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Asset optimization – it’s all about information

Bob Aldridge of Aveva Plant explains how product lifecycle information management tools can ” and should ” be used to optimize business processes in the power industry.


Bob Aldridge, Aveva, UK


Figure 1. A ‘digital workpack’ view in Aveva Net. Hotspots are links to relevant associated information. Technology like this enables the rapid compilation of accurate and complete work packs that are easy to use and share, whether for scheduled tasks or for rapid response to unplanned outage

There is a very old joke about the television repairman who charged $50 for just giving a faulty set a thump. When challenged about the bill he explained that the thump only cost $1, but the $49 was for knowing how and where to thump it. Asset optimization is very similar; the physical tasks are often relatively simple but the real value lies in knowing exactly what to do, how and when to do it, and where to find the right materials. It’s all about information.

Although the results of asset optimization are ultimately measured in financial terms, there are many interlocking technical and business processes involved in achieving these results. It is also a continual through-life activity both at the individual asset level and across an operator’s asset portfolio. Software that supports these processes is referred to as product/project lifecycle management (PLM).

This technology has its origins in the volume/repetitive manufacturing industries, but the capital asset industries have different needs, arising from the one-off, project nature of these assets.

In the power industry, operators generally have to manage mixed fleets of plants of varying ages and in varying states of health, from the brand new, state-of-the-art plant through to elderly plants nearing the ends of their working lives. Plant-optimized PLM solutions are relatively recent arrivals, but have already reached high levels of capability and maturity. The most advanced are also capable of tackling the legacy assets problem. Let’s take a look at where and how these information management tools can ” and should ” be used to optimize business processes in the power industry.


Start at the very beginning


A power plant starts its life as an order on an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor for its construction. Immediately, an information asset begins to grow as the EPC designs the plant and specifies the many components that go into it. For the EPC, efficiently managing this ‘digital plant’ during its design and construction is vital to running a successful project, but generally the operator has relatively little day to day involvement with it until the commissioning phase approaches.

The EPC wants to complete and hand over the new plant as quickly and economically as possible, while the operator wants rapid commissioning and the ability to adopt its new asset efficiently. Both parties want efficient and comprehensive information transfer.

The digital plant is therefore as important as the physical one, so it is common for plant industry operators to require electronic data handover. However, some of the project information is not relevant to the needs of the operator and ” more seriously ” much will be in a variety of formats, such as 3D CAD models, that the operator has neither the facilities nor the skills to use.

To properly exploit the digital plant, an operator needs tools that enable staff to easily navigate, share, use and maintain all the information it contains. This will include not only such things as the schematic diagrams, operating and maintenance procedures, 3D CAD models, equipment and vendor information provided by the EPC, but also operations-related information, such as plant status, shift logs, maintenance schedules and so on.


Figure 2. The Asset Management cycle

This was impossible until comparatively recently, but technology is now available that enables this. Information management platforms such as Aveva Net can integrate disparate types of information, monitor and report on its validity, maintain comprehensive cross references and enable users anywhere in an enterprise to access and navigate through it.

Importantly, this can be achieved without requiring the original authoring software or high levels of staff training; in typical Aveva Net deployments users become proficient after 30 minutes of training because the intuitive user interface resembles a Web browser.


Keeping it running


Operators’ overriding concerns are minimizing outage and maximizing output over a plant’s working life. A planned outage resembles a Formula One pit stop; a large number of concurrent tasks must be properly planned, scheduled and resourced so that work can begin as soon as the plant is shut down and be carried out in the shortest overall time with minimum risk. This is an information-intensive activity. If the information used is deficient in any way there will be a risk that restart will be delayed, with consequent loss of revenue and a risk of incorrect work giving rise to a subsequent unplanned outage.


“A planned outage resembles a Formula One pit stop; a large number of concurrent tasks must be properly planned, scheduled and resourced so that work can begin as soon as the plant is shut down and be carried out in the shortest overall time with minimum risk” Photo courtesy Siemens

Finally, when the maintenance work is complete, how easy is it to update the plant’s information assets with the details of the changes: the new spares requirements, new maintenance procedures and so on? If such information is not updated the seeds of problems with a future outage might have been already sown.

And, particularly in the nuclear sector, if plant information is not up to date, accurate and auditable you could be in breach of regulatory compliance, which can also result in delayed restart. No matter how efficient one’s asset management processes, unexpected problems are a fact of life. One must be able to respond rapidly and correctly to unplanned outages and to learn from the experience to eliminate the risk of similar problems.

Once again, it’s all about information, which is the basis of rapid and accurate fault diagnosis, efficient execution of corrective action, and effective change management to prevent recurrence.

For example, suppose that a control valve fails unexpectedly, tripping a plant shutdown. Where a digital plant is being managed by Aveva Net, staff can rapidly navigate their way through various types of information to identify the failed valve, locate the system schematic concerned, locate and print off the current procedure for isolation and replacement, locate the necessary spare parts in the stores inventory, check the availability of any essential staff, and so on.

Pursuing the motor racing analogy, this is equivalent to an unplanned pit stop to replace a faulty wheel bearing: which wheel? Where is the spare? Who will change it? What tools are required? Knowing that this particular failure has occurred is a valuable piece of information in itself. It provides an opportunity to pre-empt similar failures in the future, but only if one can accurately diagnose the root cause.

This requires the ready availability of a wide variety of information with which the valve is associated; not only its type and manufacturer, but also its service history, its particular duty cycle, its physical installation, and so on. Such information becomes even more valuable where it is shared across a fleet, something readily achievable using Aveva Net, which is Web-enabled and can integrate information across geographically distributed assets. Given the reliable data available through comprehensive information management, one could determine whether this particular valve failure was an isolated incident or evidence of a common-cause failure mode. One might, for example, uncover a history of problems caused by an excessive duty cycle and be able to schedule the valve’s replacement with a higher-duty unit at the next planned outage of each plant in the fleet.


Figure 3. Typical digital handover to an operator. The operations hub contains an integrated subset of the plant data created by the EPC

Another common source of unplanned outage lies in shift handover. In almost every plant, industry shift handover tends to rely heavily on verbal communication, individuals’ memories and poorly-documented information. Here too, an information management solution can deliver value, by configuring ‘digital handover packs’ that are automatically populated with essential information.

This might include a snapshot view of the current plant KPIs, status of all in-progress maintenance, tasks scheduled for the incoming shift and so on. Ensuring that everyday tasks are carried out correctly is the foundation of asset performance.


Avoiding Inheritance Tax


Using information management technology to exploit new digital plant assets can deliver significant economic benefits, but operators usually have very many more plants in service that don’t have such readily available information resources. In some cases, they may have been designed and built before CAD tools were available, or acquired second-hand with little reliable plant information.

Handling such legacy assets becomes increasingly burdensome, not only because their physical deterioration makes them progressively harder to maintain, but because much plant information has also deteriorated or been lost over time, while regulatory requirements continue to become more stringent. Imagine having to carry out a racing pit stop on a secondhand car for which you are not sure about the correct parts to use or the procedures for replacing them!

Aveva Net provides a means to solve this problem by importing all types of legacy information to reverse-engineer a digital plant. Information gateways ” interfaces ” enable the automatic import, validation and cross-referencing of plant information. This can include not only original digital information such as CAD schematics, databases, pdf documents or spreadsheet files, but also scanned paper documents.

All are processed using a ‘scraping’ technique to extract key data such as tag references. Unlike conventional data warehouse applications, for which data must be validated before import, Aveva Net automatically validates it on import and creates cross references. The tag number for a pump, for example, will be cross referenced to the schematics it appears on, its maintenance history, its vendor documentation, and so on. Importantly, where information is missing or inconsistent this is highlighted and categorized, eliminating the ‘unknown unknown’ syndrome and enabling informed decisions about the correct way to resolve the deficiency.

Operational information may also be managed, so that shutdown planning can take into account issues such as the availability of resources shared between the fleet, and the execution of individual tasks can be monitored and reported through their various stages to final sign-off.


Upgrading the assets


The next level of asset optimization is plant upgrading. Here again, the objective is to minimize the outage period and many of the same issues arise as for planned maintenance. However, the scale of the work is larger and more complex. Replacing major equipment items with minimum disruption requires accurate knowledge of the as-built status of the plant and careful assessment of the options for equipment removal, buildings alteration and equipment installation.

The efficient way to capture as-built status is by 3D laser scanning, which creates a precise representation of the plant for use within the EPC’s modelling system. Even if the plant was not originally designed in 3D, this approach enables efficient plant modification because of the high quality of the information it employs. This 3D scanning and modelling process is routinely used for modifying production and refining assets in the oil and gas industry, which faces similar economic pressure to minimize shut-down time.

Just as important as knowing the physical layout of the plant is knowing its current state of health. Upgrading one part may impose higher stresses on unrelated parts, some of which may no longer be in their as-designed condition, either through normal deterioration or because they were temporarily replaced with lower-specification parts during a previous unplanned outage and the full corrective actions were never completed.

An experienced engineer might be aware of such ‘gotchas’, but experienced people are retiring faster than they can be replaced, taking their knowledge with them. Information management technology can overcome this problem by enabling robust record-keeping and task management; with this capability, while the temporary repair may have been duly authorized, the corrective action would have remained open ” and visible to reporting ” until the permanent repair had been completed.

At every stage of the plant lifecycle, optimum performance depends on the quality, extent and usability of information. The ‘digital plant’ is a rich storehouse of high-quality information, but it requires a key to unlock it and tools to make it easy to use, share and maintain. Technology now exists which enables this, supporting asset optimization at every level. Aveva Net is routinely deployed to do this on new projects, where it is often regarded as a mission-critical business system.

But all the plant industries have huge legacies of paper documents, representing a significant untapped opportunity for maximizing the performance of existing assets. Whereas capturing and harnessing this information was previously not an economic proposition, technology now makes it practical and affordable. Forward-looking companies are already exploiting this.


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