The Solution – The Answer to the Question
The solution to the question of expert systems and silos of excellence is to make all information pertinent to the work of others available to others. What might this look like?
Figure 1 above depicts a workstation that has role based access to multiple expert systems where data resides necessary for performing the workers tasks and functions. This technology is already deployed with thousands users in manufacturing companies. Several have ties to the power industry including GE, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox. The objective is to craft the portal so 90% or more of the individual’s work can be accomplished from their desk. This improves the effectiveness of each individual’s contribution and the efficiency of the organization. This can and should be done without displacing legacy systems if they are performing satisfactory.
As a counterpoint to the situation in Figure 1 is an all too frequently heard lament where the manager spent hours collecting information in order to produce a report that took a fraction of that time to write. The question here is not only the cost of the time, but the opportunity cost of the manager time at a plant producing more than 2,000 MWe? What future problems might have been avoided if the manager had that time to observe his crews or look over long range plans, or review performance trends?
Another impact of silos of excellence is the reduced opportunity to collaborate on plant wide issues. In most plant organizations the limited resources and competing interests for technical experts’ time virtually eliminates significant collaboration except in rare cases and then this occurs only if driven by key priorities. On major capital projects, modifications and plant evolutions, project and program managers are left to their own insights, expertise and capacity to implement these with narrowly focused project or program teams. Other industries have recognized the need to collaborate not only internally, but externally with vendors, consultants and suppliers to produce optimum solutions to issues and produce high quality results. So in addition to accomplishing 90% of their work from their workstation, the need to collaborate is key to long term success and organizational effectiveness.
A third aspect of consideration is the workflow and business processes automation. How many of the processes are still driven from in-basket to in-basket in a serial fashion adding days, weeks and months to tasks and the production of reasonable outcomes? Having an IT system manage workflow, transmit documents, route approvals, etc. is an additional advantage of a well integrated automated system. Again, this should be done without displacing well designed legacy systems.
Take into consideration the typical engineering change process at a plant. From problem identification to final corrective action taken in the field the process has many series of steps, approvals, reviews, budgeting, procurements, planning meetings, etc. all driven by procedure and various levels of authorities, and across multiple silos in the operation. Manufacturers have very similar demands concerning engineering effecting change to their products. Not only is the product change controlled, but the manufacturing process is changed to produce the product ultimately driving plant and facility changes and capital budgets. Automating these processes makes product changes effective, efficient and improves quality of changes while positively impacting the bottom line of these operations. The same opportunities exists for new construction and existing nuclear power plants when workflow automation is deployed.
The Path Leading Out
Escaping the labyrinth of “silos of excellence”, expert systems and limited access to information requires fore-planning, thought and leadership. While there are many similarities in organizations, processes and tools, no two organizations are exactly alike or have the exact needs. While one organization may be performing in the top quartile of plants in the country and desires to implement an integrating IT solution as a strategic action to assure effective use of limited engineering resources, a second operating plant may elect to implement a solution as a tool to help recover from being placed on a regulatory watch list respond to audit identified weakness in particular processes. Both will need to be driven programs because they are changes and change must be led not managed.
Before moving forward with any solution, a valid question would be is there a problem to solve or a benefit that can be realized? To validate if there is a problem and to what extent it exists it is common to consider performing a business value assessment or BVA. This is a fairly low cost way to determine if there are opportunities for improved effectiveness in use of resources in the organization. The BVA is often customized to meet the specific needs of the customer and is essentially a series of interviews and research to determine and document the extent, reach and cost of continuing with the status quo. Armed with this information, business decisions can be made and a course of action developed. The BVA process also becomes the foundation for the planning process establishing the goals and objectives that are to be achieved if management decides to move forward with an initiative.
While most businesses require a customized solution, the technical nature of work at a capital intensive facility such as nuclear power plant has requirements uncommon to other businesses. Addressing the key attributes described above for a superior solution is not readily done with most existing business software packages. The ability to access existing legacy systems and drawing data for use in other application is a large challenge. One application that effectively does this is the ENOVIA products from Dassault Systemes, a French software developer and manufacturer. Previously known as Matrix One, this solution easily customized using business process accelerators. This solution has been customized to address needs in nuclear fuel fabrication, component manufacturing and lifecycle management of related plants and facilities.
Extra Benefits for New Construction
In addition to existing plants, there is a special opportunity for those considering the construction of a new nuclear plant. If addressed as part of the project, the plant owner/operator has an opportunity to put in place the integrated IT solution as a means of managing the design, manufacturing, construction and turnover of their new plant.
A well developed solution not only aids in actively managing information flow between the engineer, procurement, major OEMs and constructor, but becomes the foundation of information for operations, engineering, technical programs, materials, etc. The opportunity exists not only to improve the development of the new plant project with collaboration among all the various stakeholders in the project, managing workflow and maintaining “one source of the truth” for the new plant, but to establish a true plant lifecycle management and configuration management source program beginning with the design phase of the project. This approach requires the owner/operator to be proactive with a view to the future when total responsibility for plant operation and configuration management is the operator’s responsibility. Truth be told, few organizations take this long term view and largely those left to operate and maintain the plants pay the price for years for this shortcoming.
What is in the Future
There is no doubt the top quartile of operating nuclear power plants will use technologies that help organizations to better use the diminishing resource of technical talent such as engineers and other knowledge workers. The demographics are not looking favorably on the industry when it comes to a technical talent pool. The void will never be filled completely and market forces will only begin to produce some relief over the next couple decades.
If necessity is the mother of invention, this shortage of technical expertise will be a driver for ways to make better use of the talent each organization is able to retain. Those organization that don’t begin to develop technology solutions around sharing information, collaboration and workflow will ultimately work harder and harder to perform more poorly than their counterparts that develop a technology strategy to breakdown the “silos of excellence” making information available across the organization. It will no longer be acceptable to have a plant engineer spend hours looking for information to produce a report that takes a half hour to write. No longer will it be acceptable for the best answer to reside in the organization, but produce less superior results because there was ineffective collaboration. No longer will it be satisfactory for cycle time for plant modifications extend because of poor and inconsistent workflows causing reduced ROA due not being implemented in a timely fashion.
Combining access to information, the ability to accomplish a significant portion of daily tasks at the workstation, providing a platform for collaboration and managing business processes workflows are each essential attributes of well integrated IT solution. Without each of these the value of the system dramatically decreases to plant and facility operators, and the organization at large.
Figure 2: Collaboration Spectrum
About the Author
Christian L. Staubus has a BS in Marine Engineering from the US Merchant Marine Academy and an MBA the University of Dallas. He has worked for more than three decades in the power and utility industries. He currently is the General Manager for Utility Services for BCP Engineers & Consultants that provides services to the nuclear power industry worldwide with its focus on direct support of plant operations and capital projects.