Post - Blog

Energy companies can't afford not to be digitalized any more

  • 4 years ago (2018-05-29)
  • Junior Isles
Digitalisation 9
John Nixon

By John Nixon, Senior Director Energy and Utilities at Siemens PLM Software

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If you had to provide the documentation for any construction that your company has worked on, could you do it in 24 hours or would you be stuck paying daily fines until you could deliver what regulators say you should have on hand at a moment’s notice?

Or say it’s 18 hours before the surprise safety inspection on a high-pressure boiler system and the project lead asks the team responsible for the design and installation of the system for the records that will let them prove to the inspector that every pipe and component was installed correctly and safely. Do they get a 250-page PDF that they have to spend the night poring over to get up to speed and make sure the project isn’t shut down, or does your business have a digital twin that guided the installation, that’s been continually updated during construction and that accurately shows the specification, history and current state of every part of the system?

In the energy and utility world, the new normal seems to be prolonged lower prices, with revenue and margins going down even as supply increases, ever more regulatory pressure and the need to clearly show social responsibility, all while building ever more complex and demanding projects. The majority of projects are over budget and behind schedule, making it impossible to run a business efficiently.

Neither skill and experience nor the familiar paper-based approach to documentation are enough to help companies thrive in the face of these challenges. What’s needed is a data-driven approach that covers every aspect and process involved in bringing assets into the market, creating a truly digital enterprise. To get that, you need a digital thread that runs right through your organisation, covering design and operations – and you’ll find that digitalization will pay dividends in other areas of your business as well.

The digital thread joins together teams and processes that haven’t been connected before. Having tools that support an integrated, cross discipline environment avoids inefficiency during the design process, and getting different teams and disciplines to work together in a common environment with integrated change management rather than in process siloes reduces errors and omissions through design, planning, construction to operating, improving and maintaining assets thought a constant service lifecycle.

One significant cost that’s rarely budgeted is for is transitions between teams. Once a high-pressure steam supply system has been installed, the commissioning team moves in to fire up the boiler for the first time. But before they do that, they go back and resurvey the work that’s been done, because they’re working with flammable liquids at high pressure where a failure can be dangerous or deadly. It’s understandable that they don’t want to trust their lives to the documents and updated drawings passed on by the installation team; a digital twin that gives the team you hand over to data, not just documents can help them have confidence that what they see in the field matches what should have been done, cutting down on those transition costs.

Once equipment is in the field, you need to know how long it will last and when it needs maintenance and eventually replacement. Experience, gut feel and spreadsheets of readings from periodic inspections can only give you a rough estimate but using simulations verified with operating data from sensors to predict, simulate and monitor the impact of, say, corrosion propagation for an asset produces a far more precise prediction of the remaining life of that asset. Equipment is designed to handle changes in the environment, but tracking the temperature, barometric pressure, vibration, acoustics and other operating parameters lets you see exactly how it’s responding to those changes.

When you accurately predict the remaining life of those assets you don’t have to overprovision and waste money by replacing equipment sooner than necessary, and you avoid the cost of dealing with unexpected failures. Predictive maintenance helps you handle problems before they happen and when something does go wrong you’ve got detailed information to understand what the issue is and how you need to tackle it. A paper binder of specifications - that might not even be available because someone took it home to update it - is never going to give you the live information that helps you decide when you need to push the button to shut down a whole facility and when you can safely work around a partial failure.

New technologies simplify bringing the digital twin to the work site. Augmented reality devices and mobile tools let you close the loop with on-site guidance for inspection and maintenance crews, showing them the information they need about assets and procedures while they’re working with them – and making sure the information gets updated in real time as they check seals and tighten bolts, so it’s always accurate and up to date.

Design for the future

Businesses in every industry need to do more with less, and with a smaller footprint – producing more products while consuming less energy and producing less waste. Regulation and the pressure to demonstrate social responsibility make this particularly acute for the energy and utility sector and there’s significant value in making processes faster, simpler, more cost effective or more energy efficient. Moving to modular design and construction that means more of the work can be done in advance in a controlled environment, meaning less time spent finalising projects in unpredictable, uncontrollable field environments where you’re subject to weather and other natural forces.

This process intensification and modularisation can reduce costs, improve safety and increase efficiency but it takes planning and investment. Whether your business is investing in the future with new developments or the pressures on the industry mean you need to protect the margins and profitability of existing operations through efficiency, optimisation and re-use, take advantage of the need to redesign your processes by using design optimisation to create a basket of optimal solutions, not a single approach. Instead of carrying on producing the same pieces of equipment with the same choices and trade-offs, rethink the way you approach design and development to take a more data-driven approach.

There’s a cost to digitalization across every area of your business, from planning and design to construction, installation and maintenance.  However, there’s also an enormous return on that investment when you evolve from being a document based organization to a data centric one – and an even higher cost if your organization cannot make the transition.