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Gwen Chen
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April 25, 2019

Smart Lighting Contractor Builds Custom Apps for Project Management

Demand for energy efficient lighting is expanding across every vertical market, from finance to government to healthcare. The global market for energy efficient lighting is growing at a CAGR of 13.4 percent, and is on track to reach $15 billion by 2024. 

To improve sustainability, cut utility costs and improve operational efficiency, more and more businesses are looking to implement “smart” light emitting diode (LED) systems and controls.

Roadway 2-2Courtesy of Northwest Edison

This means competition is increasing for contractors who design, specify and install lighting and electrical services. There is no shortage of providers in this market, and to stand out and win projects, commercial and industrial lighting contractors must combine superior services with stellar project management capabilities.

Real-time communication, flawless data management, and strong customer support are all necessary to compete in today’s fast-paced, and competitive market. 

Anything less just won’t cut it.

Many contractors who have been in the game for a long time are now reassessing the way that they do business. Increasingly, they are embracing digital transformation and modernizing their processes and workflows.

One such company that recently underwent digital transformation is Northwest Edison, a lighting and electrical contractor serving customers across the western United States.

Northwest Edison, which has been in business since 1993, recently realized that its project management system was in need of a major overhaul. So, the team decided to take action. 

Here’s what happened. 

Challenge: Improving data and project management  

Northwest Edison lacked a centralized “hub” for managing all of its concurrent projects. Up until recently, the company was using a combination of disparate systems including SMS, email, and paper to store and share information and track its workflows. As a result, the company struggled with poor visibility, data silos and a lack of communication.

This was the situation that project engineer Jake Byland walked into when he started working in the company’s office. Byland, who had spent time in Northwest Edison’s warehouse, was attuned to how the lack of cohesion was impacting the business.

“When I started in the office, one of my first jobs was manually entering data that was written down in copy binders,” Byland says, reflecting on the difficult, risky, and time-consuming process. “We knew there had to be a better option.”

As Byland explains, there really was no out-of-box project management solution that could meet the company’s complex needs. Northwest Edison tried several solutions and even worked with a few third-party developers to find a fit.

Nothing, Byland says, came close to what they wanted.

The main feature the team sought in a platform was flexibility. The team needed a solution that could capture all of the nuances of their complex electrical projects.

“No two of our projects are the same, and so finding an off-the-shelf solution that could do everything we needed just didn’t seem realistic,” Byland says.

It wasn’t much easier working with third-party developers, who were often slow with turnarounds.

“We were paying a ton of money [to developers], only to have changes rolled out much later than we needed them,” says Byland.

Solution: AppSheet’s no-code platform

Byland did some online research and discovered AppSheet’s no-code platform—a solution that would enable his team to create project management apps quickly and cost-effectively, without having to leverage third-party developers.

AppSheet turned Byland into a “citizen developer,” or a worker who can design and develop apps without having any coding experience.

To date, Byland has used AppSheet to design and deploy over 50 apps

“The barrier to entry was very low,” says Byland. “It was simple to set up and we have constantly been finding ways to improve it and make our lives easier. There’s been a lot of feature updates from AppSheet that have allowed us to do more and streamline some of our processes.”

Northwest Edison’s apps are used primarily for managing roadside lighting fixtures, projects at schools and universities, and projects on military bases. 

“We have used AppSheet for all sorts of projects,” says Byland. “For example, we just completed a big project that included most of the major state routes in Northwestern Washington and a portion of I-5 out near Olympia. All of it was done through AppSheet.”

Here are some interesting ways the company is benefiting from AppSheet.

Use Case #1: Street lighting project in Oregon

One project that the team is working on is for a large city in Oregon.

This project involves managing about 8,000 street lights. They are a mixture of decorative, acorn-style fixtures, and standard roadside lights.

“Normally, each fixture would just use photocells that are on at night and off during the day,” Byland says. “These particular lights are getting smart controls, so the city can capture significant energy savings by applying dynamic dimming schedules, such that the fixtures only have to use as much energy as is required at that moment. These also give the city visibility on their assets and notify them of outages, knockdowns, or wire theft. The city can also dim the downtown lighting fixtures during a firework show or bring an area to full brightness to assist with emergency response. These controls will also be able to integrate with new technologies in the future."

For tracking and maintenance purposes, the City's Asset Management Software requires each pole, fixture, and control node to have a unique label with a barcode.

This was something that the team was easily able to accomplish using AppSheet’s barcode scanner, which works with a mobile device’s camera.

“Being able to use an iPad’s camera to scan each fixture has saved us a ton of time,” Byland says. “In past projects where we’ve had to do that manually, it’s led to errors and all kinds of issues. So this has been a huge benefit.”

Use Case #2: Large school district in Nevada

Another project that the Northwest Edison team is currently working on is a large school district in Nevada, which has many schools spread across a large geographical area.

School 2

“At each location, the crew basically has to walk into rooms, swap out lights and controls and keep track of how many they have completed,” Byland says. “In some cases, there are audit errors and they are able to catch them and change them in the field. This has been a big advantage for us.”

Using the app, the team can see all locations and lighting fixtures, as well as the status of each one and whether it needs maintenance.

SD Project 1 (1)

In addition to being able to view and edit line items, which contain information about individual lighting fixtures, the app also gives users three “action” buttons.

They include:

  • A gripe log: This enables crew members to pass along information to the audit and design team. In the gripe log, crew members can enter all relevant information, and attach photos. When it’s completed, an email is sent to the design team.
  • Foot candle (FC): Some projects have strict light level requirements, measured in FCs (a non-SI unit of illuminance or light intensity). When the foot candle is illuminated red, a reading is needed for a particular location. When a crew member clicks the button, it pre-loads all relevant information, including the target figure they need to hit and the number of readings that are required.
  • A copy function: Occasionally, an important fixture like an exit sign will get overlooked during a location inspection. Rather than creating a new line item from scratch, crew members can use the “copy” button to copy and edit an existing line item.

Use Case #3: Military installation

Northwest Edison is also managing exterior lighting for a military base in the Pacific Northwest. They have used AppSheet to manage several of its buildings.

In this type of environment, there are many materials to track. Material tracking, Byland says, is something that the team used to struggle with.

Byland made it possible for crew members to receive material on site and scan it into the app.

“In the past, we had to go off site and order the final material and go back on the site, but now thanks to AppSheet, we’re able to anticipate material shortages in advance,” he says. “We can order materials sooner and stay on site throughout a project which means projects can be completed faster.” 

Material Tracking 1 (1)

Here’s what Northwest Edison’s inventory workflow looks like using AppSheet:

  • When an order comes in, it’s updated by a purchasing manager who pre-loads the vendor and PO number into the app.
  • A crew member then receives an item, and enters the item as a new delivery. This contains information such as the date of receival, the person receiving it, and any additional notes they may want to enter. For instance, a crew member can select whether an item is damaged and attach photos if necessary.

Results

As you’ll recall, Northwest Edison’s apps make it very easy for crew members to complete site inspections by allowing them to see individual line items, share information with team members, scan fixtures with barcodes, and more.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that employee feedback about the apps has been very positive.

“At first there was a little bit of pushback,” Byland says. “Everyone was comfortable using paper before. But despite a bit of resistance, we have gotten to the point where everyone sees the benefits both in the office and in the field. They are getting better information and they are able to see visual feedback. Now it’s actually possible to see a project progress, as line items and buildings turn green.”

The company has also seen a big improvement in customer satisfaction, too, as they are now able to share data and project updates with clients.

In the past, the crew had to take half an hour at the end of each shift to count how many fixtures they had installed and type it in an email. Now, they can use the app to pull up a daily report and share it with a client.

That’s something that’s been able to set us apart in some cases,” says Byland. “Being able to do sales presentations and show customers the type of data they receive during a project really helps set us apart. In some cases, we can even show customers energy savings to date. There are different metrics and dashboards that are very helpful.”

Byland’s favorite AppSheet feature is the dashboard function.

I’m a big fan of dashboards,” says Byland. “Especially when you turn them on interactive mode, you can set filters and this is especially useful when you have a map. With a dashboard, I can look at a particular crew and see all of their buildings on a map as well as any issues related to them. There is a lot of neat functionality you can create with this.”

Jake Working on Apps 2-1Byland working on an app.

Looking forward

Right now, the team is in the process of migrating its data to a centralized server. The team hopes to further streamline project management by combining audit data with installation data.

“The tools we are currently using for auditing are all stored locally on the device. Data has to be uploaded, downloaded, restructured, and put into our spreadsheet—it’s not directly connected.”

Moving forward, all photos and data will be easily accessible to an installation crew.

“AppSheet has already saved us a significant amount of time while providing us with better data management,” says Byland. “But once we make the jump to a centralized server and are using AppSheet for the audit as well as the installation, the benefit will be incredibly significant for us as a company.”

AppSheet also recently added the ability to upload a floor plan, which is something that the team intends to take advantage of. Instead of working line by line, crew members will be looking at a map and seeing a visual representation of what’s where, with icons indicating what’s completed, remaining issues, and so on.

“AppSheet, moving forward, will be an integral part of our company,” says Byland. “More and more processes will be put on the platform.”


 Learn how other organizations are using AppSheet to get more done more effectively:

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