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Digitalisation boosts productivity

08th May 2018

Two fully digitalised industrial plants make National Oilwell Varco a front runner in the Industrie 4.0 revolution. All of the electrical components in the plants can be remotely and digitally accessed, therefore reducing downtimes, speeding-up maintenance, boosting productivity and providing added value for customers.

Failure is not an option when it comes to the product and the production process itself. When oil or gas is transported from the seabed to a tanker or an offshore platform through the flexible pipes produced by National Oilwell Varco, safety is always first and foremost. Some pipes are as long as 12-14 kilometers, and each of them is custom-made to address the often extreme operating conditions. All of this is reflected in the very high production costs.

Despite the heavy machinery that is employed to produce these huge industrial products, National Oilwell Varco is a prime example of a company taking advantage of digitalization. Terabytes of raw data are produced every day at the company’s plant in Kalundborg, Denmark. Here, all electrical components are connected to an industrial network across a plant large enough to have its own harbor. Some of the machines adding layers to the pipes are more than 100 meters long, and they are spread out across several buildings on the harbor. Big data and big production go hand-in-hand, and transmitting this data in a harsh environment requires a tough network and rugged components.

An industrial network has to meet quite different requirements than an office or home network. Routers, switches, access points and other components are developed and produced to function under the harsh conditions and do not tolerate communication losses. Five years ago, National Oilwell Varco designed and began to implement this network that decoupled the office and industrial production environments and modernized the plant by bringing all production devices online.

Fix it fast

Some parts of the plant are still to be digitalized, but the benefits in production and customer service are already quite obvious. For instance, all components are monitored and diagnosed from a central operating room, based on a simple system with green, yellow and red lights that indicate the state of the components. If a single component does not respond for 60 seconds, the responsible manager is alerted by phone. If a cable is broken or has been pulled out, or a drive converter that controls a motor in a machine develops a fault, then the system shows exactly where the incident occurred in the plant.

“We produce 24/7 and it’s a costly production landscape. With this system, our staff provides proactive maintenance, our downtime is basically eliminated – and if anything happens, our personnel can fix it very fast as they don’t have to open up a machine and identify the failed component. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter who’s on duty, as we only use standard components,” explained Mads Thygesen, the plant director.

Standardization is the basis for digitalization

All of the components, including the network devices, are from Siemens. The original plant was based on Siemens components as well, but over time a lot of different components from multiple vendors were added. During the upgrade, National Oilwell Varco upgraded to new equipment and decided to have just one supplier for the automation and industrial network components. They also made the decision to just use standard components.

Using standard components and equipment not only simplifies maintenance, but also serves as the basis for digitalization. Standardization facilitates faster growth. National Oilwell Varco experienced this when, during the same period, it built a sister plant in Brazil, where it produces flexible pipes for a large order that they received. This plant uses precisely the same components, and to a very large extent, it is monitored and managed from Denmark.

“When you operate such large plants with very high demands placed on the safety and availability, you also need a strategy and a structure behind the electronic components. Siemens guarantees that you can still obtain a replacement component five to ten years down the road, parts are always accessible or in stock somewhere in the world. Further, all large consultancy firms are knowledgeable about the software, so we always have access to support if we require it. By shopping around, I might be able to get some components at a lower price, but if that costs me just one hour of production downtime, then that would be far more expensive,” explained Thygesen.

Using data to enhance productivity

Standardization and digitalization are also enhancing the productivity, because it makes customized mass production possible. All pipes are custom-made to address local site conditions, for example regarding waves, temperature, salt and the attributes of the transported media. Standard components and standard software makes it easy to adjust and optimize the machines for specific pipe products.

During production, raw data from all components is transported through the network and stored in central data centers. The data serves various purposes, for example, documenting every single step of the production process for our customers. This means that every inch of every layer of the pipes is controlled and documented, and this represents high value-added for our customers in an industry where safety has absolute topmost priority.

“Our customers can access this documentation online. For good reasons, this is a conservative business and although we are not quite there yet, it is conceivable that a customer can sit in Singapore and verify data instead of having to fly to Denmark or Brazil. Once this functionality has been fully implemented and accepted in the industry, it will give us a competitive edge,” said Thygesen.

The productivity of their plants represents another competitive edge. Based on the captured data, Thygesen and his team can compare and analyze the performance of their various machines.

“After optimizing our automation, our system captures information and data from all of the components, which can be used to measure our production performance. For instance, we can compare energy consumption and use it to optimize plant performance even further, and with two plants operating on two continents running the same equipment, we have a good foundation for comparing performance and fine-tuning the settings if one produces better than the other. In conjunction with the proactive maintenance and fast problem solving, this has already enhanced our productivity” he explained.

A long-term investment

With the digitalization of these two plants, National Oilwell Varco has taken a huge step towards the Industrie 4.0 concept, where all components in a manufacturing plant are online, connected, and capable of exchanging data. But for the team in Kalundborg, it was simply a matter of doing the right thing at the right time.

The network is designed to have enough capacity for at least the next decade, and the advice from Thygesen is to be patient and foresighted when rolling out an industrial infrastructure of this scale. It is also crucial to set aside sufficient time for planning.

“Our initial description of our requirements was limited by our imagination only – and once you reach that limit, you become aware of other features. As is often the case for similar projects, we made change requests along the way. You also need to understand that it takes time for employees to make the adjustment from running an analog plant to running a fully digitalized one. To be honest, our return on investment might take one or two years longer than originally expected, but a responsible management decision on matters like these should never be short-sighted. There is no doubt in my mind that the paperless industrial shopfloor is the way of the future,” Thygesen emphasized.