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Automation changes the face of maintenance

12 May 2020

Advances in condition monitoring – brought about by automated collection and analysis of data – mean maintenance teams spend less time collecting data and more time acting on it. Geraint Jones, Technical Manager at SKF discusses the implications this has for automation moving forwards

Data is critical to maintenance. Without the latest machine information, maintenance staff have nothing to act on.

With modern factories increasingly moving over to predictive maintenance, it is important to have machine data available instantly. In addition to this, manufacturers are looking to monitor more and more of their machines – to keep all of them working at maximum efficiency.

Technicians can now collect and track data on a variety of physical parameters and see how these change over time. Routine measurement of temperature, vibration and lubricant condition, for example, has become standard practice in many industries. A recent report from Research and Markets estimates a 7% annual growth rate for condition monitoring equipment to 2025. Online (or remote) monitoring is expected to grow at a significant rate in this period, it says.

Adding automation

Companies have two choices when collecting machine condition data. Manual – where maintenance teams are equipped with handheld devices to measure and record data during routine “walkaround” inspections. Or automated, which requires the installation of permanent sensors to transmit data across a network.

Different assets may need different approaches. Organisations need to balance costs – of collecting, transmitting, storing and analysing the data – against the benefits that the data delivers. Often, organisations use a mix of permanently installed systems (for their most critical assets) and handheld data collection.

The digital revolution will transform industry’s approach to condition monitoring. This is both in the way companies collect data from their machines, and what they do with that information afterwards.

the cost of permanently installed data collection systems continues to fall

Most importantly, the cost of permanently installed data collection systems continues to fall. This is, in part, due to the emergence of robust, affordable sensors and processing electronics. However, connecting those sensors has also become cheaper and easier. This reduces the need for installation labour, dedicated cabling and communications hardware. Together, these can account for up to 75 percent of the cost of a permanent condition monitoring system.

There are many options available to reduce costs. Data acquisition devices can be attached directly to existing wired networks – but the next step is to go wireless. Secure Wi-Fi networks are increasingly common in industrial facilities. Low-power wireless “mesh” network technologies enable the installation of sensors that can operate for years on just battery power.

Wireless technology has helped industry to apply condition monitoring to critical assets in a way that would previously have been unaffordable. This offers a way of improving rotating equipment performance programmes. It is being achieved by combining historical knowledge of machine health monitoring – gathered over many decades – with innovative new networking technology.

One example is an SKF wireless condition monitoring system that automates the collection of vibration data within its service contracts. Here, a mesh network protocol enables sensors to exchange data efficiently – and can even navigate around solid obstacles such as piping and liquid storage tanks. Ordinarily, these physical barriers can interrupt Wi-Fi signals.

Analytic approaches

New analytics approaches – such as the use of machine learning technologies – has also helped to reduce the running cost of advanced condition monitoring systems. These methods automate the interpretation of machine condition data to a higher degree than before – helping companies to monitor more assets with fewer skilled analysts.

New technology is also changing the way that machine condition data is used. While centralised – or remote – data analysis is commonplace, the Internet and Cloud computing have made this far easier and cheaper to implement. That can have huge benefits for companies that need to monitor multiple assets around the world. These technologies make analysis results far more accessible – allowing a factory manager to check the status of a facility on their phone, for instance.

The digital revolution has already seen many changes – in both society and manufacturing. However, despite the prospect of seamless and automated data gathering, the tradition of the factory walkaround is likely to continue. This is because, next to the big data, there will always be a need for technicians to maintain, diagnose and improve machinery. Routine inspections – and root-cause problem solving – will always be needed.

The digital revolution will not remove maintenance specialists from the factory floor. However, it should see them spending less time on routine checks, and more on activities that help to raise machine performance and reliability.