Making the most of IT29 June 2001
The power industry invests heavily in IT systems and consulting. Whereas resources are often used to integrate business systems, relatively little is done to get the most out of the engineering systems.
Using the very latest technology could give you that edge over the competition. Often companies find that better and more advanced IT systems means bigger and more complicated problems. Time, perhaps, to call in the experts.
The nuclear industry relies heavily on advanced computer technology. Over
several decades, the industry has used this technology to solve problems as they arise. What generally happens is that plants end up having a number of IT systems that exist in isolation from each other with no links between the systems and information held on them. Series of loosely integrated islands of automation across the engineering domain of these businesses have therefore emerged. These “silos” of information mean that there is no clear path to manage information and improve processes, which would help to lower costs across these organisations.
In contrast, power plants invest vast sums of money in resource planning systems for the business domains – aspects such as logistics, human resources, finance and administration – of their operations. When employing consultancy firms to help improve the
running of the plant, it is the business domain that is focused on. This is, after all, “home ground” for most consultants, so the
engineering domain tends to get overlooked.
There are typically 50 or more applications that together comprise the IT environment for engineering. In the business domain, most companies have selected an integrated suite such as SAP or Oracle.
Power companies are beginning to wake up to the fact that, if the engineering operations also had an integrated IT environment, the problems associated with managing information throughout the lifecycle of a plant and across the whole organisation could be solved. It is worth remembering that 65% of the average maintenance engineer’s time is spent looking for information. Obviously, it is very much in the plant’s interest to make such information readily available.
This suggests a gap in the market – for IT consultancies with personnel who have a sound knowledge of engineering. With this in mind, engineering software company Cadcentre have recently set up Aveva Consulting. This new company “offers a full range of services to design, build, implement, administer, operate and support business solutions across the engineering disciplines,” according to their promotional material.
Tony Christian, president of Aveva Consulting, explained why the company was formed. “The engineering industry operates differently from most other businesses in that it is information intensive, involves many separate organisations, has a ‘one-off’ project culture and has distinct lifecycle phases. As Cadcentre was working on a number of plant systems, they realised it would make more sense to set up an IT consultancy that had a thorough understanding of these issues.”
Christian – who holds a degree in mechanical engineering – maintains that few people are involved in consultancy for the engineering domain, whereas there are numerous major consulting and systems integration firms for the business domain. “In practice, nuclear plants end up with a number of software packages from different companies. This is especially the case in the nuclear industry, where managers want the best product on the market, then worry about how to integrate it with other packages at a later stage. The overall business strategy doesn’t usually take account of this, and the engineering domain systems usually have to be fitted around the business plan.”
Today’s budgets are not as big as they used to be, and there is a new emphasis on taking every last cost out of plant ownership, from design to decommissioning. Also, the demarcation lines between owner/operators and engineering procurement contractors have become blurred. Companies are under pressure to transform the ways in which they participate in the value chain and interact with clients, suppliers and partners.
Change cannot take place unless it is enabled by integrated technology. Just as the business side of organisations has improved processes and reduced costs through resource planning software, so now must the engineering domain move away from “silo” computer aided design and engineering applications to adopt a new integrated IT framework.
The first step, according to Aveva’s approach, is to build the IT systems into the overall business strategy. Integrated IT will not win the war for cost reduction and profitability on its own. But technology and business strategy should now be managed as one instead of as separate strands in the planning process.