Digital Transformation for Utilities

Emerson's Juan PanamaEmerson’s Juan Panama and Mark Jordan presented on building the utility of tomorrow, today at the 2019 Ovation Users’ Group conference. The focus was on how to start down the path to digital transformation. It begins with a solid business case.

For instance, in a combined cycle unit, typical fixed operating and maintenance costs can be reduced by eliminating maintenance practices that result in unnecessary work and high labor costs, gaining insight into the “right” asset performance & health data, connecting unorganized and siloed data, automating procedures and processes, and transitioning the workforce from lower value to higher value add activities.

To successfully implement digital transformation strategies, it’s critical to make technology decisions based on the intended business outcome. Ask what’s the economic return? What am I trying to solve here?

The technology decision can be small. For instance, it could be a problem with a pump or a problem with corrosion in the facility or even knowing where plant personnel are located. It can be a variety approaches or a very simple place to start where you can then potentially scale it.

The second element is to take a scalable approach to these investments. These decisions should be guided by an overall vision, but those who try to implement all at once are bound to be disappointed by the results. Finally, all technology investment should also be viewed as an investment in people. Enabling them to add more value and creating a better, more engaging work environment.

One area to consider digital transformation is around digital inspection. Routine manual collection of maintenance, reliability, and integrity data with portable testers or time-consuming interpretation can be significantly reduced or eliminated. Data is collected automatically, transmitted digitally, and analyzed by software to detect early signs of problems. This drives maintenance.

Emerson's Mark JordanNotifications sent to smartphones or tablets eliminating need to be in fixed locations. Any remaining manual inspection rounds are not by clipboard and paper forms, but instead a tablet computer and software. A central pool of domain experts, company or external, tap the information to support plant personnel.

Another area is in digital collaboration. The objective is to reduce or eliminate delays waiting for an expert to mobilize to site or trying to explain a problem in the field from the phone in the office. Instead two-way digital video and audio between field technician with wearable camera at site, and remote expert seeing the problem up close and live in software.

Another example is in a digital document box. The object is to eliminate carrying papers or returning to the office to pick up additional documents. Instead personnel can open up digital procedures, drawing, and manuals etc. in software on a tablet or get information from the company Intranet or the Internet on-the-go.

Digital operator rounds can reduce routine manual collection of operations data on clipboard and paper forms. Instead data is collected automatically and transmitted digitally to historian and operator software etc. Any remaining manual rounds are instead by tablet with software.

Digital notebooks eliminate the need for paper notebooks for jotting down near miss incidents, hazards, and maintenance needs etc. Instead notes and digital photos of incidents, hazards, leaks, and damaged equipment is captured on tablets with software.

A final example is in digital field operator learning. Tagging along experienced staff is not the only way to teach newcomers new tasks. Field operators can also learn manual tasks in a very immersive virtual plant environment with virtual reality.

A specific application for power producers continuous, online monitoring for boiler tubes/reheat section/waterwall leaks. Boiler tubes and other mechanical sections of a boiler are subjected to water, steam, chemicals, sometimes air (from soot blowers), and as a result can experience mechanical/metallurgical changes from corrosion, erosion, and thermal stresses. The result can be a crack or hole from one or any combination of this contributing factors.

The interaction of these causes is complex, and some customers make physical design changes to make these metal sections more robust. Common methods for determining tube leaks in their early stage are on-line acoustic monitoring and off-line non-destructive testing. Some symptoms of a leak are abnormal furnace pressure, increasing feed demand, and dropping drum level. Big enough leaks can be very loud and require an immediate boiler shutdown.

Visit the Top Quartile Performance section on for more on ways to drive digital transformation initiatives to improve business performance.

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