Digital drawings work wonders for Welland Hydro

Hand drawn engineering blueprints can be a pain when trying to manage hydro needs of a growing city.Welland Hydro Electric System Corp. felt this problem very keenly. The company serves Welland in Southern Ontario, a municipality of more than 50,000 people.

The firm has more than a thousand drawings dating back to the 1940s. For hydro workers, having to rely on these archaic, paper sketches when doing repair or maintenance work was a laborious process.

So Welland Hydro came up with a smart and timely solution.

It is converting these drawings into digital images that workers can workers can access on laptops and mobile devices.

To accomplish this, the firm used Topobase, a geographic information system (GIS)-enabled tool and AutoCAD 2D modeling software from Autodesk.

When fully implemented this summer, the project will eliminate redundancy in many of the department’s processes, according to Tom Wilga, GIS coordinator and inspector for Welland Hydro.

“As it is, we waste a lot of time and resources printing and reprinting maps and drawings each time some change or repair on the grid needs to be done,” Wilga told ITBusiness.ca.

Digitally embedding relevant information and spatial capabilities into the maps and diagram will improve coordination between various departments and boost the effectiveness of work teams, he said.

Bound by binders

Welland Hydro is responsible for safe delivery of electricity to homes and businesses in the city. The organization also handles maintenance of the local electric distribution system.

Assets its staff look after include around 1,000 hydro poles and 4,000 transformers. Updates, changes to the system and orders for repairs or extension of services come in daily, according to Wilga.

In 2005, Welland Hydro began using AutoCAD to digitize maps and drawings.

However the organization still has thousands of hard copy blueprints and maps dating back to the 1940s and 50s that have not yet been converted to digital form and cause a lot of problems.

“We have one system with everything on it. If you need to refer to a certain diagram you need to go to the office and look up one of the six binders that contain the hard copy drawings,” Wilga said.

Any alterations to the grid or hydro assets are added on to the binders. When work has to be done copies of the relevant binder pages are printed out and distributed to concerned departments and assigned technicians.

Just to locate, collect and distribute required data for adding hydro installations within a subdivision of 50 houses could take as long as a day, Wilga said.

Getting Topobase up and running

By summer this year, Wilga anticipates there will be no need for the binders. He’s hoping the drawings will be converted to digital form in AutoCAD.

Wilga envisions department managers getting project updates on their computer screens, field technicians viewing work orders, and diagrams on laptops or other mobile devices.

“Once in AutoCAD, we can make updates to maps and diagrams faster. We can distribute data quicker to people’s desktops, laptops and perhaps, in the near future, to their smart phones as well,” he said.

Welland Hydro will always have a need for some form of print material but Wilga said going digital can shave as much as three-fourths of time spent on reproduction.

Greater productivity will also be realized by consolidating disparate pieces of information into the drawings with the use of Topobase, he said.

The software integrates infrastructure design and management.

For instance, a diagram of a hydro installation for a subdivision being viewed from a computer screen can contain GIS-enabled elements which reveal their exact location.

By linking this to a proprietary geo location tool or even apps such as Google Earth or Google Maps, workers can improve the accuracy in locating assets that need to be repaired even if they are buried under ground.

Using a single view, Wilga said, workers can also determine other information relevant to an object their need to work on.

For example the digital diagram of transformer can contain specs for components used on that asset or even a record of previous work done on the transformer.

GIS elsewhere

Many other Canadian municipalities have started using GIS tools.

For example, the city of Kitchener is using a GIS and business intelligence mash-up to manage its utilities.

Typically, city workers called to do a water pipe repair would need to gather maps, schematics and other data, covering details such as pipe location, building and street plans, according to Jeff Ham, manager, database administration and GIS for Kitchener.

“It takes about three days for the workers involved to go through disparate computer files, make requests and obtain hard copy documents,” he said.

With the rollout of a GIS system from ESRI Canada, the city has been able to store all pertinent data including location-based coordinates of city assets in a single database that can be accessed online.

The system also includes a financial component that keeps track of internal and external billing as well as compensation expenses for workers.

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