New technologies in the digital era

Big data and smart devices are transforming service in the power generation industry

“We are in the midst of a major technology revolution, specifically a digital revolution,” says Accenture, the global consulting services company, in its recently published ‘Technology Vision 2016.’ By 2020, 25% of the world’s economy is forecast to be digital.

Power generation facilities now have the ability to generate vast amounts of digital data on equipment behavior and process performance. This data can be continuously uploaded in real time to the cloud, where sophisticated algorithms can analyze it to optimize production.

We take a brief look at some of the most important digital technologies impacting power generation and the potential they hold for service and maintenance.

Mobile computing
Mobile computing allows the transmission of data, voice and video via a laptop, tablet, smartphone or other wireless device.

The technology has been part of our daily lives for years, but the increasing sophistication of smartphones is opening up new avenues for service in the field. For instance, service technicians can use their smartphone to wirelessly measure vibration in rotating machines or the temperature and electromagnetic fields of equipment that may be faulty. The data can then be uploaded from the phone into the cloud for analysis.

Drones and remotely operated robots are also likely to be used increasingly to undertake dangerous, heavy or unpleasant tasks. Drones can perform visual examinations of boilers and smoke stacks, and robots can clean boiler tube walls or inspect radiation zones in nuclear power plants.

The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of  devices,  machines  and  equipment, which are embedded with sensors, software and network connectivity that enable them to collect and exchange data. Power plants and other industrial facilities can use the Internet of Things to generate immense quantities of data. Thanks  to  cloud  computing,  this  data can  be  stored  affordably  in  the  cloud and analyzed either in real time or later in order to improve plant operations, by reducing asset downtime or improving the deployment of service personnel.

But generating and analyzing data does not create value in itself. The data has to be made available in meaningful ways to people - plant managers, production managers, service  personnel and others - so that they can translate the data into actions that improve plant performance and profitability.

Cloud computing
Cloud computing is computing based remotely on the Internet rather than locally in a computer or plant server. Its importance is growing rapidly and extends way beyond email traffic, Internet banking or Facebook pages. According to a recent Cisco report, 83% of workloads will be processed by cloud data centers by 2019, a threefold increase on 2014.

Cloud computing has the potential to offer huge benefits for service and maintenance in particular. It enables all the data on, say, the motors and generators in a single plant or fleet of plants to be stored, analyzed, benchmarked and then acted on by service personnel.

For an automation service provider like ABB, cloud computing enables us to see how our automation systems are behaving and whether our customers are using those systems optimally. We can then use this information to refine our solutions and suggest ways to improve plant performance.

Cyber security
As societies become increasingly reliant on computer systems, the threat of attack on these systems grows. Vulnerability increases as ever more devices and machines become connected to the Internet of Things and computing moves from local servers to the vastness of the cloud.

Cloud environments face many of the same threats as traditional corporate networks, but due to the huge amount of data stored on cloud servers, providers become an attractive target. Attacks come in many forms: weak or broken authentication systems that allow unauthorized users to penetrate the system and access data, system vulnerabilities that admit bugs and other malware, account hijacking, and so on.

ABB’s approach to cyber security is defense in depth: there is no single solution to cyber security, so multiple layers of security controls should be placed throughout the system. Cyber security is embedded in our systems; maintaining their defenses from attack is a constantly ongoing process.

Web-scale IT
Web-scale IT refers to the platforms that are used on a very large scale for cloud computing and the Internet of Things. The most widely used of these platforms are currently those operated by Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft.

But leading automation vendors are also developing their own Web-scale IT platforms. ABB, for instance, has millions of automation and electrical products and thousands of process control systems installed at production facilities all over the world. We are embedding our expertise in these products, systems and production processes into our own cloud-based platform to take IoTSP to a higher level.

The platform provides secure connectivity and data management. It is scalable to accommodate future needs and includes advanced analytics for many plant applications. The information provided by these analytics enables experts to resolve technical issues faster and create new, advanced services to optimize maintenance and operations more efficiently.

Software infrastructure and applications (ecosystems)
An ecosystem is a collection of devices, software, companies and processes that together form and operate within that ecosystem1.

For instance, a power plant ecosystem would include the plant itself, the fleet of which it is a part, the company that owns the plant, the transmission system operator to which the plant delivers power, the consumers that use the power, the companies that supply equipment and services to the plant, the people who work at the plant, and so on.

Cloud computing and IoTSP provide the foundation for new software apps that can improve operations within that ecosystem. For instance, if a Web-scale IT platform such as ABB’s was installed throughout the fleet, the data from each plant would be continuously uploaded into the platform. An advanced service app to, say, generate ‘More power at less cost’ would read, analyze and correlate the data from each plant and provide instructions on how to use the plants more optimally in order to generate more eletricity at reduced cost.

Context-rich systems
A context-rich system has intelligent devices embedded throughout the system and uses advanced analytics to provide a complete picture of what is going on at any one time within that system.
For example, a fan that is performing poorly will not provide the correct amount of cooling and will consume more energy than is necessary. It can also affect other parts of the process by causing equipment to overheat. An operator will be able to see that something is wrong, but will not be able to identify the cause of the problem. A context-rich system would generate sufficient data on the plant process and have the analytics in place to pinpoint the malfunctioning fan.

The principal benefit of these new digital technologies is that - within the context of IoTSP - they make it possible for power generation companies to manage their assets optimally and efficiently and in a way that was not previously possible. The challenge is to grasp the opportunities these technologies offer for integrating assets, people, knowledge and innovative services.

1The conventional definition of an ecosystem is a software application that enriches a digital tool without changing its intrinsic structure. Here, the same term is used with a wider meaning, extending the concept of ecosystem to hardware, processes and people.


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