Don’t work harder; work smarter. This old adage is taking on new significance as digitalisation transforms our economies. Today, we stand at the precipice of a global productivity revolution and the watchword of this will be: “work smarter.”
Yet, while this transformation will free us from a great deal of wasted time, it will also require us to change the energy industry. In the future, we will all be required to learn new skills and change the way we work – quite fundamentally – to adapt to this emerging reality.
This requires workforces to change their cultures and mindsets, while also learning new ways of working. This is no small task. Yet it is vital, because those who succeed will find themselves at a competitive advantage.
Digital applications in energy have the potential to transform the sector, by delivering greater efficiency throughout the entire supply chain, by revolutionising companies’ relationships with their customers, and by unlocking the potential for deep decarbonisation through automating flexibility to match production patterns of renewable energy.
The earliest digital breakthroughs are in predictive asset maintenance, improved forecasting and real-time monitoring, and digital tools that aim to attract and retain customers. Drones and UAVs for remote inspections, as well as process mining and text mining are also helping to improve efficiency. Digital twins allow ‘what-if’ and predictive analysis to be performed on virtual representations of physical assets. Artificial intelligence is unlocking value almost everywhere it is applied.
So, while this revolution will be full of opportunity, we must ask ourselves some tough questions: What does the future look like? How do companies ensure they have the right structure and skills to lead this change? And what does the company of the future look like?
While still a nascent technology, predictive asset maintenance is becoming one of the more mature digital technologies in the energy sector – and it tells us important things about the changes to come. Today, predictive maintenance is at the cutting edge, but tomorrow it will be part of a much bigger system. We are still at the cusp of what the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can do.
The guiding star for all ‘industry 4.0’ technologies will be data. The data that these IIoT sensors gather will enable companies to identify and resolve problems remotely, allow engineers to deploy their time more efficiently and, eventually, machine learning might help plants automate simple engineering jobs. It will also allow plant owners to gain insights into their own operations and identify how assets can be used more productively. Energy companies are still only at an early stage in exploiting digital technologies and data streams, such as machine learning applied to rich data sources.
However, this future is not yet here. To reach this point, we need better access to clean, accessible data streams and we need to better identify where to focus our efforts. We also need to get around practical barriers like the interoperability of these sensors. Although the limits are expanding fast, constraints on processing power, data storage and algorithms mean that the 80:20 rule still applies to data analytics.
It is these practical considerations that led Pöyry to co-develop Krti 4.0, a machine learning predictive maintenance framework that works across different kinds of sensors. It begins with prioritisation using Pöyry’s RAMS (Reliability, Availability, Maintainability, Safety) methodology, to assess and prioritise the most relevant potential causes of failure.
Tomorrow’s barriers will be the evolving relationship between humans and machines: we must learn when to trust machine decisions, how to monitor and when to take back control, and how to augment machine learning with humans’ experience and knowledge from beyond the data. For policymakers, it may also require changes to the way with think about regulation, as the lines blur between utilities and tech companies.
Adapting for change
Yet for all of this, the biggest barrier will be ourselves. Today’s engineers have learned their trade in the last few decades, yet the skills required of them will change in the coming ones. In an interconnected, data-driven world, engineers will find they are required to be software and hardware engineers, and even drone operators, as much as they are required to be power engineers. Knowledge and information will be treated as a precious company resource and will be managed and maintained.
This will require cultural transformation. Companies that adopt a forward-looking and nimble posture will steal a march over companies that are slower to adapt. The Silicon Valley ‘move fast and break things’ mentality might seem anathema to engineers who have grown up in a world of careful design and planning, but just as tech start-ups are currently challenging the status quo in the transport and retail industries, they will challenge engineering too.
Another challenge is to develop digital solutions within a strategic plan, so that data sources are carefully consolidated, and synergies are fully exploited.
Finally, in this fast-paced world, companies that do get first mover advantage must not rest on their laurels, lest the advanced technology of today become the legacy system of tomorrow.
All of this means those of us who are working in the energy sector can no longer consider ourselves discrete from technology experts. We must understand both worlds. Companies and their people must now start planning to become digital-first. This is about weaving digital into the fabric of what we do – not simply as something that is bolted on.
What’s more is that this revolution is happening hand in hand with another one – decarbonisation. This will be complemented by the digital one. It will be digital technologies that facilitate decentralised generation, load balancing and demand-response. Traders are already using AI based forecasting and algorithmic trading to help them get ahead of their competition in energy markets, and digital tools are being used to help companies attract and retain customers.
It is this final element which makes the revolution inevitable. The energy industry simply will not continue as it is. As we’ve learned by speaking to clients through our own digital readiness service, change is often unsettling – even for those who understand it best – but it is happening, whether we like it or not.
If you haven’t started the journey to a digital future yet – start today.