Digital transformation of heavy industry has never been more feasible, and necessary, than it is now. In fact, data shows that in response to COVID-19, corporate digital adoption has "vaulted five years forward" in just eight weeks as businesses have sought to digitalise significant areas of their operations. With health and safety front and centre, even field workers have been charged with finding new ways to carry out their work so that they can operate remotely too. In plants worldwide, the use of risk-based inspection and maintenance techniques has helped to reduce costs whilst keeping workers safe, and assets well maintained throughout this challenging time.
Digital transformation: a fundamental change
For many large industrial companies, digital transformation has been in the cards for a while, with most taking steps to implement digital strategies that bring long-term benefits to their operations. As a recent poll by LRQA shows, nearly 40% of asset managers said that digitalisation is fundamental to their business, with a further 29% identifying it as important. This trend has only accelerated as companies have sought ways to retain a sense of business as usual in the face of the major disruption caused. Seeing the benefits of digital transformation first-hand, many businesses will begin to look at other ways they can benefit.
Contending with supply chain issues and the reduced availability of skilled resources, one function that has suffered from the disruption more than most is operations and maintenance. In our recent poll, only 14% of respondents reported no maintenance backlog, while 38% identified that it had been increasing. Without the ability to prioritise tasks effectively, an increasing backlog creates additional risk. Digital transformation can make all the difference by offering asset managers the ability to leverage a wealth of data to focus maintenance efforts.
Necessary tasks only
While several factors contribute to a rising backlog, one of the most significant is the number of maintenance and inspection tasks being scheduled that are unable to take into account extenuating circumstances, for example the constraints caused by a global pandemic. One of the major reasons for this is a reliance on time-based asset management techniques. Simply put, these techniques are not able to go far enough to identify and quantify the risk of failure, in comparison to the more advanced methods that are available. In practice this means that assets are often inspected or maintained without consideration for the actual condition of the asset or its risk profile.
Surprisingly, over 30% of all asset management teams continue to rely on time-based techniques, according to our research. During the height of COVID-19, this may have led to teams being called on site to inspect or maintain assets that were at low risk of failure. Further, as inspection and maintenance teams now return to work, those that rely on time-based techniques are likely to be met by a large backlog of work past its due date. Faced by a lack of insight into the assets that pose the highest risk, they will be unable to prioritise those jobs that need to be done first.
Meanwhile, teams that have transitioned to risk-based inspection (RBI) through a modern cloud-enabled system, have been able to manage much of their operations remotely all this time. When they have been required on site, it is to perform maintenance tasks that have been deemed as absolutely necessary for equipment categorised as having a high or medium-high risk of failure. Taking a risk-based approach to the inspection and maintenance regime has not only kept the plant safe but also lowered the risk of staff being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, by significantly reducing their time on site.
A risk-based approach doesn't just deliver benefits in exceptional circumstances though. When companies initially implement RBI, they typically experience a decrease in the number of inspections required because the focus shifts to the critical equipment. Since tasks are driven by the risk and particular condition of each asset, this results in intervals being extended and therefore plant shutdowns to become less frequent. Furthermore, RBI also reduces the risk of failure by 80% to 95% and the number of equipment items being opened by 30% to 60%. This equates to less time out in the field, and in danger's way, 365 days a year.
A case in point, one company that has been ahead of the curve with its ability to work remotely and minimise risk to maintenance staff is a world-leading fertiliser company. They invested in an RBI solution from LRQA as a means to improve safety and asset integrity.
On implementation it was identified that less than 5% of components were contributing to 95% of their cumulative risk. This enabled them to focus inspection on assets with high and medium-high probability of failure, avoiding safety consequences and production loss. Later, they added asset performance management with LRQA's AllAssets into their maintenance regime in order to provide a more accurate and up-to-date picture of the condition of their equipment and further enhance the strategy. All of this was possible because of their commitment to driving a step change in process safety, asset integrity and efficiency and the decision to digitally transform their operations and maintenance.
Returning to a business with less risk?
Businesses globally are executing plans to return to "business as usual", and as we step out of the shadow of COVID-19, there has never been a better time to improve what business as usual looks like by committing to digital transformation. Afterall, no inspection and maintenance team should have to contend with months' worth of backlog when a smart algorithm can optimise that plan in an instant while reducing the risk of failure and downtime too.