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The Digital Dilemma

June 22, 2017
Next-generation asset management tools are moving forward on a global scale.
Technical conferences and trade shows are interesting places to hang out. I love them because the action happens there. I meet a lot of interesting people and have found, if I keep my eyes open, I might get a preview of some game-changing technology that is just emerging from the lab. In the 1980s, someone had the bright idea to build an electric meter that read itself, which morphed into a meter that could monitor and control customer loads. That developed into today’s smart meters, which mutated into many different sensor-laden pieces of equipment for the T&D grid.

Once the technological genie gets out of its bottle, the result can be very interesting. Devices with sensors and monitoring systems brought about the notion of today’s smart grid, and these technological building blocks were introduced at technical conferences and trade shows. That’s why I got excited when Rick Bush asked me to meet him at the IEEE PES T&D Expo in Dallas, Texas. We had just finished “The Digital Grid and Beyond” supplement (August 2016) and were trying to decide where this digital adventure would take us next.

The “Digital Grid” supplement looked at how powerful computers and sophisticated software programs were introducing digital tools and gaining the attention of utilities and manufacturers. Technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud-based computing and storage, edge of grid and big data are making inroads, but where is this digital technology going?

It’s the Name

We found the answer tucked into the vendors’ floor exhibits, behind the flashy smart grid hardware and off to the left of the coffee bar. We discovered what we were looking for in the software simulations on display. The digital technologies comprising our smarter devices have given the hardware a self-awareness. These devices can monitor themselves and send data to computer systems, which can determine the device’s health and its ability to function properly. They go by the name of the next-generation asset management system.

Do not get caught up in the asset management name. Old-school asset management systems were basically spreadsheets used to keep track of the organization’s components, which had very little to do with managing anything. They were little more than census forms, listing the name of the equipment and where it lived.

Modern asset management systems have become one of the most complex elements of the power-delivery industry. They sort the data generated by the utility’s smart grid equipment and combine it with data from maintenance records. They spot trends and produce valuable information the utility can use. The information can be used to spot a 765-kV power transformer that is about to fail and take out half the grid with it. Or, the software can make the calendar obsolete when it comes to scheduling maintenance.

This came about from a software application called correlation processing, which compared data from a healthy aircraft engine to real-time data sent from an operating aircraft engine. The technology spotted unhealthy trends developing in the operational engine and flagged it for maintenance. It was so successful that nuclear power plant operators and manufacturers thought it would be a promising idea to adapt this technology into their plants and equipment. Like the aircraft industry, it worked for the nuclear power plants.

Both applications rely on equipment with integrated sensors and monitoring systems that can communicate with advanced computer programs. With smart grid technology so deeply ingrained in the grid, it seemed that the next logical progression was to take advantage of the super-sophisticated asset managing platforms.

These systems take the data and produce a real-time assessment of the performance of the various pieces of equipment. They also can determine whether the asset is performing correctly and whether maintenance is required. The technology has progressed to the point of making recommendations as to whether the device should be repaired, replaced or reconditioned based on its importance to the T&D grid.

These are not traditional asset management systems. These systems have awareness. They know the asset’s health, they know the asset’s criticality to the grid, and they know the risk to the system each type of corrective action will produce.

What’s Next?

The deployment of this next generation of asset performance tools is moving forward on a global scale. Some utilities have installed enterprisewide asset management systems, while others are experimenting with staged projects, testing the technology. Others are taking a conservative approach, watching and studying the subject.

In the meantime, technologies such as IoT, cloud-computing and big data technologies are being included in advanced asset managing platforms, and they bring added capabilities with them. The era of technologically augmented asset decision making is here. Are we ready? Probably not.

Like everything else digital technology has touched, the businesses that are using these sophisticated asset managing tools will have a tremendous advantage over those that are not. It is going to be uncomfortable, even disruptive, but exciting. It is the future. Hold on tight! ♦

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