Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries have made surprising realizations that will continue to affect how business is conducted even once the world returns to “normal” – or as close to normal as we’re going to get.
These lasting impacts have taken many forms, such as office managers realizing that flex schedules and remote work synergize with their operation more than expected, or restaurants hesitant in embracing digital realizing what an online menu can do for them.
But one particularly interesting, highly impactful example exists far from the public eye, in the energy sector. The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 in this sector have forced plant managers to think outside of the box, and their doing so has unearthed a significant process improvement: remote collaboration.
Whether it be gas, electric, nuclear or otherwise, the energy sector has been traditionally reliant on visits from specialists and experts for most operations that go beyond the day-to-day. Machinery upgrades, part replacements and other forms of specialized maintenance typically require uncommon expertise and equipment to manage, measure and monitor on any given project – thus the need for an outside specialist.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions proved to be a major disruption for these kinds of tasks. With greatly reduced on-site presence and additional red tape standing in the way of any outside experts traveling to the site, many operators were suddenly facing a conundrum: they couldn’t easily bring experts to the site, but needed the outside expertise and equipment to keep their plants operational.
Working with partners who specialize in remote communications and digitization, some operators began to rely on a previously untested method that proved surprising in its efficiency – so much so that some are now making the argument that it should be the “new normal” for these tricky procedures.
Out of the Box
The solution is elegantly simple: if you can’t bring an outsider to the job site, then just ship all the equipment for the job straight to the plant and let technology fill in any gaps.
Let’s say a gas plant needs a new compressor – starting this process would normally require a rigging company to come and take measurements for the design work.
However, considering the difficulty of getting a person to the site, why not instead have a laser scanner and a headset shipped to the site? With the contents of this single package, an on-site engineer can use the headset to connect directly with a remote expert, who then provides just-in-time training to walk them through the operation of the laser scanner using the headset’s “see what I see” functionality.
The data from the scans can then be instantly submitted to the rigging company, fulfilling the measurement task without the need for any outside visitors.
Plants that have utilized this approach since the pandemic started have found remote collaboration to be such a success that they say they may keep using it even after restrictions have lifted. The chief reason is in how much time and money can be saved by letting tasks that demand special visits instead be handled through remote work.
Normally, getting an expert to a plant is a long, expensive process. Even if the job itself might only take a few hours, there can be days of travel plus additional time for on-site approval processes – a necessary and rigorous requirement in cases of nuclear plants and other potentially dangerous facilities, even ignoring pandemic restrictions.
Then, of course, there’s the price involved with all of that travel: the cost of a plane ticket, booking a hotel room and so on. All of this time and money adds up to make even relatively simple jobs turn into complex, costly undertakings. Many plants simply thought it was part of doing business – until now.
There are even further benefits for the newly remote experts. Until now, these specialists would need to make lengthy sojourns to each job site, taking a full week to do a few jobs at most. But under the new paradigm of remote collaboration, made entirely possible by a simple delivery of a headset and any other necessary equipment for a given job, they could ship the required equipment to five different sites and do more than a week’s worth of work in a single day.
Necessity often begets great insights, and for the energy sector, the pandemic was no exception.