Friday, July 27, 2007

AM/FM -- Has Its Time Finally Arrived? (01apr97)

April 1, 1997

AM/FM International recently held its 20th annual convention in Nashville, TN. Nearly 3,000 users and vendors showed up to see and discuss the latest trends in automated mapping and facility management (AM/FM), primarily within the electric, gas and telephone utility industries. Prior to acquiring A-E-C Automation Newsletter in late 1996, I had been away from the AM/FM area for a number of years. With a fresh set of eyes, perhaps I am more optimistic than some of the longer term industry observers, but I believe that this business is ready to explode.

So what is happening to cause optimism this time around when AM/FM has failed to live up to industry expectations in the past?

  • It works – Let’s face it, AM/FM software and related GIS (Geographic Information System) tools are complex technologies and it has taken developers in this industry a while to get it right. Based upon what we saw and heard in Nashville, it appears that the majority of commercial systems currently available do the basics quite well and provide adequate platforms for implementing specialized solutions. There are numerous examples where these systems have saved utilities considerable amounts of money in operating their facilities, either through discovering problems before they occur, improving work schedules or managing disaster recovery. Utilities are finally starting to realize that they can not continue to operate with 100-year-old paper documents.
  • Development effort is manageable – A few years ago, application developers spent the vast majority of their time, perhaps as much as 80%, creating a software foundation upon which to build AM/FM solutions. This left very little time to actually solve AM/FM-specific problems. Today, most of the basic housekeeping functions (file management, memory management, display drivers, menu management, data base management, program control, data exchange, etc.) are handled by operating systems or standard commercially-available software components. Now the developers can concentrate on real solutions, not the underlying foundation software.
  • System installation takes less effort – During the early days of AM/FM, everything was new and most utilities were installing interactive systems and database-oriented solutions for the first time. If you wanted to integrated several different computer systems, it typically required a substantial programming effort. Now, if you want to link PCs to UNIX workstations and Macintoshes, Internet technology makes it a relatively simple task. Building databases is still a major task, but a substantial amount of information is available from government sources or at moderate cost from commercial organizations, helping to jump start the installation process.
  • Success builds on success – For years, we have been hearing about installations that never seem to get beyond the pilot stage. We call them "career pilots" for obvious reasons. But as utility after utility gets beyond the pilot stage and starts to show viable results, the word gets around. Utility executives talk to each other, and when they see what others in the industry are accomplishing, they start to demand similar results from their own organizations.
  • Users becoming experienced – Implementing an AM/FM system is a complex task, particularly if you have never done it before. The utilities are starting to develop a group of individuals who are good at doing this, and some of them have done it more than once. As utilities increasingly recognize the value of these systems, they are going to actively recruit experienced individuals who can help them accelerate the process.
  • Lower costs – Just a few years ago, an AM/FM system required expensive UNIX workstations on everyone’s desktop along with expensive client software. Most vendors are moving rapidly to a system architecture where many inquiry functions can be handled with a PC and software no more complex than an Internet browser. The price of data storage has dropped by an order of magnitude in just a few years and it no longer requires a $10 million mainframe to handle a 20 GB database.
  • Deregulation – All of the technology issues above pale compared to the impact that deregulation will have on utilities. When competitors start taking away your customer base, management suddenly becomes very concerned about running a more efficient operation. One way to do this is to take control of the utility’s infrastructure and manage those assets more effectively. Users tell us that their companies often grossly underestimated the value of their physical assets prior to installing an AM/FM system. One danger is that deregulated utilities will focus on short-term profits rather than making necessary investments for the future. We expect, however, that there will be more executives who will see these systems as a strategic tool rather than just a short-term way to save costs.

New Products And Business Relationships

A number of vendors demonstrated new software products or announced new business relationships in Nashville. Probably the most significant development was Autodesk’s unveiling of a suite of three new or updated mapping packages. Leading the way was AutoCAD Map 2.0 which takes advantage of AutoCAD Release 14 to provide significantly improved performance as well as new functionality. Autodesk World functions independently of AutoCAD and is intended to be used by individuals who need access to a variety of map information resources. An example would be viewing Intergraph FRAMME data overlaid on a satellite image processed with ER Mapper. The third part of this triad is Autodesk MapGuide which enables users to ask map information through a standard Internet browser. These products are reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

NetSpace, the wholly owned GIS subsidiary of Bentley Systems made a major splash in its first significant public showing. To clarify the situation, NetSpace has the responsibility to go after major AM/FM/GIS accounts directly while Bentley will pursue smaller opportunities using its existing reseller organization and other third-party software products. NetSpace demonstrated two new applications built on top of Bentley’s MicroStation GeoGraphics, ESpace and GSpace for electric and gas utilities, respectively. These packages follow Bentley’s three-tier concept; a thin client, an application server and a database server. More about this strategy in a upcoming issue.

We are starting to see increased use of portable computers used by field work forces. These range from standard notebook machines to rugardized hardware with specialized software. PAD Systems demonstrated its Field Pad software capable of handling 80 different types of work orders using Microsoft’s Pen For Windows operating system. The company said that it would be supporting wireless communications come summer. GeoResearch markets portable computers that incorporate GPS location capability. They described one installation where Allegany Power was acquiring 560,000 pole locations in less than 12 months for input into a Smallworld system.

Enghouse Systems announced several new agreements with IBM Japan and indicated that the company would make several major announcements in coming months. ESRI made a number of announcements at the conference. It is taking over Convergent Technology’s GDS public sector accounts. ESRI also has an agreement with Lieca for that company to integrate ESRI software into its surveying systems and for ERDAS to merge image analysis software with ArcView. ESRI software and services business grew by 17% in 1996 to $200 million. The company has 250,000 seats installed including 100,000 ArcView 3 licenses shipped in 1996.

We had lunch with Dr. Edward Boyle, the head of Intergraph’s Infrastructure/Utilities Division. With companies such as GDS, IBM and Synercom dropping out of the AM/FM market, Dr. Boyle believes that one of Intergraph’s major strengths is its proven staying power in a market where systems can take years to completely implement. It is interesting to note that although Intergraph as a company had lower revenues last year, this area grew by 19% to $180 million in software alone and by 20% to $572 million including services and hardware. Intergraph is pushing its GeoMedia package which handles data from multiple map sources for analysis and viewing. We were particularly impressed by a site selection application Detroit Edison built on top of their Intergraph software. Not only did it appear to be extremely easy to use, but the developer said it only took him 80 hours to put it together.

Smallworld announced that it had signed up 30 new user organization in North America during the past year including American Electric Power, BC Hydro, BellSouth and Tacoma City Light. To support its growing group of users the company also announced that it will begin proving a 24x7 service option to its users. Smallworld also explained that its agreement with Convergent involved eight utility GDS customers. Byers Engineering described its latest object-oriented SpatialAge package and mentioned that the company has 200 companies using the first two versions of this software.