New technology has the power to improve competitiveness in nuclear power plant (NPP) maintenance, says Gilles Perrier, Head of Operational Excellence and Digital Transformation at Framatome’s* Installed Base (IB) Business Unit.New technology has the power to improve competitiveness in nuclear power plant (NPP) maintenance, says Gilles Perrier, Head of Operational Excellence and Digital Transformation at Framatome’s* Installed Base (IB) Business Unit.
By Gilles Perrier’s own admission, operational excellence and digital transformation seem strange bedfellows, but it’s the thinking that combined the two that leads him to believe major transformation is on the way.
“We put these functions together to improve efficiency but also because the feedback from our customers suggested it would help us deliver a solution to their challenges,” he said.
Framatome’s customers include utilities operating more than 250 NPPs worldwide. Among Framatome’s 14,000 employees, about 3,600 people are working in a business that provides services and products in maintenance, organization, asset life cycle, conditioning and engineering, as well as some services for new reactors of all design types.
“Our customers talk about safety, quality, cost, delivery and optimization all the time,” said Perrier. “They face big challenges. In the US, for example, utilities must reduce their costs by 30 per cent to remain viable because shale gas is cheaper and the market environment is extremely competitive. For them, it’s essential to be at the right level. You don’t do that by reducing safety but by increasing safety.
“At the same time, all over the world we’re seeing how digitalisation is transforming industry.
Acceleration in the development of technology
The recent and rapid development of technology is what’s making such transformation possible, Gilles Perrier noted. Ten years ago, electronic sensors had less capability, computer analytics were less developed and data storage was a fraction of what it is today.
None of today’s leading developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and virtual reality were possible a few years ago. “That’s the key difference,” said Perrier. “From every point of view, a lot of things are changing and we need to be part of it.”
Framatome makes operational excellence and Lean methodology a key part of its maintenance and services activity. “This enables us to provide new solutions with customers; to improve our quality and planning; and to continuously improve the way we work,” said Perrier.
Through digitalization, the company is rationalizing cost, providing new products for customers and digitalizing the workplace, which Gilles Perrier admits is “a diverse topic” covering the way people work together, communications, mobility and more.
Priorities for 2018
Framatome recognizes such large-scale transformation has to come about in a series of step-changes. The IB business unit’s priorities for 2018 are to industrialize activities in three areas:
- Paperless operations
- Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality
- Asset management
The nuclear industry still uses fair amounts of paper, from design to planning, operation, maintenance and decommissioning, and it’s not quite easy to handle, said Gilles Perrier.
Framatome has benchmarked other industries such as aerospace and automotive in their use of electronic documentation and devices such as tablets. “We want to foster the use of these tools,” he said.
“Paperless solutions will be good for us as a company, for our customers and for the industry. Already we see initiatives, in France, the US, Germany and other places. Some applications have been industrialized.”
Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality
VR is in place and working with Framatome’s SUSI robot. This sophisticated device has been used for non-destructive inspections inside a reactor’s primary system. But where previously training operators involved building a duplicate vessel and robot, today it’s done with VR. A trainee operator puts on a VR helmet and instantly is fully in the plant, with the robot and the exact same system he will use in real life – at greatly reduced cost.
“When we talk about mixed reality,” said Gilles Perrier, “we’re actually talking about combining VR with AR to bring virtual objects in the real world. The possibilities are huge: better tools, better economics, improved training and so on.”
One project is to develop the use of a wearable device such as the “Hololens”, a mixed reality headset**. The idea is to load it with all the information needed by people in the field so they can work with their hands free. This project is still in the early trial stage but already proving very efficient.
Huge inventory on the move
Asset management is also a challenge. As Gilles Perrier explained, Framatome has a huge inventory of tools all over the world, evolving regularly, that must be easily transported to wherever they are needed for our customers.
The company is also investigating how other industries, notably aerospace, are moving forward with predictive maintenance using data analytics. Adopting similar approaches with live data from NPPs could help improve reliability and cost. Some pioneering work in this area in nuclear is being done in the US.
Moutains to climb
“We have big mountains to climb,” said Gilles Perrier. “There are many routes to the top. These are some of our ideas.”
For Framatome, marrying operational excellence and digital transformation makes sense. “We know a ‘technopush’ – giving everyone a tablet tomorrow – is not going to work. On other hand, the traditional operational excellence view could seem old-fashioned.
“Our approach is to bring together the power of Lean and the power of digitalization to provide solutions to today’s challenges.”
The risk in a programme of change is stopping at the R&D stage, with proof of concept, and not proceeding to industrialization. It may sound easy, he said, but the cultural transformation can prove difficult. Research has found that most people think about IT first when what they really should be thinking about people first.
“What we’re doing is not science fiction; it’s today’s reality and we’re moving forward. We have our targets for 2018. Some digital processes will be completed during the year, some by year-end.
“Globally we see a general willingness among utilities to embrace digital technology. There are challenges in working with big data in the nuclear industry, but we are optimistic that the benefits of new approaches will make the transformation easier.”