Cleaning house: How technologies take equipment data management from pre-digital to post-virtual

Roxane Richter, Contributing Editor

Imagine bringing your car in to your mechanic for some much-needed repair and maintenance work. You spend hours waiting in the lobby only to have him return, shrug his shoulders and apologize that he’s looked everywhere, but can’t seem to find the proper battery and parts for the car-or even worse, he’s unable to repair your car for several weeks, as the auto shop doesn’t have your car’s exact model and year repair manual.

While the unacceptable auto repair illustration may seem preposterous to most car owners, many utilities today suffer similar challenges-the waste of countless work hours searching through piles of manuals on microfiche and paper only to find inaccurate, out-of-date, or altogether absent, data. In fact, industry experts estimate that 1,200 minutes are wasted every day by a 10-person mechanic team in search of technical repair information; 60 percent of all equipment downtime is due to missing parts or part/maintenance data delays; some 25 percent of plant-inventory stock parts aren’t even in use by the plant, and, to make matters worse, incorrect and/or incomplete data comprises about 35 percent of most maintenance management systems.

And if all of that isn’t enough to send your head spinning, consider the bottom-line cost. On average, $3 million is spent on incorrect, misplaced, incomplete or missing technical equipment in improper maintenance, lost productivity and downtime in a large energy generation plant, according to industry experts.

“We’re addressing the pain. In the capital-intensive asset environment of utilities, about 85 to 90 percent of them are pre-digital, so the ability to get on top of the equipment data management process using the Internet and software tools is like gathering low-hanging fruit,” explained Toronto-based NRX Global Corp. CEO Paul Gray.

One of the utilities out to harvest some of that all-too-easy fruit is Colorado-based Martin Drake Power Plant. Victor Smith, plant maintenance superintendent for the Martin Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs, Colo., understands the pitfalls of having a system that is antiquated. “The old way of looking up parts took an excessive amount of time and often the information was incorrect,” explained Smith. “When you have over 1,300 pieces of equipment in a plant and your crafts people spend time looking for parts it’s very expensive. We had to find another way to improve the process.”

And considering the current belt-tightening, downsizing climate in energy companies today, that’s a savings many utilities would like to see added to their bottom-line revenues.

A quantum leap of doing more with less

Now that utilities have slashed and burned labor costs to the lowest viable work force, where can they go to gain more efficiency? To the rescue are energy’s high-tech tools: tools that have always accomplished more with less-more efficiencies with lowered labor costs, and more productivity with less downtime.

Historically, some 30 to 40 percent of every planner’s day is spent sourcing parts. But in a robust, digital environment, that time can be cut to less than 10 percent.

Improving the maintenance of your critical production equipment is a smart strategy for margin improvement and competitive advantage, said Gray.

For instance, he explained, a 2,500-MW coal-fired station has anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000 pieces of critical equipment. “Maintenance is a large part of their $60 million budget, consuming 20 percent or more of the station’s fixed or ‘controllable’ costs-and it represents significant savings opportunities.” According to NRX, over three to five years, if that station would implement a robust software solution like NRX’s Visual Plant System, that same plant could reduce its maintenance costs by as much as 25 percent, or $5 million.

From “points of pain” to “areas of impact”

First and foremost, barriers to information access must be torn down across all utility work groups in order to gain enterprise-wide efficiencies throughout the equipment data management value chain. From maintenance planners to plant management personnel, all personnel must gain user-friendly access to accurate, mission-critical data.

By utilizing Web-based, integrated and seamless data control and digital content conversion services and software, utilities can see numerous areas of impact affected by high-tech data creation and delivery:

  • In the work management process-work identification, planning, scheduling, execution, documentation and analysis is optimized.

  • Digital knowledge capture addresses the aging workforce issue and ensures the proper transfer of insight from one generation of workers to another.

  • Obsolete and duplicate parts are removed from inventory.

  • Maintenance rework caused by bad data is reduced; human error minimized.

  • Preventative and predictive maintenance becomes a reality.

In the end, the transfer of legacy enterprise data to Web-based visual tools builds a bulletproof foundation for a utility’s successful maintenance management processes, programs and strategy. The move makes fiscal sense and takes today’s paper-based and pre-digital utilities to Web-based wonders of high-tech efficiency.

Richter is a veteran energy journalist specializing in new technologies, deregulation, risk management and energy marketing. She can be reached at For additional information about the Visual Plant System, visit

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