Rail Express speaks with Strukton Rail Australia Managing Director Paul McIlveen about the role condition monitoring plays in a smart maintenance solution.
Strukton Rail has been involved in the development of condition monitoring technology for over a decade and will continue to do so. But the company also wants to broaden the conversation around condition monitoring, and help others understand the role it can play in an overarching smart maintenance solution.
“Condition monitoring alone isn’t a solution,” McIlveen, Managing Director of Strukton Rail Australia says. “Condition monitoring forms part of a broader smart maintenance solution, and the benefits are fully derived when you’ve got all the elements of a smart maintenance solution working together.”
While the devices used to collect data are an important element, McIlveen says systems to ensure the relevance of what those devices are measuring and monitoring are equally vital to a good smart maintenance system. So too are methods of properly managing the data so it can be interpreted, using that data to organise and plan work, and delivering that work efficiently. “That’s really where the benefits of condition monitoring are retained,” McIlveen says. “For example, we developed a system about 15 years ago for points monitoring, but if you’re just looking for points faults and responding to them as and when they occur, you’re effectively not making any savings. “However, if you’re able to develop insights from the data you’re collecting, and you’re able to build smart algorithms – based on machine learning or just good engineering – then there are significant savings to be had.” These savings aren’t only limited to a reduced volume of points faults. Once an operator starts to apply these smarts to how it structures its workforce and delivers maintenance, even more significant savings can be achieved.
“For us, condition monitoring is just the element that gives you access to a lot of data,” McIlveen explains. “The ability to analyse and interpret that data is what becomes really valuable.” Of course the real upside of an improved maintenance regime is increased reliability on the network. “We’re aspirational in helping achieve a network which is 100 per cent available to rail operations, meaning no unscheduled loss,” McIlveen says. “We do that today: in the Netherlands we have contracts for which we provide a 99.8 per cent availability guarantee.” In several cases this goal is being made achievable through clever application of artificial intelligence.
One example is a fault prediction system for insulated rail joints based on image recognition, which Strukton has developed in partnership with Siemens. Strukton has also teamed up with Australian software developer Willow Inc. to develop an enhanced tool for managing and creating insights to existing rail data. The technology solution is described as a Digital Twin for Rail, combining operational data and asset management information into a simple and intuitive software platform.
Strukton Rail Business Development Manager Ben van Schijndel wrote last year the strengthened partnership with Siemens “goes a step further, because we are increasingly interweaving our business processes”. Of both partnerships, he added: “We realise that the products and services we both supply are a perfect match. Each party has its own skills and together you provide more value than each party independently … The result of a partnership is better work.”
Strukton in Australia
Strukton provides engineering, asset management services, network optimisation, and condition monitoring hardware and software tools to Australian customers. This aligns to its history as a traditional rail maintenance contractor in the European market. But with its recent pushes into new markets like the United States and Australia, it is also looking to leverage its experience to serve emerging needs. In Australia there is a growing awareness of the need to improve data utilisation from existing systems. Strukton has already provided support to some heavy haul operators in Australia in this context.
McIlveen says this is a credit to Strukton Rail’s unique position in the Australian market. With a relatively small footprint compared to its European presence, but with the support of its global network, Strukton Rail Australia can focus on addressing a common issue limiting in the region.
“There’s a lot of data already gathered on rail networks around the country, but there’s a real gap in the analysis and interpretation of that data,” he explains. “That’s an area we’ve focused on, and as part of that we offer the ability to improve the way condition monitoring is done, and the insights that come from that.” For a lot of network owners and operators, collected data sits in silos, and that data sits isolated from data from elsewhere around the network.
Drawing on its experience in Europe, Strukton has encouraged its Australian partners to work to break down the barriers around those data silos, allowing the data to work together in a sophisticated way, using modern computing power to create important insights.
“I think we’re still at the stage in Australia where people are still wary of owning and being responsible for their own data,” McIlveen opines. “Part of the challenge is addressing those concerns of data ownership and security, because ultimately the data is worthless unless you’re doing something with it.” It makes sense, then, that part of Strukton’s work so far in Australia has been helping rail companies transform their approach to data.
McIlveen stops short of describing Strukton as a consultant in this space, instead saying the company is comfortable helping bridge the gap between operations on the rail network and the maintenance of that network, by using internal teams as well as external contractors when they are involved in the solution. “We operate in a niche part of this space, because we bring a very practical working knowledge of how to maintain and operate rail networks, and a very deep understanding, from an engineering point of view, of how a rail network should work and what maintenance requirements are important,” he concludes.