The technical knowledge and division of responsibilities necessary to satisfy the technology and regulatory aspects of designing, constructing and operating power plants is broad, and impacts the communications and information flow. Establishing a common platform for the management of information improves the efficiency and effectiveness of project and operational organizations.

For existing plants the changing regulatory, technology and plant material condition environments have required the development of in-house experts to address these changes. In addition, business processes and associated influences from corporate organization structures further make the integration of information on a single platform unlikely without leadership and organizational capital. The impact on efficiency and effectiveness of not integrating this information has historically been accepted as a cost of doing business. The impact of non-productive time spent researching multiple databases, systems and programs can be greatly reduced through the introduction of a common platform that allows the existing systems and expert users to continue while allowing others access to critical information in a format that meets their needs.

The power industry has an opportunity to gain from the lessons learned in other regulated and competitive industries of similar information breadth by applying integrating IT systems. The benefits and opportunities to improve organizational and project effectiveness for the power industry ultimately are recognized in improved return on the nuclear plant as an asset.

The Quest for Information and Silos of Excellence

Owners and operators of nuclear power plants and facilities since the beginning have been on a quest for information. This is the case whether you are a designer, maintenance manager, or corporate executive. The size and complexity of the plant, equipment and systems has forced a focus on collecting and managing more and more data in response to regulatory issues, operational and performance concerns.

On top of this need for data the industry has been driven by the complexity of the regulations, technologies and evolving requirements from all stakeholders to segment the business of running the plant and facilities into areas of expertise or “silos”. These silos are further driven by their unique needs, requirements, technical programs and commitments. Within these silos high levels of competency have been built or regulators or their surrogates were identifying weaknesses in our ability to safely operate.

What came first – the need for greater amounts of data, or the need to create silos of experts, is not what is at issue. The problem is as an industry we have built or acquired expert information systems to manage the collection of data and support our silos of excellence. Now we are here and realize we have a greater need. The need not being met is making this information available to the generalist, non-experts and managers to improve decision-making, operations and return on our investment in plant and equipment.

Expert Systems for Experts – What about the Rest of Us

It is seen time and time again where an engineer with responsibilities for say the ASME Section XI program has acquired or developed a technology tool to aid him in his efforts. This would include valve lists, weld information, and other data that would aid him in executing the plant’s program commitments. This type of expert system may have fewer than a handful of people who even know how to use the system to get to critical information for planning, review or assessing. Heaven help the owner whose expert falls in front of a bus.

With the prolifera of expert systems and work processes that crossed numerous silos of excellence some tools were created that would aid in managing this multifaceted work. One area where the tools have experienced commercial success is in the work management and maintenance areas. These systems have over time combined the scheduling of maintenance and routine tasks with procurement, warehousing and some document management functions.

These systems however are still expert systems with perhaps a larger user base. This is evident when one asks what percent of the plant staff have access to these systems. Can most of management readily access these systems and investigate equipment or system issues for themselves or do they need to request someone to run a report? While these “super-expert” systems are an improvement, they still don’t address all the needs for information at a plant as is evidenced by other systems on site to support corporate reporting, other expert systems to support programs and databases for commitment tracking, project management, cost accounting and the like.

If information is only available to those lucky enough to be trained on the system and have access to it, what are the rest of the knowledge workers to do? How much staff time could be better applied if management wasn’t always asking for reports? What gains might be made if there was true automation of business processes and necessary information and data made available in a secure environment? Answering these questions put us on the path for strategic improvement in running our businesses as well as improving the operational effectiveness of our plant organizations.

Technology Once the Problem – Now the Answer

With a few exceptions the staff of most operating plants are working with designs and assets that are decades old. If one traces back what has transpired since these plants came into being it would be evident a great boom in technology and advent of power being delivered to the desktop. I got my first computer in 1982 which I lugged between home and work to make my plant support job easier. Prior to readily available computing power most programs, projects and complex evolutions were managed from paper lists, paper plans and paper procedures. As desktop computers became more common we found many uses for them with the idea they would make our job easier. Ultimately it came to a point where data was captured, information created and saved in a fashion that suit our individual use because we could. Knowledge workers created spreadsheets, calculations, and databases of all sorts all with limited access for others.

The computer technology explosion led us into the silos. Not just plant staff was into this evolution in how work was accomplished. Vendors, OEMs, AEs and yes even regulators got on board. The trending of results, its analysis, investigation of anomalies and preparation for the defense of decisions from the silos of excellence all directed us down the path to where we are today.

So technology and its evolution into our work place certainly was a prime contributor to the problem. However, it now is part of the solution as well. As any technology evolves choosing the point at which to standardize is of key strategic importance. As an example we can compare the British and US railroad systems. The British as an earlier adopter of steam locomotives for transportation standardized on a smaller gauge rail size that was most prevalent at the time of standardization. The US which slightly lagged the British in development of a system was able to standardize on a larger gauge rail system that permits greater load carrying capacity, while the British system is now relegated largely to passenger traffic.

This example points to the strategic question for owner/operators of nuclear plants. At what point is the risk and cost of not changing greater than standardizing on an improved technology? This question is particularly relevant in light that the proven technology exists today is heavily used in other industries and is the platform from which many execute all key business processes and integrate company information.

Article by Chris Staubus

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