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Collecting data automatically saves time and money

Not that long ago, getting vital data from plant and machinery was something that a company employee had to collect physically. Go to the physical location, take the reading on a form, or hit numbers on a handheld device, crunch data, and voilà – the maintenance managers and plant engineers could make decisions. However, it was time consuming and couldn’t be done frequently enough.

Australia has one major drawback in this regard, especially in some of its primary industries such as mining and gas – the huge distances between each site. Australia’s geography is not going to change in the next few million years, but as the majority of easy-to-access mine sites become spent, the distances between hard-to-access sites becomes bigger. What is a cost-effective way of collecting data? In a word – digitisation.

“Traditionally, people used to go into the plant and manually collect data,” said Jonas Berge, director of applied technology for Emerson Automation Solutions, a company that specialises in products and services for Australia’s industrial sector. “Australia is a really huge place. The gas fields are way out in the outback. In the past, companies had to send not one, but two persons to drive all the way to the gas plant where the chromatographs are. You can’t send one person because if one person is down you need a second person to help them. Periodically, checking on gas chromagraphs was a costly affair. If they were not working, then they could be mismatched and it would cost companies time and money. Digitisation has changed all of this.”

Royal Dutch Shell’s Prelude floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) facility is situated off the coast of Broome in Western Australia. It is monitored from Perth, and Berge says that it is a prime example of digital transformation. People who are responsible for monitoring plant and making sure everything is running smoothly can go home to their families at night, rather than spending time away. Again, in the long run, this also leads to cost savings for Shell in terms of travel costs, hotels and downtime when staff are travelling. This doesn’t mean that there are not issues that arise. Berge says there are.

“There are a few questions that always come up,” he says. “For instance, what about security, data etc? People ask if they can control plant over the internet. We don’t do control or safety over the internet. That is still done within the plant itself – all the real time functions are inside the plant. If anything is done across the internet it is more about supporting, maintenance and the energy efficiency piece of operation certainty.”
Then there is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Berge says Emerson believes in harnessing the power of the IIoT because it is a function that is designed to improve the operation of a plant. The company plans to transform plants into what Berge calls top quartile plants. And by top quartile he is talking about improving the performance of the plant, not its financial or product turnover. It also shows how they manage their maintenance schedule.

“A top quartile performing plant has four per cent higher uptime than an average performing plant,” he says. “Four per cent of one year is roughly two weeks. They have two more weeks of production, which means two more weeks of revenue. This is a very significant improvement in performance. It means they have lower maintenance costs because of the way we use analytics and diagnostics to avoid equipment failure and extensive repairs.”

Berge says that Emerson is also keen to develop applications for equipment analytics, which is all about diagnostics for the end users of devices for the different industries.
“Your reliability engineers and maintenance engineers are not data scientists or mathematicians but they are the ultimate end users of these analytics,” says Berge. “To them it is equipment diagnostics. We are merging these analytics technology with human design centred principles and we are creating built-for-purpose analytics apps. It’s like the smartphone concept. We have apps for pumps and apps for heat exchangers for steam traps and so on.”

More importantly, Berge believes that one of the key requirements that Emerson brings to the table is ease of use. He says for too long some companies that can provide similar information are not thinking of the end user. And this can be an issue for many people onsite at a plant. It is a key point that he thinks a lot of people at the coalface of plants are looking for and is easily obtained.

“The data analytics and all that complexity has to be hidden from the end user,” he said. “Those 3D scatter plots and all the other fancy looking graphs are eye candy. It looks great but requires a lot of interpretation. A lot of people can’t do it, so in the end it’s not helpful. What maintenance technicians and engineers really need is plain text, actionable information that tells them ‘hey this is the problem with the pump, and this is what you have to do’. That is what we are doing by bringing these technologies together. Once the technology couldn’t do it, but bring it all together it works.”

His main fear is that, if providers of these types of services make things too convoluted and don’t start thinking more about the needs of the end-user instead of what is good for the provider’s own bottom line, then it will not end well for either party. He’s also concerned that not only is there a risk that some companies will not adopt technologies that help move industries forward, but that they will get left behind as competitors start taking advantage of these new methods.

“If it is too complicated, it will become a white elephant that sits in the corner collecting dust,” he said. “People will still go about doing things they’ve always done. If operations complain I put on my hard hat and boots and take a look at it. But if it is easy to use and is accessible on your smartphone or tablet, you can bring up this information and check on it as you go. All of that helps the adoption. It helps the digital transformation of how you help and run the plant.”

And that is Berge and Emerson’s main push – digitisation. He knows he won’t convert everybody – some people are just stuck in their ways. But he is positive that it won’t be long before most companies embrace digitisation more out of necessity than anything.

“On the internet and LinkedIn discussions, sometimes you find naysayers about the digitisation but in general they are positive,” he said. “People have challenges with many of these things. They have KPIs to meet and they are looking for new tools to achieve it. Everybody is short of time and if you can find a way to do things quicker, those are the kind of tools you want.”

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