It’s not easy to predict the future, but for predictive maintenance the future appears pretty bright, suggests Brian Dixon. Sensor technology developments have a lot to do with it.
One of the key attributes of digitalisation is that it allows industry to swap out reactive operational practices with more proactive approaches to the same problems. Take, for example, the maintenance of mission-critical equipment. Traditionally, this was undertaken either according to an arbitrary schedule regardless of whether it was actually needed or not or, in a worse-case scenario, in response to a failure. Or, in other words, when it was too late.
Now, though, through the use of advanced sensors, interconnectable components and pattern-recognising artificial intelligence (AI) programs, the maritime sector is increasingly able to make use of predictive maintenance systems. As their name suggests, these systems do not simply wait for things to go wrong. Rather, through the use of constant monitoring, they are able to identify when a component looks poised to fail while simultaneously alerting personnel to the need to take preventative action. As a result, equipment operators are able to keep downtime and maintenance costs to a minimum while increasing productivity, safety and efficiency.
“The real value on the customer’s side is peace of mind,” says Dennis Mol, vice-president, digital and business transformation at Cargotec-owned MacGregor, a company that has developed its own predictive maintenance system under the OnWatch Scout banner. “Peace of mind means knowing that mission-critical systems, if they are about to fail, will give the relevant alarm and advice on what to do, how to fix it,” he continues, noting that OnWatch Scout is able to provide a ship’s crew with highly detailed and pertinent recommendations within moments of an alarm being triggered. As a result, “uptime is secured and your operation is not interrupted”.
Meanwhile, the system will also alert onshore staff to the situation as it arises, enabling “people in the office to know almost instantly what is going on” and what actions they should take. “We are translating our knowledge, our experience, our technical competence and leveraging it towards the customer so they can immediately solve their operational problems,” he says.
Perhaps understandably, Mol reports strong interest in the OnWatch Scout system and its numerous capabilities. “There are even customers now that are talking about equipping the whole fleet for a certain piece of equipment,” he says. Indeed, while eight of the company’s 17 product groups are currently fully connectable with OnWatch Scout, MacGregor, he reveals, plans to up this by a further three during the course of this year.
However, while Mol describes predictive maintenance as “a logical step in the new world of digitalisation”, the technology still faces a number of barriers in terms of greater adoption, although these tend to be more cultural in nature than physical or technological. “It’s the fear of the unknown,” Mol says, explaining that one such ‘unknown’ concerns the sharing of potentially sensitive equipment data with a service provider. Similarly, from the potential customer’s point of view, concerns regarding how securely that shared data may be subsequently stored also need to be addressed.
To this end, MacGregor, he reveals, is bound by confidentiality agreements with its clients while also employing the strictest security measures to ensure any customer data remains safe from prying eyes. Nevertheless, Mol accepts that the idea of sharing information even with a trusted partner could still “be a little bit scary” for some companies. Likewise, he also sees that there “might be certain resistance” borne of a general reluctance to change working practices.
Mol, though, seems far from fazed. “It’s about getting used to these new technologies, and getting used to it you just need to learn about it and get convinced that it’s safe, it’s secure [and] it’s bringing you business,” he says. “It’s a new way of working. It takes time.”
That time, however, could well be set to shorten following the signing of a new collaboration agreement that will see Kongsberg Digital testing the OnWatch Scout interface within its Vessel Insight data infrastructure system. This move, Mol notes, stands to greatly help both parties and in turn their respective customers. “It’s a benefit for us to work together and go to customers in a different way,” he says, adding that for Kongsberg “it’s also in their interest to work with MacGregor to include a predictive maintenance focused application interface” and in so doing attract future traffic to their platform.