are the benefits for the workers?

Lonnie Ludwig  03:47

Connected Worker has been a big area for us. Connected Worker goes back to my IT days. Depending on who you’re talking to, cloud has a variety of definitions and means something a little bit different to everyone. So if you look at Connected Worker, in that phrase, it can mean different things to different people. But essentially, it’s connecting that end user or field worker to technology to make them more efficient, safer, and helping them do their job better. Connected Worker in an IT world can be something like virtual desktop infrastructure, so VDI in the utilities world is that connected field worker. For example, if a truck is rolled to work on a transformer that’s blown, that connected worker is connecting the field service technician to the field worker. The additional data and resources can make workers safer, more efficient and better able to do their job. So that’s really what connected worker is. And it’s facilitated in a variety of different ways, if it’s in a discrete identified environment, it can be Wi Fi. The Connected Worker can be connected via a Wi Fi/network environment. If they are in the field, like a warehouse or a maintenance yard, they can be connected via cellular or a private 5G environment. So think something like CBRS. Many companies are going down the path of creating a private 5g environment to establish connectivity for their workers. And from a device perspective, it can be many different things, it can be a laptop, a tablet, or a head-mounted device. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of successes with head-mounted compute. Head-mounted compute enables the ability to do your job hands-free, with voice-activated camera variety capabilities. This enables the field worker to do their job more efficiently and safely because they’re doing it hands-free.

Dylan Lockwood  06:45

So this is the next step. How are those connections improving operational efficiencies for utilities?

Lonnie Ludwig  06:54

As I mentioned earlier, it makes them more efficient. In the past, if there’s an issue out in the field like a line down or a transformer blown, that could take three or four levels/types of expertise to conduct the repair. The utility would have to roll out three trucks, with individuals on those trucks, to facilitate the repair. But, if you enable a single worker with the capability to have access to data and expertise via a remote mentor, then a utility might be able to get the same job done by rolling only one truck or two trucks. Not having multiple truck rolls saves money. One of our customers said that each time they do a truck roll, it can be upwards of $15,000 in expenses. And so by eliminating or reducing the number of truck rolls, they’re immediately seeing a return on investment from a Connected Worker solution. Now, one worker or two workers that are on-site versus the four or five, have access to data in real-time. They also have access to someone who has expertise, that may be sitting at their desk, and didn’t have to go out on-site because they are connected to them via the head-mounted device. That person sitting at their desk can see what the person on-site can sees, talk to them, and push information to them, whether it’s a PDF on how to conduct a repair or walk them through repair. The expert can annotate on what is required to conduct the repair and show the worker what needs to be repaired. So there’s a lot of capabilities that are enabled by connecting that field worker via some device to remote mentors or data that can help them facilitate a repair. Another example that I have seen is vegetation management. There’s one company we’re working with where they still send a person out to walk the lines and take notes on a piece of paper that’s on a clipboard. And then when they’re done inspecting the lines for vegetation issues, they get back to the truck, take that data and enter into a laptop. And then when they get back to the office, they connect, and download that data into their SAP system. If you can do that in real-time, as you’re walking the line, you’re actually entering the data immediately, and downloading into the SAP system. It makes them tremendously more efficient and safer. There are a lot of increase in efficiencies with Connected Worker solutions.

Dylan Lockwood  10:29

With these connections, are there security issues or other challenges you’ve encountered in either creating or deploying these services?

Lonnie Ludwig  10:37

Security is first and foremost one of the concerns when it comes to edge devices. We’ve seen far too many stories in the news about the security intrusions hacks into environments. It’s been several years now, but there was a story about a casino getting hacked via a connected fish tank. The fish tank was remotely run and connected to the Wi Fi. Hackers were able to access the internal IP systems via the fish tank. Security is absolutely a concern for any edge-enabled device. If you’re connecting via Wi Fi, cellular, or whatever the connection into the environment is, there has to be consideration taken about the security profile and the security posture of that device and what type of mobile device management solution is being used. What type of firewalls are in place? What type of precautions are being taken? When are you logging that device into the network? There’s a ton of security considerations to be considered for that edge connectivity. It’s definitely first and foremost in our minds, and that should be first and foremost in our customers’ minds. And we help them to realize that through a design-thinking process with our customers and prospects. One of the attributes or results of that process is not only determining and proposing what use cases or solutions will benefit that customer that prospect, but also what security considerations they have to have in mind and what we can help them with. We have a team of people that are expert in security type solutions, and partners in that space as well. So we definitely bring a lot to bear in the area of security. Security is top of mind for everybody involved.

Dylan Lockwood  13:12

So what you just said there is very important, but I did get a little hung up when you said a connected fish tank, because why would you need to connect a fish tank to the Wi Fi?

Lonnie Ludwig  13:30

Think about things like the filter being no longer efficient. There’s a notification that goes out saying the filter needs to be changed, or the water’s gotten too warm or too cold. It’s essentially collecting data about that fish tank and letting someone know, which is the same thing that happens in a field service environment. You have assets that are out in the field generating data, for example a pump has temperature readings and flow readings. There’s a variety and range of data that is being generated about that asset. And that’s being pushed somewhere and someone’s looking at that data to make decisions about when does this pump need be serviced. What is the potential lifespan of the pump? Lots of different things can be decided about how you maintain and how you work with that asset in the field, and that’s enabled by Connected Worker. Think about that same asset in the past; you need to know something about that asset before you even go out and look at it. And let’s say you need to pull the old maintenance logs, you go in and print up old maintenance logs, or you look at the maintenance logs and get all this information together. And then you go out and look at the pump and try to determine the condition, the viability of that pump and how well it’s doing. With a Connected Worker solution, you’re connected via Wi Fi, or cellular, whatever it is, and you’re looking at that pump. You can actually have a QR code attached to that pump. And instantly data is not only available about that pump, but it’s also pushed into whatever connected devices, for example a head-mounted connected device. And now you can see real-time readings of what the pressure is in that pump, what’s the temperature of that pump, and when was the last time it was serviced? I have a question about how this pump is sounds, maybe I should connect to Ted, who’s sitting at home, who’s an expert on this pump. I can have him listen to that pump and tell me if he thinks there’s something going on just by the sound. So it’s really about an edge asset, whatever that asset may be, and getting more data about it more available to whoever is out in the field with that asset. It’s about making that asset more efficient and making sure it doesn’t fail if it’s a critical asset. And making sure everyone in the environment is safe because ultimately it enhances safety. If that pump were to suddenly have something go wrong, a catastrophic failure and it blows up, it could hurt somebody. But if you have a connected solution where you have a worker that knows everything about that pump; they can take care of any issues that may be happening proactively. It makes for a safer environment and safety is top of mind along with security.

Dylan Lockwood  16:58

Yeah, it makes more sense when you’re dealing with something like utility assets. When it comes to onboarding the technology with the workforce, do you offer any kind of specialized training for that? Or do you help the help your clients set up a system that they can do that themselves? What do you do in terms of getting the workforce accustomed to the technology?

Lonnie Ludwig  17:41

Absolutely, we offer training and a full suite of services. In fact, we have a customer we’re working with right now that already had a Connected Worker solution in place. And they just weren’t utilizing it for a variety of reasons. And those reasons I’ll get into because it really speaks to why the solutions are either adopted or they’re not. But they have engaged with us to just help them deliver services and help adoption within their company. So we’re not actually delivering the solution, it’s already been delivered, it’s already in place. But we’re going to help them make it easier, work better for them and more accepted within their environment. There’s a lot of challenges whenever new technology is introduced into an environment. And especially something as disruptive as a head-mounted compute solution. I talked about this earlier, what we call a quickstart. So it’s a pre sales engagement, where we go through a design-thinking process and help our customers identify what use cases are going to deliver the most immediate benefit, quickest ROI, and value back to the business. Once those are identified, that helps in adoption. When you identify those things and call those out and have that as part of your solution, then it helps with adoption because they can see the benefits spelled out. But also you need to have a champion internally. If you don’t have someone who sees value, a field service person as an example, you can give them the tools, but they’ll leave the head-mounted compute sitting on the seat of their truck. They’ll go out and do things the way they’ve always done in the past. So you need to have those champions and the way we help with establishing those champions is by having them involved in that quickstart process. A lot of times customers will only approach or develop a solution to a problem within the innovation department or a manager who has an initiative, or an executive that has some sort of KPI. But by involving a wide spectrum of individuals in our quickstart process, so an executive management and the actual end user, we get buy-in across the organization. Once the solution is deployed, we already have that champion that’s going to take that solution, and run with it. And when others see the success of that solution, because many times we suggest customers start small, show that that ROI, show that success, and then scale it out from there, and we build it to scale. Once others see the success, once they see that individual being much more efficient with their job, being able to do the same work they’re doing and 1/3 or one quarter of the time, and being able to do it in a much safer manner, and deliver those deficiencies back to the business. Others will want that and be part of that solution. There’s a lot of aspects to it, but finding that champion is one of the the key attributes.

Lonnie Ludwig  21:38

We had a customer where we had the use case fairly well defined, and we went through the Quickstart process. It was around seeing data around an asset and remote mentor for workers in the field; that was the main use case. In this situation, it was an explosive environment, where petrochemicals are being manufactured. And so it required a C1D1 device that wouldn’t explode if there was a spark. Part of the job process was loading chemicals onto a train car. They had a C1D1 camera, a special camera enclosed in an intrinsically safe enclosure, to take pictures for compliance purposes of when that train car was loaded, sealed, locked, and tagged; then the train car could go. Then they’d have to go back to their desktop/laptop, connect the camera and download those pictures. Well, they dropped the camera, and it broke. And so one of the the guy that was responsible for that went to the Vice President of Operations and basically said, I’m sorry but I dropped the camera and it broke, but I saw some other folks using this headset, that has a C1D1 camera on it. Could I borrow that and use that for the procedure of making sure that the train cars are ready to roll out of the yard? She says sure, so he borrowed it and was able to complete the task of taking all the photographs, at one quarter of the time. He had a 400% increase in efficiency of doing that process. And those images were automatically downloaded to his laptop. So suddenly something that would take an hour to do now took maybe 15 minutes. It was a use case or a champion that was born out of a use case that we didn’t originally identify. Now that’s the only way they do compliance for loading of the chemicals into the train cars, by utilizing the head-mounted devices.

Dylan Lockwood  24:20

So we’ve talked about the worker safety aspect, and we’ve talked about the efficiency aspect. The final piece or vital piece of the puzzle is what utilities are talking a lot about these days as they move towards more customer centric models. They’re viewing everything through the lens of so what is the end result for our customers? How are we offering them a better product? So in through that lens, what is the end result for the utility customer when a utility invests in its workforce like this?

Lonnie Ludwig  24:51

Ultimately, it drives down their costs. I mentioned the use case of remote mentor or being able to facilitate a repair in a truck roll. I live in Colorado and sometimes we’ll get fairly severe storms, and many times it will knock out power. Now, with these type of solutions, you can get the power back on in half the time that was taken in the past, because you are able to facilitate a repair more quickly and efficiently. Also, you’re driving down costs by saving on the number of trucks that are rolled into an environment. When the utility saves money, then those savings ultimately are either passed on or they result in more enhanced services for the customers, because they’re able to invest in other areas that make the delivery of natural gas and electricity to the end user better and less expensive. And so, ultimately, the end user or the customer benefits from these types of solutions. Because the utility is benefiting, they’re driving better business value and making themselves a better partner with their customers. When you’re making utility more efficient, economical, and able to keep their workers safer, the end result is always going to be helping to drive down costs. And it helps with engagement with the customers. The latest and greatest technology being invested by the utility goes a long way in that customer service relationship with the end users. Making advancements in technology and trying to enhance and deliver their service in a better, more cost effective way ends up making the customer happier. And a satisfied customers is always what we’re shooting for. Utilities are looking to make their customers happier and better and we’re looking to make utilities, our customers, customers for life because of our service and the solutions we deploy. Ultimately, that’s something about CBT that I’ve always been very proud of, our customers become customers for life. Boeing is an example of a customer of ours. We’ve been around for 20 years and they’ve been a customer of ours for 20 years. We really strive through customer service to have our customers be customers for life. The key is always driving better value to your end user.

Dylan Lockwood  28:39

Do you have any use cases that are specific to the customer?

Lonnie Ludwig  28:49

Like I said, Connected Worker can take many different forms. In the utility space, let’s say there is a repair that has to happen at a customer’s house, for instance a line was cut and needs to be repaired, something happened to the the breaker panel, or maybe ground shifted. Here in Colorado, we have something called bentonite, which is a clay that’s in the soil that can cause the course soil to shift when there is moisture in the soil. And so I’ve heard of situations where lines ended up getting damaged because of shifting of the ground. This makes an onsite repair quicker when you have this type of technology. But we have other technologies that fall on that Connected Worker spectrum, like utilizing a 3D or AR/VR enabled device on a tablet or headset that’s more immersive. With VR enabled, you can access GIS data and other data, which allows utilities see what is buried in the ground. For location services, it requires a variety of tools to locate buried utilities. So if a customer is digging, they don’t hit the utilities. We have technology to help visualize that technology in a very accurate manner. Utilizing those technologies can help make locate at a customer site or help in a repair process. There’s a lot of benefits to the end user in that interaction that may happen at their home or at a business where the utilities are being delivered by a utility company.

Dylan Lockwood  31:13

Well, Lonnie, thank you for that. And thanks for talking about the Connected Worker today. I think it’s really interesting how this is innovating from the ground up, from the line workers to the people out in the field. It’s a really interesting application of these technologies.

Lonnie Ludwig  31:43

We’re seeing more and more directors of innovation within utilities. These are men and women that have a keen sense for what I call the art of the possible. How can we make things better? What technology and innovation can we bring to the company to make things more efficient, cost effective, and safer? It’s an exciting time, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been in the IT industry for almost 30 years, and quite honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had in that whole time. When you’re talking about the art of the possible, many times, you’re dealing with solutions that didn’t even seem possible. For example, enabling a utility worker that is doing maintenance within a nuclear facility that has a heads up on dosimeter readings while they’re inside the the reactor and working to repair something. Instead of having a dosimeter, maybe a clip to their belt that beeps and actually shows real time dosimeter readings on the headset. And that’s something that I didn’t even think about before, so it really is about the art of the possible.

Dylan Lockwood  33:07

Yeah, and I got to imagine the development that utilities now have innovation groups within the organization. That’s been helpful because it eased some of the skepticism or onboarding, and also just the getting feet in the door.

Lonnie Ludwig  33:34

It helps to have that similar mindset of driving, delivering new technology and that art of possible approach: impossible things that we thought weren’t possible. We can now deliver on and help enable workers and the company to deliver things that they never thought could be delivered on. Like I’ve mentioned, the buried utilities, the X ray vision, seeing stuff in the ground, that all drives real value. And that’s one thing that’s cool about these types of solutions, is that they deliver immediate value. I mentioned the truck with the one truck roll or one repair that takes half the amount of time, and you start seeing a return on the ROI (return on investment) immediately.

Dylan Lockwood  34:39

Glad to glad to hear that everyone’s getting on the same page here.

Lonnie Ludwig  34:45

It’s a journey. Many are on that journey further down than others. And the beauty of CBT is that we can help many companies, no matter how far down the path they are.

Dylan Lockwood  35:02

To quote someone, life’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

Lonnie Ludwig  35:24

We went 60 days without an issue. You got to stay on top of your, your game and stay on your toes and constantly deliver value. And many times it’s a thankless job, you know, the utilities, what they deliver is taken for granted. Because they’ve done a pretty good job of it. And so helping them to stay on top of their game and continue to do that. And with aging assets, and also new technologies coming online, it helps to obviously enable that workforce to do that.

Dylan Lockwood  36:27

Lonnie, I really appreciated having you here today. And we hope to hope to talk to you again soon.

Lonnie Ludwig  36:35

Appreciate the time. And don’t forget to reach out to us at cbtechinc.com.

Dylan Lockwood  36:42

And for everyone else, you can find our research and media at zpyrme.com. You can find us on social media at DY Lockwood at zpryme_research, make sure to follow or subscribe to us on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you found us. My name is Dylan and we’ll see you all next time.