Published on in Energy & UtilitiesDigital Transformation

Utility companies provide a critical service to the community.

Imagine being without heating, water or energy during those winter months. And the repair services they provide are vital to all of us, especially the most vulnerable members of our society.

But think back to the last time you had an issue or breakdown – were you offered an appointment which suited you?

Or did you have to take time off work or cancel other plans?  Did the engineer bring the right parts and resolve the problem first time?

I’m highlighting the complex task of scheduling and parts distribution – making sure the right engineers are at the right place at the right time.

Utilities companies must find a way through this complexity if they want to secure customer satisfaction – and minimise the cost of delays.

And this is where quantum-inspired technology comes in.

The scope of the problem

When you’re building a timetable for engineers on a national scale, it can get really complicated really fast. That’s because there’re many different factors you need to consider:

  • Locations: Where is the engineer based? How long will they have to travel to get to their jobs? What’s the best route between each job given traffic and other journey conditions? And how do you ensure that at the end of the day, drivers are near their respective homes?
  • Skillset: Is the engineer qualified to deal with that customer’s specific problem?
  • Hours: Employees are contracted for varying number of hours. Some work weekends, some might like overtime, and all of them need breaks. How do you work these considerations into the timetable?
  • Parts: Does the engineer have the right equipment to perform the fix the customer needs? Because if they don’t, you’ll need to send a different engineer on a different day.

And as we move into the future, new considerations will also emerge. For example, electric vehicles may limit distances, as engineers will only be able to travel so far on one charge.

So, scheduling and part logistics can be a mammoth task. And the solutions available today really aren’t that effective.

That’s because this is a combinatorial problem, with tens of billions of possible solutions. To solve these kinds of optimisation problems, you need an incredibly fast and powerful computer – like a quantum computer.

However, quantum’s just not at a stage where it’s fully workable for businesses.

But we can borrow aspects of quantum to solve these problems today.

This is what we call ‘quantum-inspired’ technology, and at Fujitsu, we’ve developed a quantum-inspired solution called the Digital Annealer.

Solving the combinatorial challenge at lightning-fast speeds

The Digital Annealer takes a different approach to answering complex, combinatorial problems. It ‘rules in’ and ‘rules out’ to get close to the answer very quickly.

And speed is key – especially when you’ve engineers on the road and need to adapt to new developments in real time.

Imagine one of your vehicles has a breakdown, and that engineer is stuck for two hours.

You’ll need to re-write the entire days’ timetable for potentially all your drivers, as quickly as possible. In this situation, the Digital Annealer becomes very useful. You can simply plug in the new information, and it will deliver the optimum rearrangement.

It can also be used to optimise the stock contained in each van to maximise the chances of a first-time fix. Should a different part or skillset be required, other engineers in the vicinity can be dynamically assigned to avoid a second visit and customer inconvenience.

With the Digital Annealer, these changes will take minutes, if not seconds. Normally, with conventional computing, these kinds of changes would’ve taken hours or days.

Speeding up this process allows for you to cope with unexpected circumstances, while also helping you give more freedom to your engineers when they want it.

The possibilities are endless

It’s clear that quantum-inspired tech can make a big difference to the utilities sector.

Because it starts by solving one of the industry’s biggest problems.

But it can do more so much more.

The Digital Annealer can help utilities organisations with production planning.

Pumping and distributing water around a network is a delicate act. You walk a fine line between either placing the system under too much pressure, or not moving enough through to meet demand. The Digital Annealer can help optimise this process.

It’s also very valuable when it comes to energy distribution – you can make better decisions about when to switch on a customer’s appliance or charge a car based on the availability of local, renewable power.

And there’s more, as my colleague Walter Graf explores in his excellent blog post about the uses of the Digital Annealer in the manufacturing sector.

A solution tailor-made for utilities 

Ultimately, the Digital Annealer has the potential to solve any number of challenges for utilities organisations.

It was built to solve complex combinatorial challenges – which are abound in a sector full of complexities and moving parts.

So, quantum-inspired technology is utilities’ new best friend.

And it’s down to utility companies to act now to incorporate quantum-inspired tech into their organisation.

Or they’ll face the same fate as their customers – hanging on to a missed opportunity.

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