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How Industry 4.0 Technologies Are Transforming the Power and Utilities Industry

Industry 4.0 first debuted approximately a decade after the new millennium and signifies that we are in our fourth version of an ever-evolving industrial revolution. This latest trajectory is catapulting business leaders and magnifies operational efficiency and smart manufacturing through the use of new technological advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Employed since the 1700s, the industrial evolution iterations pinpoint our progression of resource exploitation in order to improve work processes, promote safety and grow the bottom line. A high-level timeline of industrial changes include:

● Industry 1.0: 1700s — Employing human labor, domestic animals and waterpower to boost production,

● Industry 2.0: 1800s — Creating the assembly line to spur mass production,

● Industry 3.0: 1900s — Using computers to automate processes to reduce the need for manual labor,

● Industry 4.0: Modern Day — Leveraging robot-powered technology to improve both quantity and quality of work produced.

For the power and utility sector, the shift to Industry 4.0 means harnessing intelligent machines and new technology to transform how energy is produced and distributed. The result is a more efficient, safer and sustainable power facility.

With that as an end goal, how are power companies working to achieve this? The short answer is they are undergoing digital transformations that are powering them through the journey to operational excellence. More specifically, power producers are implementing digital assets to create cohesive digital ecosystems that improve operational efficiency, safety, sustainability and the recruitment of top talent.

Improve Plant Productivity With Operational Monitoring Technology

Operational monitoring technology directly observes and controls power equipment and functions. This type of smart technology features sensors and software that allow plant operators and managers to collect key system performance metrics at periodic intervals.

Before operational monitoring technology, most power and energy facilities did not have a single solution to monitor every piece of equipment within the plant, making it nearly impossible for operators and engineers to collect and assess performance data. By integrating new digital solutions into the process, Industry 4.0 technology gives plants the capability to:

● track production metrics, such as KPIs and OKRs,

● increase workflow visibility,

● locate system vulnerabilities and security threats,

● enable more sustainable operations.

Power plant stakeholders can create a cohesive, singular view of their entire procedure, making it significantly easier to identify issues, execute resolutions and determine areas for continuous improvement.

A prime example of the Industry 4.0 concept in action is using an AI-powered  digital twin to create cyber-physical systems that allow teams to study performance and identify improvements to maximize operations. Digital twins generate a digital backbone across process chains to represent a clear path for all individual functions, thus constructing a more consolidated end-to-end solution.

Optimizing Processes and Averting Disruptions Using Descriptive, Predictive and Prescriptive Analytics

Big data analysis calculates future predictions through computed plant simulations — leading to autonomous operations and lean manufacturing for the power sector. Industrial facilities can utilize big data analysis to:

● assemble a tech-enabled ecosystem that optimizes targeted areas of operation;

● connect the plant by building intelligence into all processes and operations;

● move data from where it was created to where it will add value;

● generate energy from diverse sources.

Power producers can collect comprehensive, historical data to render intelligent replications of current plant conditions and generate multiple predictive scenarios, empowering them to select the optimal choice for action. This type of analysis is achieved by leveraging descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics.

Descriptive analytics display everything that has occurred up until a specific moment. Stakeholders can condense and refine big data into digestible views, allowing them to identify critical trends or problems that may not be inherently visible. Power plants can leverage this data to fuel leaner, more sustainable decisions for the future.

Taking the trends discovered from descriptive analytics, teams can use predictive insights to eradicate problems before they occur. Examples include using predictive analysis to identify resourcing constraints, weather changes or budgetary issues, then executing course corrections or predictive maintenance to stop these bottlenecks from evolving into an unplanned shutdown.

Once predictive analytics alert plant personnel of the need for course correction, prescriptive analytics provide insights into the most effective actions to minimize impact. This type of machine-powered data allows plant leaders to use detailed and accurate predictions to power optimizations.

Big Data Analytics in Action

2018 study from Sustainability analyzed how big data analytics allow photovoltaic (PV) power producers to increase plant sustainability and resiliency by producing more accurate forecasting models. PV facilities have difficulty generating specific forecasts because their power outlet relies heavily on weather conditions. By leveraging big data — including descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics — the generators create simulations and digital predictor models to render accurate performance predictions. They use those predictions to drive smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 strategies.

Additionally, POWER highlighted how an investor-owned solar power plant is using AI capabilities to forecast solar energy output, regulate the temperature of its inverters and optimize its solar energy battery. AI technology is allowing the plant to streamline its decarbonization methods, lessen asset maintenance costs and overcome energy intermittency challenges.

Boost Plant Sustainability Through Smart Manufacturing Models

Building a sustainable power plant model is a driving factor in the power and utility sector. Unfortunately, a 2020 study by Sustainability reported that nearly all current manufacturing models use old paradigms, which do not align with a more sustainable and autonomous future. Relying on outdated models delays and prevents operational efficiency as well as poses legal issues for power producers. A driving factor for creating a smart plant stems from stringent government regulations and public concerns. Consider the Biden administration’s goal to modernize the electric grid and produce 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035 as an example of this push from government leaders to improve plant sustainability.

By leveraging smart machines and technology — primarily AI, industrial IoT and cloud computing — new production capabilities generate more sustainable operations. Applying big data decision-making techniques to Industry 4.0 strategies boosts power and utility sustainability — such as through solar, wind or hydropower energy. It allows power facilities to make operational improvements that decrease energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, creating a more sustainable plant.

Siemens Energy, a world energy leader, is using AI and machine learning technology to create a more autonomous power facility. The plant feeds robot-powered technology real-time data — such as live images and videos of its operations — to produce accurate workflow models and identify problems, specifically leaks. This allows Siemens Energy to visualize operational workflows, create a more secure ecosystem and proactively identify anomalies that could lead to an environmental catastrophe. Siemens Energy also partnered with MIT Technology Review to discuss how they are leveraging AI technology to increase security and prevent cyber threats to produce a more resilient plant.

The bottom line is that sustainability is everything for the power and utility sector. From increasing productivity to adhering to stringent government regulations, it plays a critical role in Industry 4.0 and will continue to be paramount as plants undergo digital transformation and eventually shift to an autonomous future state with Industry 5.0.

Enable Plant Expansion With Automation and Digital Connections

Digital solutions are propelling power plants into the future and allowing them to boost efficiency, refine quality assurance processes and improve scalability. Thus, plant operators and leadership personnel must leverage Industry 4.0 solutions — like machine learning, industrial automation and sensors — and integrate them into an existing production process to enhance operational performance and plant infrastructure.

Innovative software, big data analytics and digital sensors allow plants to consolidate across complex operations and processes by having accurate and accessible data on hand. Plant leaders can use these tools to develop scenarios and simulations that establish end-to-end digital workflows, then employ those models to prioritize procedures for improved operational efficiency.

For example, HxGN SDx Robotic Operations develops optimal inspection routes to reduce manual labor. Stakeholders can determine an optimal inspection routine from an off-site location. Once ready, they can deploy the program to the robotic cell, significantly reducing the time and attention required from an in-person inspector. The digital solution allows for more autonomous inspections so Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) can consolidate and manage large volumes of data across complex processes and operations. The software produces fast, accurate and accessible measurement data, which empowers Industry 4.0 by paving the way for more informed decision-making, reduced operational risk, improved safety and plant expansion.

Use Augmented Reality Models to Attract Manufacturing Talent

While the power and utility facilities were already considering and implementing digital transformation strategies, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the need for the industry to employ innovative technology and construct a cohesive digital ecosystem. Today, the "new normal" calls for remote sensors, digital data collection and virtual reality models that enable personnel to perform their jobs safely and efficiently. Thus, achieving Industry 4.0 allows power plants to create a digitally literate culture that attracts top power and energy talent.

Industry 4.0 tools such as augmented reality models, machine learning and IoT allow plant leaders to:

● develop productive and resilient operations that drive swift decision-making by operating, engineering and management teams;

● automate and optimize systems to eliminate redundant duties, allowing employees to work safely and efficiently while focusing on higher-value objectives;

● appeal and speak to a generation of talent seeking digital-first career cultures.

Lean manufacturing and construction models stem from the automotive industry — but they are still prevalent in Industry 4.0 models today. Not only does lean manufacturing and operational efficiency allow processes and workflows to improve — and create a more productive facility — but they also empower personnel to achieve more.

New generations of power and utility professionals are choosing to work in facilities that prioritize digitization, maintain a digital-first mindset and automate manual processes to improve efficiencies across operations. Plants that fail to acknowledge this shift and undergo a digital transformation risk not achieving Industry 4.0 and losing out on key talent. As POWER notes, investments in digital technology and transformations in plant infrastructure can only do so much — power players also need to have an agile workforce to keep up with the changing landscape, maintain Industry 4.0 procedures and ensure a continuous evolution for the plant.

How Can Your Plant Make the Most Out of What Your Technology Partners Have To Offer?

With Industry 4.0 well underway and Industry 5.0 rapidly approaching, plant stakeholders must recognize the benefits Industry 4.0 solutions provide and leverage them to establish lean manufacturing and continue driving toward operational excellence. Doing so will create a more productive, sustainable and resilient plant with a skilled employee base that can keep the facility operating efficiently.

As far as defining what the next evolution — Industry 5.0 — will mean for the power and energy sector, stakeholders can expect sophisticated machine learning technology to take over menial muscle tasks, freeing power professionals to focus on expanding productions and continue making ongoing improvements.

If you’re wondering where to start, the first step is partnering with an agile technology partner. The second step is making the most out of your partnership and the digital solutions they provide.

Hexagon is your trusted digital transformation partner , and — with the support of our team of global experts — we provide evolving solutions that empower the power industry to design, engineer, construct, operate and maintain industrial assets via state-of-the-art technology. We are co-creators of the smart solutions we deliver for your power plant, and our team develops long-standing partnerships to ensure your power facility is getting the most out of its new technology. We share the same values as your team, and we work together to leverage data and smart technology to adopt Industry 4.0 strategies that boost plant safety, efficiency, resiliency, autonomy and sustainability.

Learn more about how Hexagon can help your plant drive Industry 4.0 today.

About the Author

Peter is a senior industry consultant at Hexagon’s Asset Lifecycle Intelligence division. He is highly experienced in analyzing business processes and then managing business transformation through operational excellence. He has managed business transformation projects across Europe, The Middle East and Asia within aerospace, FMCG, defense and energy, in both the public and private sectors. He lives in Scotland.

Profile Photo of Peter Wilson