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In the energy and utilities sector, the assets in the field are everything.

Maintenance programmes that fail to spot equipment problems before they cause power cuts have cost the UK energy sector billions over the years. But a new generation of mobile apps is enabling them to work smarter and make more informed decisions faster when it comes to assets.

Few companies can afford to have their operations halted by unplanned downtime, but the energy sector is particularly at risk of severe financial losses owing to supply interruptions – and experts believe that the likelihood of power cuts could increase as demand continues to rise.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the global demand for oil will reach 105 million barrels a day by 2030, for example. The current daily supply is about 92 million barrels, which means that oil firms need to seek new deposits in increasingly risky areas. Furthermore, the industry is suffering a shortage of skilled workers. While that may be a short-term problem, a lack of experience in spotting equipment defects could prove disastrous.

Energy companies spend billions of dollars every year on maintaining their generation, transmission and distribution assets. But a third of this amount is wasted in the US owing to poor management, according to software vendor SAS. Some experts believe that companies aren’t doing enough to realize the capabilities of the software they own to reduce these costs.

Writing on the Infosys global supply chain management blog , supply-chain management consultant Praveen Kumar Agrawal of IT consultancy Infosys points out that energy companies still rely primarily on asset management software for preventive and corrective maintenance, rather than predictive maintenance.

“Predictive maintenance should be the next area of improvement for them to move one level higher in the asset management maturity model,” Agrawal argues. “Organisations in this market should start integrating their asset management applications with smart devices to increase the uptime of their assets

Out with the outages

Handheld devices such as smart phones and tablets are already transforming the way utilities are handling their assets.

For example, National Grid, the largest utility in the UK and second-largest in the US, uses Transpara’s Visual KPI software, which is designed for mobile devices. The application saved the company $11m in one of its US-based programmes.

Another utility, US-based Constellation Energy, has used the same software on PDAs and smart phones to manage maintenance engineering, vibration analysis and emissions tracking. The company’s engineers also use it to identify the early warning signs of potentially critical problems. This has helped the firm to reduce the number of power cuts resulting from boiler failures from 40 in 2010 to 11 in 2011.

“While these are great numbers, smart phones and tablets can do more for the industry. Preventative and predictive maintenance should be based around wireless remote monitoring, linked to smart phones, for example,” says Nick Kamen, head of Energy & Utilities Industry (Industry Solutions & Marketing) at Vodafone Global Enterprise (VGE).

“Remote monitors on production facilities, covering things like temperature, volume, flow and use of electricity and energy and so on, could be reviewed and tracked via smart phones, and that information can be relayed automatically back to the central office where it can be updated in real time,” he says. “Remote monitoring can also be used in the field, the midstream and on the assets side of things as well – for example, the towers, pylons and in the pipelines. The possibilities are almost unlimited.”

There’s little doubt that mobile technology will make an increasingly important contribution to maintenance management at relatively low cost. Wireless mobile devices can provide real-time access to a company’s web-based computerised maintenance management system (CMMS), while eliminating the need for a technician to return to a workstation to close an order or view the next task.

Such devices also enable technicians in the field to have crucial asset data at their fingertips. Equipment readings, usage histories, security checks and maintenance data can all be collected and entered into the CMMS database in real time, while technicians can receive work orders immediately. Managing reorder levels, cycle counts and annual inventories is also made far more efficient.

Added to that, these devices enable technicians to enter the amount of maintenance time and work performed on the spot or inform managers that new parts are needed.

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