How to turn digital technology into real solutions that add immediate value to your business.

As the ‘noise’ around digital reaches fever pitch, and every man and his dog jumps on the bandwagon, many companies remain confused about where or how to start using exotic new technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality or the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Sue Bradley, Beca’s Principal of Industrial Advisory, cuts through the hype.

When it comes to digital tools, equal measures of scaremongering and hyperbole have created a paralysis of indecision. Leaders know their organisations cannot stand still in a disrupted world. They see how digital tools have the potential to create a powerful advantage. But, understandably, executives are hesitant to commit to tech investments without an iron-clad business case.

They don’t want to get distracted by ‘shiny toys’.

At Beca, we wholeheartedly agree. Our advice is to stop worrying about the technology itself and instead focus on the value it can bring to your business. All technology – digital or otherwise – is simply a means to an end. If it can add value to your business by providing staff with new insights and empowering them to make processes more effective and efficient – then it’s worth a look.

And the good news is: you can take that look with very little investment.

Real digital solutions in action

Right now, Beca is collaborating with many of our clients to develop use cases that give corresponding business performance benefits. The idea is for digital pilots and proof of concept projects to ‘earn’ incremental funding by demonstrating measurable value.

As you can see from the following examples, all kinds of digital tools can be overlaid on legacy systems to deliver immediate business benefits:

Asset information management (AIM)

Called many things, including digital engineering and BIM, asset information management provides a single point of truth for asset-related information so that accurate, up-to-date data is easily accessible for engineering, maintenance and operations. 3D models with associated asset information attached can provide easy access to data relating to new installations, however potentially of more interest is using reality capture (laser scans and high resolution 3D pictures from drones or ground based equipment) to capture existing assets. This information can then be viewed in a variety of environments such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and desktop mobile devices.

Over the last six months we’ve seen a shift in industrial clients adopting this digital approach as they start to realise the benefits of smarter ways of managing asset information. The benefits are clear in the design and build phase, but what’s becoming clearer is the long-term value of introducing rich digital models in the ongoing operation and maintenance of asset/s.

  • Streamlining operations and maintenance: We helped a major industrial client build a pilot reality capture model of a processing plant, capturing high resolution information of every piece of equipment. Now there is no need to come on site to view things, complete job safety analysis’ or take measurements for engineering, maintenance and trade people. Instead they can use the model to ‘walk around’ the site far more safely and efficiently. This information will also improve engineering project schedules where digital information is required to design from. Attaching existing site information sources (SAP, SCADA information, drawings and document, and maintenance management system data) will further improve the value of this digital asset. The potential time and money savings easily justify the investment in these tools.

Augmented Reality (AR)

AR glasses integrate digital content – audio, video, checklists, overlaid schematics, sensor information – with the user’s view of the world. An augmented version of you, empowered to undertake activities you may not have been able to do without the technology. Typically fitted with a transparent heads-up display, scanner, GPS and an integrated camera and microphone. AR glasses give workers access to existing business processes, instructions, advice and information as they need it – resulting in super-charged convenience and productivity.

  • Cutting the cost of plant repairs: Asahi Beverages is using augmented reality glasses to allow almost-instant access to specialist support when production equipment breaks down in remote locations. Previously, technical specialists would often need to fly out to fix remote issues – an enormously expensive delay in a process where minutes of downtime count as many dollars in lost production. Now, local operators supply the eyes and the physical presence, with specialist expertise supplied remotely. On the back of estimated savings from the pilot, Asahi is enthusiastically expanding the technology to other locations. In the future, it will enable the introduction of automated instructions for standard maintenance procedures, with the headset walking a worker through the process in real time: “Press here… now use this tool (photo) to open this hatch…” – reducing reliance on specialists. See how they are trialling AR for yourself in the video below.

Virtual Reality (VR)

VR technology creates a highly realistic, immersive experience, enabling users to ‘walk through’ and interact with remote work environments from anywhere.

  • Inspect your plant before you build: Digital models can be placed into VR environment allowing stakeholders to experience a project before it is built. VR design reviews, operability reviews, maintainability reviews, HAZOP reviews, architectural feature reviews and stakeholder engagement sessions are just some of the many uses of using digital models in VR environments. There are huge savings in experiencing things before they are built and making design changes in lieu of physical changes. This removes a lot of unknown and cost risks from projects and we get incredible feedback about the benefits from those who use this service.
  • H&S training simulators: Fonterra is also using its plant model to develop revolutionary training within H&S, environmental and food safety areas. VR-enabled courses are more effective than classroom training and substantially safer, more efficient and convenient than taking participants into an actual plant area. We expect industries like fisheries to use the same approach for inducting seasonal workers in boat safety. VR can simulate dangerous, high sea conditions, getting workers used to the environment before they ever step on board.

Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors

Retrofitted onto existing plant, IoT sensors can communicate with remote computer systems about their status, location or the external environment. These sensors gather and analyse information, helping workers and managers make better decisions for very little outlay.

  • Improving safety: A New Zealand winery is starting to use IoT sensors to understand CO2 pressure inside wine storage tanks. Gathering this data will allow the winery to potentially redesign the tank access to significantly reduce the risks of working at height. The cheaply fitted sensors make this possible.
  • Reducing power costs: A food production facility is investigating using IoT sensors to understand and lower its power consumption. The facility is also hoping to use sensor data to track power as a production input for different products.
  • Monitoring operations: Christchurch City Council is in the tendering phase of installing IoT devices to monitor and collect data from 1,483 vacuum chambers in the wastewater system. The project takes advantage of new battery technologies and low power radio technology to remove the need for extensive cabling for power and communications while still providing alarms in real time to operators. High resolution updates of valve performance will also be collected to a central server allowing Council staff to easily assess which valves need adjusted and maintained. This data will also provide insights for future capital expenditure to improve and expand the system.

Data visualisation

Data visualisation software can help managers find new patterns in existing spreadsheet information quickly and simply, without the need for expensive modelling.

  • Preventing unnecessary investment: A major New Zealand waste water company was trying to gauge the impact of different operating strategies on their fleet composition. Using new data visualisation techniques to analyse the company’s existing data, we were able to help them test these “what if” scenarios and measure the impact of different fleet composition on customer service levels.

Simulation software

Computer simulation allows businesses to test out ‘what if’ scenarios on existing systems without risk.

  • Providing capacity certainty: We are currently helping a dairy processing company use simulation modelling to answer plant capacity questions such as: Can we fulfil our customer demands using our existing equipment? What would be the impact of additional equipment on the quantity of high value products we can produce?

Limitless possibilities

For me, the most exciting thing about all these examples is the original benefit the client was chasing often ends up being superseded by other benefits we hadn’t even thought of.  

Digital isn’t the prerogative of big business or of fancy new start-ups. Any company, with any type of legacy system can start using digital tools – right now.

Information management is evolving towards a “Digital Twin” (A digital replica of your physical plant). Many of the benefits of a “Digital Twin” can be made available now by using BIM models, simulation models and financial models driven from the same data sets. Access can be cloud based or “on Premises”. The result is extraordinarily powerful tools that are honestly only limited by our imagination.

I can’t wait to see where our digital experiments take us and our clients next. 


Read more about IoT in the first of our Industry 4.0 series – What every business needs to know about IoT  or find out more about how we’re making smart simple for our clients here.

About the Author
Sue Bradley

Principal - Industrial Advisory

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