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Fail Forward

A large public utility exploring data analytics and digital twin technologies selected a grouping of motors that frequently fail and cause downtime to do a pilot on predictive analytics and the use of digital twin technologies to prevent future plant outages. For context, the motors selected were unique not just for the plant, but for the entire system. They have a complex water cooling system that needs high levels of water purity and redundant filtration systems, thus requiring frequent maintenance to ensure stable operation. Failure in these motors result in plant shutdown and costly repair and/or motor replacement.

The company spared no expense when assembling the A-Team to implement the pilot. It selected an analytics consultant and a technology partner, and appointed an internal team that included key personnel from the plant, IT analysts and digital twin specialists. The analytics consultant led key information finding sessions on-site to determine the current state for the possible deployment of technologies, with the key focus on uncovering the data available for developing the analytics that would facilitate a digital twin and enable insight of the motors’ real-time health.

After weeks of discovery, the team determined that technology could not reliably facilitate a reduction in downtime. The core issues related to motor failures were related to human error and poor processes in place for data governance and coordination and documentation of maintenance activities, including lack of proper training and activity oversight. The team also noted that failures were not due to direct poor performance of any given individual, but more so to a lack of data governance standards that would require availability of consistent and easily interpretable data related to both the operations and the maintenance of the motors.

The result of the initial discovery was a decision not to proceed with the pilot. It was a somewhat painful message to deliver to the project sponsors, which included the plant manager. However, the internal IT and digital twin experts provided valuable input that would improve operations and maintenance not just for the motor set under study, but for the entire facility and ultimately the fleet. They emphasized that the technology is available to accomplish the task, but must be deployed in an environment where data governance is in place to support it –underscoring the now ubiquitous ‘People, Process, Technology’ adage.

A key lesson learned in this short exploration is fast becoming a mantra: Fail Forward. This concept is difficult in an engineering dominated, high-pressure environment. However, it is also a vital concept in the world of technology deployment where creativity is a core component to developing solutions. The pilot was not considered a failure. It was considered a stepping-stone to developing a program of continuous improvement via relentless discovery and transparency. To be successful is to recognize that the fundamental shift is not technological, but cultural.

​Tedd Weitzman

Tedd Weitzman has worked for Southern Company’s Engineering and Construction Services for 12 years. He has focused on project execution processes, configuration management and automations to ensure efficient availability of information for CAPEX projects and O&M. Since 2009, Tedd has spearheaded the configuration and implementation of Southern Company’s Asset Management Database. This project won Bentley Software’s 2011 and 2012 Be Inspired Awards for Innovation in Asset Lifecycle Information Management. Tedd currently works at Worley.

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