How everything is going to change for operations and maintenance businesses?

Maintaining the integrity of an industrial asset is crucial for both security and performance aspects. Many activities are involved such as periodic inspections, repairs and structural expertise.

Let us assess how these activities could be impacted by today’s technological breakthroughs (deeptech) in sectors requiring regular inspections (electricity grids, renewable energies-solar/wind, manufacturing plants, etc.).

It is undeniable that artificial intelligence, robots, drones or IoT already bring an operational added value today to maintain infrastructures integrity. Those tech allow saving time in processing inspection data, starting predictive maintenance to respond to requirements, increasing operation security on industrial sites (have a look at our case study here).

5 years to go before robots and AI will be every day tools for any industrial asset manager

There are several major reasons why a few more years are required before the deeptechs will be deployed on a wider scale in the industry :

  • For technologies linked to artificial intelligence, we are dealing with learning systems that will get better as models and volumes of qualified data improve. Since beginning of 2018 we have at Sterblue an AI able to detect defects on electrical poles with a 98% accuracy and within 5 years can’t even imagine how accurate will the other AI have become.
  • The regulatory framework and norms will keep evolving making drones more productive by allowing multiple drones per pilot, greater distances for BVLOS operations etc.
  • Important assessment phases are still needed to be carried out before they can be integrated into the operational procedures of companies

What will be the key impacts over the next 5 years?

1. Downsizing? NO

The associated gain in productivity might lead to a fear of a slump in workload for companies, but this will not be the case:

  • These technologies will make it possible to carry out inspection/maintenance operations that could not be done before (railway lines, high voltage pylons, factories, etc.). New services will be created.
  • In some cases, this will involve the use of less expensive means overall but will require more human resources to implement them, for example helicopter versus drones on electrical distribution grid.
  • By 2040 energy requirements will have increased by 40%, as well the population reaching 10 billion by 2050 and generally increasing the need for all types of new infrastructures.

2. Job evolution? Yes but only minor

No major changes are anticipated. Business experts will no longer spend time detecting the slightest surface defects on a structure but will instead focus on validating algorithms job, looking at detailed analysis of defects and the ability to cross different information flows. Their final deliverable inspection will also be improved. Drone pilots will be there to ensure the smooth running of complex automated flights for data acquisition, saving time in this phase and thus increasing productivity for their customers. Repair operators will still carry out repairs on the various infrastructures and change any defective components.

3. Increased performance of industrial assets? YES

The impacts in terms of security and asset performance will be largely beneficial. Indeed, progress will gradually be made to increase security through constant analysis of infrastructures via multiple sources of information (sensors, drones, etc.) and predictive analysis to intervene for the correct requirement. Infrastructures will be monitored more effectively, industrial insurance premiums will decrease and the performance for users will be improved (fewer power cuts, better performance from wind farms, etc.).

In 5 years, humans will have total confidence in these breakthrough technologies. This will be a period of great changes.

What will be the key impacts after the next 5 years?

Smart charging stations for drones dispersed across territories, more efficient drones (obstacle avoidance, integration into airspace, autonomy increase with hydrogen etc.), more permissive legislation. This will allow managing long-distance drone fleets, performing automatic missions in which the pilot will no longer be needed, data processing that will no longer involve intervention from business experts, robots that can carry out repairs on infrastructures (composite blade repair, electrical insulator replacement, cleaning, etc.)

Trust will be achieved, operational performance will increase tenfold and the social-professional impact will be much greater.

So, do we all need to become data scientists?

Laurent Alexandre suggests that all businesses that are not complementary to AI will disappear. It is not just AI that is the future for this industry. What will be the role of humans in the operations and maintenance sector alongside these breakthrough technologies?

It is reasonable at this stage to think that predictive maintenance will be the norm and that, as such, teams will manage the results of the AI to take maintenance orders, order new parts, organize sites, offer expertise and repair skills on specific cases and maintain inspection systems (drones, robots, etc.).

Due to the radical optimization of operation and maintenance functions, renewable energies will definitely win over all fossil fuels, thus increasing their position as world leader. New businesses related to energy storage and smart grids will become stronger. Areas with low levels of electricity such as Africa will benefit from these advances and will also create many new businesses.

Drone operators will manage drone fleets and inspection/repair robots from a control center and will implement pilot expertise for very specific operations and marketing communications for their companies (an artistic aspect). Drones will be deployed across the territory in smart charging stations enabling full autonomy and remote control and their capacities will be pooled between dozens of applications.

As a conclusion the inspection/industrial maintenance sector will thoroughly evolve in its current form. New businesses will be created (robotics, supervision, engineering, etc.), many of which are not yet known. Operation and maintenance businesses will gradually move from a cost center basis to a true value-generating activity, leading to developing a lot of trade.