Smart Grid

How digital enterprise asset management ups the game on reliability

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A young Midwestern repair technician is suspended 100 feet in the air repairing a high voltage tower when he realizes he needs some expert guidance. Luckily, he is wearing his high-tech smart glasses, and without using his hands, he is able to connect with a utility veteran, now semi-retired and on a beach in Florida.

The glasses let the expert in Florida look “over the shoulder” of the repair technician — as if he were there himself. The expert sees exactly what the technician is looking at, and he can tell the technician what needs to be done. It’s on-the-job training for the new hire. And for the utility, it’s almost like the veteran still works onsite. Digital technology has removed the barrier of distance to make the repair process more efficient.

What gives utilities this kind of new technological skill? Paul Ashwood, global portfolio marketing executive for Virginia-based DXC Technology, says it’s the increasingly sophisticated ability to apply digital technology to the physical world. This is key to the work of DXC, an IT services company that specializes in next generation enterprise asset management solutions, and the efficient management of physical assets over their lifecycle.

Working with a digital twin

“The technician can see the piece of equipment, and he can also see a digital footprint overlaid on top of it — we call this a digital twin. It provides him with real time temperature readings and pressure readings while looking directly at the piece of equipment. He can see that there are alarms going off that could cause the equipment to fail if he does not take immediate action,” Ashwood said.

The digital overlay helps the utility industry overcome a key problem: its aging and retiring workforce. A 2017 estimate by the U.S. Department of Energy found that 25% of electric and natural gas utility employees will be at retirement age within five years. Adept with technology, the younger worker now has a way to tap into a veteran expert’s knowledge, without requiring that both be in the same place at the same time.

“The digital world overlaid on the physical world helps utilities accomplish their mission while saving money,” Ashwood said. “DXC provides sophisticated software technology that allows them to monitor asset performance and improve availability and reliability using remote visual guidance from an expert when needed.”

Such efficiency is increasingly crucial as the U.S. utility industry faces the daunting task of updating and maintaining a grid built in the 1950-60s. Much of the electric transmission and distribution system in the U.S. exceeds its 50-year life expectancy, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Without these new digital technologies, “you might have to sit there and wait for the senior technician to drive on out to the location, to come help you. So, several hours go by. Here, we can get things resolved a lot quicker,” Ashwood said. “There's also the safety aspect of not trying to be 100 feet up a tower holding onto a mobile phone while repairing a piece of equipment.”

The supervisor, wherever his or her location may be, can advise several crews at the point of service using centralized IT mobile work order management and visual remote guidance using hands-free technology like smart glasses.

Predictive versus preventive

Utilities can also benefit from DXC analytics services that use artificial intelligence to spot potential problems and predict failures before they affect equipment performance. Technology like analytics and drones enable inspections to be routinely performed using high definition cameras, temperature sensors, and even thermal imaging to inspect equipment and identify, for example, hot spots that indicate the equipment is approaching a point of failure.

“Instead of a person having to sit there and watch the video feed, you're actually using the analytics system to recognize that, okay, here's an object with a crack in it, that's a problem. You're using artificial intelligence to find those things and find them a lot faster,” he said.

Such intelligence allows the utility to pursue predictive rather than just preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance tries to prevent breakages by maintaining equipment on a predetermined schedule. In contrast, predictive maintenance monitors sensors and other data feeds in real time, and can interpret the data to predict when a piece of equipment should be repaired or replaced before it malfunctions.

“In a preventive world, you're going out, you're doing regular maintenance, regular inspections at a predefined time. In the predictive world, you're actually using data from the equipment to say, ‘Hey, the heat level in this piece of equipment is running hotter than it normally runs. Or, the vibration level is higher than it normally is. Or, the pressure is running higher than it normally is,’” Ashwood said.

This integration of the digital and physical worlds is enterprise asset management at its best, according to Ashwood. It helps utilities avoid unplanned equipment downtime that causes longer outages, lost revenue, increased risk, and a loss of performance of company assets.

“Ultimately, any form of downtime in that equipment is going to cause service disruptions, which leads to a negative customer experience of being without power,” he said.

The edge on reliability

Critical to predictive maintenance is the concept of connected asset lifecycle management, Ashwood added. The approach integrates asset and workforce management using a software solution referred to as a computerized maintenance management system.

As an enterprise asset management technology, CMMS helps the utility get ahead of issues tied to performance, availability, and reliability of critical assets. It tracks physical assets within the utility service territory — their location and what operations need to be performed on what equipment and how often.

“Motors, valves, every piece of equipment that goes from the power plant, through all the high voltage transmission lines, out through the distribution of power to the house — CMMS keeps a record of every piece of equipment in that network,” Ashwood said.

The CMMS can also automatically generate management work orders, a valuable feature given that utility service territories tend to be geographically dispersed. Utilities may have to cover several hundred square miles of transmission lines, with repair technicians out in remote locations. Equipment and lines may even be underground and hard to locate.

“That's where we start to get into aspects of the CMMS solution around work order management, and geospatial work management,” Ashwood said.

Workers may be tackling one problem in the field when suddenly they get word of another. There is no time to head the miles back to headquarters to pick up a new work order. Having access to the information needed to complete a work order out in the field, at the point of service is critical the efficiency of maintenance operations.

“In some cases, you get these emergency work orders — customers are without power. You need to isolate the problem. You might have to shut off certain sections of the network to go make the repair. Having an accurate geospatial view of the complete power network helps you make those decisions about where to shut off and repair to impact the least number of customers,” he said.

It’s about the customer

When a utility starts to move up the technology maturity curve and use these technologies, it improves efficiency, which can reduce asset costs by 10% over their life, increase technician performance up to 25%, and reduce maintenance costs by as much as 30%, according to Ashwood.

Most important, use of advanced enterprise asset management solutions makes for a happier utility customer, according to Ashwood.

“Everybody is playing their part in making sure that people are safe, that power is delivered, that there's minimal downtime. At the end what DXC does is provide next generation enterprise asset management solutions using digital technologies to maintain equipment more effectively. In doing so, we see less disruptions of service that ultimately delivers a better experience for the customer.”

For more information about DXC’s next generation enterprise asset management solutions, visit the company’s website.

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