Connected Thinking gathers industry experts to identify the biggest disruptors to the MRO process

Anyone involved in the world of maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) over the past few decades, whether as maintenance engineers, managers or procurement professionals, is likely to have seen incremental changes across the board. The equipment being maintained has changed, more diagnostics have become available and eProcurement is likely to be used in the purchase of spare parts and tools.

However, as organisations put even greater pressure on their employees to find cost savings and efficiencies in all areas of the business, a host of disruptive technologies is coming to the fore. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain and Augmented Reality (AR) seem set to become more than just business buzzwords as the pace of change accelerates and changes the MRO landscape forever.

Here we look at these four major technological disruptors, how they will impact the MRO process and what organisations need to do to benefit from them.

Industrial Internet of Things

Industry 4.0, or IIoT, covers the use of various technologies to connect devices to create and exploit data. This offers companies numerous potential benefits in terms of MRO, not least that they can shift from a preventative and reactive maintenance culture to a predictive one.

“IIoT should make it possible to increase productivity while reducing machine downtime and the time needed for repairs.” Says Peter Malpas, Regional Vice President, Northern Europe at RS.

John Patsavellas from the Institution of Engineering and Technology Policy Panel agrees, “MRO utopia is to move to an entirely predictive maintenance model,” says, “We already have much of the technology to achieve this through condition-based monitoring and intervention, but I’ve yet to see an organisation put all the technology, processes and programming together on a large scale.

“There is a lot of talk and excitement about the possibilities, but maintenance engineers are practical people and they won’t switch to a new system unless they have stress-tested it thoroughly,” he adds. “There is a lot of inertia within the industry, with only a handful of early adopters experimenting with the technology.”

Reluctance and inertia are issues that technology expert Gary Nuttall recognises. “In the product manager triangle of people, process and technology,” he explains, “technology and process normally aren’t a problem when it comes to introducing change. It’s the people that need to be convinced of the benefits and who often slow down the adoption of new technology and processes.

“Procurement people need to be at the heart of change within their organisation,” he states. “They already understand their business, the processes and where there are inefficiencies. They should also be able to see where new technology can boost productivity and drive efficiency.”

The benefits of successfully implementing IIoT technology in the maintenance function could be significant and worth some short-term pain as stakeholders work through change. “Sensors can provide updates on how each machine in a manufacturing system is performing in virtual real time,” says Patsavellas.

“This can eliminate a number of important but menial jobs, which frees up engineers to concentrate on more technical work. In addition, the machines will benefit from condition-based maintenance, where they are maintained when they need to be rather than when something goes wrong or as part of an arbitrary or fixed maintenance schedule.

“Ideally, we will see much more condition-based intervention to maintain machines through automated solutions. The knock-on benefit will be more discretionary time for engineers to focus on adding value to other areas of the business.”

Artificial Intelligence

Linked to IIoT and the data it generates, AI could potentially manage workflow, order spare parts and identify inefficiencies in the maintenance process.

Gary Nuttall believes that consumer confidence in such technology will encourage its adoption in the business context. “AI is coming into use without us even realising it in some cases,” he says. “In the consumer world, AI is being used for online shopping, financial investments and in our homes. The more that people are comfortable using AI in their personal lives, the easier they will find it to adopt this kind of technology in the workspace.”

John Patsavellas agrees. “AI will play a massive role in the future of maintenance and repair, taking the emotional responses out of decisions and scheduling work purely on what is most productive for a business,” he says. “AI combined with condition monitoring is the future of MRO and will enhance maintenance. Engineers shouldn’t fear this development because skilled work will still be needed. The maintenance schedule and repetitive unskilled tasks, however, may well be managed by AI.”

Blockchain

Blockchain, a digital distributed ledger, also has enormous potential in relation to indirect procurement and supply chain process. It can be used to track orders, ensuring that stakeholders are working to the same terms and conditions and adhering to supplier agreements across the board. Put simply, it means that everyone is looking at the most up-to-date data, held in one place.

Gary Nuttall foresees all procurement teams eventually working from contracts created using the technology: “You’ll have smart contracts, which are effectively just computer programs that can work within the blockchain environment and automate certain functions. For example, in indirect procurement, these smart contracts could be linked to the IIoT to automatically re-order replacement parts from a trusted supplier when stock levels reach a certain point.

“In addition, blockchain could be used to help identify people, products and companies to ensure they are who or what they are supposed to be,” he continues. “The nature of a blockchain ledger means that you have traceability, which should help avoid the risk of purchasing counterfeit products.”

Augmented Reality

Defined as virtual, interactive experiences of a real-world environment, many people associate AR with sophisticated computer games or flight simulators but the technology also has the potential to be used in business.

John Patsavellas considers AR a useful tool in the world of maintenance because “it allows engineers to work remotely to repair or instruct repairs on machinery. They don’t have to be on location. This saves on travel costs and, crucially, allows machines to be fixed quicker. Ultimately, AR can reduce downtime.”

Other uses for AR in the sphere of MRO are in the pipeline. RS Components, for instance, is exploring how it can employ AR to better support its customers. Peter Malpas outlines the company’s strategy: “We have a dedicated innovation team working on AR and we’re experimenting with augmented reality apps at the moment. We’re looking to see how such apps can be applied to MRO. What can we use AR for? What can we do with it? We know that it will definitely be useful.”

Conclusion

The UK economy now has the opportunity to embrace a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ by adopting digital technologies such as those outlined. Yet, despite the clear benefits offered by IIoT, AI, blockchain and AR, there are stumbling blocks, particularly in the MRO space.

“The fourth industrial revolution will take some years before we reach the tipping point,” asserts John Patsavellas. “Part of this is down to a lack of knowledge and skills within businesses, which means they are not confident in introducing this sort of technology. Organisations need to look at their own processes, identify where there is waste and costly downtime, and then test out technology to try to solve these problems.

“Things will accelerate due to clusters of development and experimentation aided by suppliers, institutions, universities and private companies sharing information and developing connected solutions that can be more widely adopted.”

Gary Nuttall is more optimistic, despite the issues raised by John Patsavellas. “There is a skills gap around the data science sector,” he acknowledges, “but it isn’t insurmountable. The economy and education tend to adapt when there is a skills shortage; it just takes a few years to adjust.

“I believe there will be meaningful examples of AI, blockchain and IIoT being adopted in the next year, while the wider adoption will take between two and five years,” he adds. “As the technology proves itself and its worth, the adoption rate will grow exponentially with organisations rushing to stay ahead of their competitors.”

Peter Malpas agrees: “For those MRO distributors that keep innovating with AI, AR and other digital technologies, the race will be won over the next two to five years.

“And, within one to two years the capabilities will exist for fully connected factories incorporating all of these new technologies and the early adopters will take this up within two to five years. I certainly think that in the five to 10-year range, connected factories will be more commonplace – but only when you’re working with companies that have the digital infrastructure to support that journey.

“The new digital technologies are already disrupting and this will only increase. We have to keep evolving to stay ahead of that curve.”