The rollout of 5G combined with edge computing in remote locations will change the way maintenance is carried out in the field. Historically, service teams performed maintenance either in a reactive fashion – fixing equipment when it broke – or using a preventative calendar-based approach. Neither of these methods is satisfactory, with the former being too late and resulting in failure while the latter is necessarily too early, resulting in excessive expenditure and downtime. The availability of connected sensors has allowed service teams to shift to condition monitoring without the need for taking equipment offline for inspections. The advent of analytics takes this approach further and has given us optimised scheduling in the form of predictive maintenance.
The next step is prescriptive maintenance in which AI can recommend action based on current and predicted condition according to expected usage or environmental circumstances. This could be as simple as alerting an operator to automatically ordering parts and scheduling multiple servicing tasks depending on forecasted production needs in the short term.
Prescriptive maintenance has only become possible with the advancement of AI and digital twin technology, but imminent improvements in connectivity and computing will take servicing to a new level. The rollout of 5G will give a boost to bandwidth, reduce latency, and increase the number of connections possible. Equipment in remote locations – such as transmission lines or machinery in resource industries – will benefit from the higher throughput of 5G connectivity, either as part of an operator’s network rollout or a private on-site deployment. Mobile machinery, particularly vehicles, which can include hundreds of sensors will no longer be required to wait until arrival before the condition can be assessed. Furthermore, vehicles equipped with external sensors can inspect stationary infrastructure as it passes by.
Edge computing – either carried out by miniature onboard devices or at smaller scale data centres embedded in 5G networks – ensure that intensive processing can be carried out closer to equipment than with a typical cloud environment. Bandwidth hungry applications, such as video and time series analysis, can be conducted with only meta data transmitted immediately and full archives uploaded with less urgency.
Prescriptive Maintenance with 5G and the Edge – Use Cases
- Transportation. Bridges built over railway lines equipped with high-speed cameras can monitor passing trains to inspect for damage. Data-intensive video analysis can be conducted on local devices for a rapid response while selected raw data can be uploaded to the cloud over 5G to improve inference models.
- Mining. Private 5G networks built-in remote sites can provide connectivity between fixed equipment, vehicles, drones, robotic dogs, workers, and remote operations centres. Autonomous haulage trucks can be monitored remotely and in the event of a breakdown, other vehicles can be automatically redirected to prevent dumping queues.
- Utilities. Emergency maintenance needs can be prioritised before extreme weather events based on meteorological forecasts and their impact on ageing parts. Machine learning can be used to understand location-specific effects of, for example, salt content in off-shore wind turbine cables. Early detection of turbine rotor cracks can recommend shutdown during high-load periods.
Data as an Asset
Effective prescriptive maintenance only becomes possible after the accumulation and integration of multiple data sources over an extended period. Inference models should understand both normal and abnormal equipment performance in various conditions, such as extreme weather, during incorrect operation, or when adjacent parts are degraded. For many smaller organisations or those deploying new equipment, the necessary volume of data will not be available without the assistance of equipment manufacturers. Moreover, even manufacturers will not have sufficient data on interaction with complementary equipment. This provides an opportunity for large operators to sell their own inference models as a new revenue stream. For example, an electrical grid operator in North America can partner with a similar, but smaller organisation in Europe to provide operational data and maintenance recommendations. Similarly, telecom providers, regional transportation providers, logistics companies, and smart cities will find industry players in other geographies that they do not naturally compete with.
- Employing multiple sensors. Baseline conditions and failure signatures are improved using machine learning based on feeds from multiple sensors, such as those that monitor vibration, sound, temperature, pressure, and humidity. The use of multiple sensors makes it possible to not only identify potential failure but also the reason for it and can therefore more accurately prescribe a solution to prevent an outage.
- Data assessment and integration. Prescriptive maintenance is most effective when multiple data sources are unified as inputs. Identify the location of these sources, such as ERP systems, time series on site, environmental data provided externally, or even in emails or on paper. A data fabric should be considered to ensure insights can be extracted from data no matter the environment it resides in.
- Automated action. Reduce the potential for human error or delay by automatically generating alerts and work orders for resource managers and service staff in the event of anomaly detection. Criticality measures should be adopted to help prioritise maintenance tasks and reduce alert noise.