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Why Steam Systems are Embracing Digitalisation

Towards a smarter future for steam

digitalisation blog



With so many challenges facing businesses today, any help with finding the best way forward is welcome. Increasing pressure to become more sustainable, coping with volatile energy markets, and remaining competitive in an uncertain economic climate all add to the burden. And, if you take a look at any article that discusses how the future might be improved, it will inevitably raise the topic of digitalisation.

Consider sustainability, for example. Only a few weeks ago, the International Energy Agency opened its Versailles conference with a headline session titled Powering the Future: Leveraging digitalisation for efficiency, resilience and decarbonisation1.

And, a few months earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported with "high confidence" that:

Digital technologies can contribute to mitigation of climate change and the achievement of several SDGs (high confidence). For example, sensors, internet of things, robotics, and artificial intelligence can improve energy management in all sectors, increase energy efficiency, and promote the adoption of many low-emission technologies...²

Promoting digitalisation as a pivotal way to reach net zero targets highlights its potential. The promise it offers is clear and enticing. However, when it gets to the practicalities of how it's deployed, things get more complicated.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the many industries that value, and rely upon, steam systems as vital to their future success. For them, it is not simply a matter of digitalising their operations. It's finding the right partner to advise and guide exactly how best digitalisation can improve their systems. The intricacies of the steam and condensate loop, often unique to a particular industry, or even site, make expert knowledge and support a vital ingredient for successful digitalisation.

Only by navigating the commercial and technological challenges with the help of a trusted partner will its potential benefits be realised.

Moving beyond 'detect and repair'

How steam systems operate is being challenged by new sources of renewable energy, often meaning facilities and equipment are being run in ways they were never designed to do. The added strain, not just on the equipment, but on finances and resources, makes finding a way to improve steam system reliability an urgent priority.

From the boiler house, through the distribution system, to end-use, any steam system has its own unique layout and points where failures can occur. Knowing something has gone wrong and then remedying the fault has always been how maintenance and repair operated. However, faults are not always quickly identified and solved, potentially resulting in energy losses and reduced efficiency.

Digital solutions are now being seen as essential tools to enhance equipment performance, optimise processes, and avoid downtime. These are longstanding goals, but now sustainability sits firmly alongside them. To achieve them all, it is no longer enough to wait until something has gone wrong before dealing with the issue.

Remote monitoring is a major bonus that digital transformation offers. Providing insights into a plant's performance enables informed decision-making about operational efficiency and maintenance requirements. Relaying information from every part of the system provides maximum visibility into its performance, allowing for rapid action when potential problems are identified.

Giving personnel the ability to anticipate and deal with events before they reach any critical stage, is a big step forward for the overall reliability of a steam system. Added advantages come in spotting when equipment needs attention, so allowing for repairs to be made in good time and avoiding downtime. Typically, sensors, coupled with analytics software, and alarm notifications will be key elements in this arena.

Relaying information from every part of the system provides maximum visibility into its performance, allowing for rapid action when potential problems are identified.

Already, sensors are available that will tell you when a steam trap has failed, that safety valves are leaking, or that condensate pump traps are not performing as they should. Knowing that something is, or is just about to go wrong, is one thing. Knowing exactly what needs to be done, and potentially understand why it happened, is where having a connected steam system expert really pays dividends.

Decoding the data is key

Getting accurate, data is only part of the solution; being able to correctly spot what it's telling you is another. Ultimately, it is how well your data is analysed and interpreted that will mark the success, and value of any digitalisation project.

Long-term planning to identify trends in steam system performance, smart prediction of possible issues, and recommending strategies to avoid failures all become possible when digitalisation is combined with steam system expertise. They’re complementary and have real potential to improve efficiency, reliability, and performance.

Digitalisation is frequently mentioned alongside Industry 4.0 (or 4IR, the Fourth Industrial Revolution). Its influence can be seen in virtually every industry, and its reach is growing. So it is perhaps fitting that steam, such a pivotal element of the First Industrial Revolution, is seamlessly joining forces with the latest in technological advances, allowing us to continue benefiting from its many uses.

1. Powering the future: leveraging digitalisation for efficiency, resilience and decarbonisation -IEA

2. Climate change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change

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