In the dogged world of maintenance, whether it is a plant, isolated equipment or integrated and complex systems, only the steely and lionhearted endure.
Redundant hydraulic and fuel lines crisscrossing at every juncture are essential to the design of the most sophisticated systems such as airplanes and ships. In fact, the logistics and shipping infrastructure around the globe will come to a halt without fluid control systems.
The self-referential world of maintenance
Maintenance, condition monitoring and diagnostics are nothing but work added on top of work. It is the metaphorical label given to the physical phenomena of prevention of degradation. An eventuality that cannot be stopped, will only hasten if unchecked, and the impact needed to prevent its rapid progression is a system that is prone to maintenance.
Maintenance, condition monitoring and diagnostics together epitomize the human condition. It requires thorough investigation of root causes—a practice so important to world progress that all the provisional information we have so far discovered has followed this very scientific method, which involves doubt and deeper exploration in a systematic way.
When such is the extent of a field of activities, one would imagine its horizon to be sweeping, with polished approaches and esteemed importance. Yet, when one thinks of maintenance, condition monitoring and diagnostics, images of oil spills, rust-laden machinery, steaming clouds of over-cooked electronics and big banners with the word ‘BREAKDOWN’ come to mind.
Future trends focus on key areas first and maintenance follows later
It is a big fallacy of Indian companies where investment is made into high-end equipment but no financial attention is given to the parameters controlling the usage. Beyond hiring a well-interviewed operator, no further tactical planning takes place regarding the entire operational usage of the new equipment.
Maintenance should be thought of as embedded deep into any process. By its very definition—process means physical action undertaken that is dynamic and it is that dynamic nature of the process that should be the primary focus of any comprehensive program that involves upkeep. We are in an era where assembly of static structures and control systems is not the primary activity in manufacturing. A dynamic influence of information and technology has made systems smarter and complex.
At Hind Hydraulics & Engineers for instance, we make a plan for any new equipment and then make another plan for its operational team based on what functions we will need from them. All of this is simulated in a dry run by using last year’s manufacturing data. Data from a three month operations period is analyzed to see what would have happened if the new machine was occupying its space during that time and ready to run. Where would we fall short? What kind of ebb and flow a new team will create and many other factors.
In the world of Industry 4.0 where the influence of the information age has finally entrenched deep into the roots of the industry, maintenance still struggles. In particular, the shifting world of hydraulics and fluid powered systems and machinery has yet to see any acceptance of the age of information other than a surface level applicability.
The design and testing of hydraulic and fluid powered systems has highly variable interactions. Proof leads to modification, parameters are changed, simulations are used to analyze behavior and algorithms designed to optimize the system. Such is the level of raw mathematical achievements of humans and computational power of computers that designing a system with the complexity, criticality, redundancy in safety and optimization in performance is a task now achievable by a sole person sitting in front of a CAD/CAM/Simulation software.
This application of information is now used in almost every department of an organization that has a tactical approach to goals and vision it has set for itself. From ice-cream retailers to rocket manufacturers, the knowledge that information can be put to use in adding robustness and creating an edge over competition is nothing new.
Unraveling Fluid Flow
One of the reasons why hydraulic and fluid systems lag behind in this applicability is because it is much easier to calculate the micro-state of each constituent in a current (electro-magnetic radiation) traveling through a wire than fluid flowing through a pipe. The current is subject to physical parameters such as temperature and vibration in a much more linear fashion. Fluid flow on the other hand responds in a more unpredictable manner ranging from chemical reactions within the fluid structure to vortexes, back-flow and reaction flows, to name a few. The complex boundary between the whole ‘fluid flow’ and constituent-particles is hard to study but understanding this interaction is very important.
It is time a deeper look is taken at hydraulic and fluid systems. Just collecting data on a ‘current-condition’ like vibration and temperature is not enough. A contextual approach is required.
Can the Artificial Intelligence field provide an unlikely solution?
In the world of a high degree of determinism in natural and man-made systems, why is fluid control and maintenance not up to scratch? The answer is simple—Objectivity. Take the example of artificial intelligence (AI) —In the late 60s, the field boomed with optimism. A computer had been taught to play chess and eventually beat grandmasters. In the subsequent years, AI took a big blow. They could teach robot complex computational techniques to solve the most challenging of problems but they could not teach it to learn how to walk a staircase—an activity we all consider far more mundane than Fourier Transforms.
Why was this and how does it apply to Fluid Control Systems Maintenance?
One of the established reasons for failure of AI back then was that there is a subjective nature to AI. Instead of programming a robot with all the set of algorithms it will need, it is programmed to learn, become aware of, and even improve its own algorithms. This is called Machine Learning.
Whether or not a fully functional AI is built, it is as clear as a fluid that our capability to teach machines will be sophisticated enough that a certain level of awareness will arise in them. Systems such as hydraulic and fluid controls that are very complex and not completely predictable in terms of future behavior will benefit the most from this.
Distinguishing the future of Fluid Control Systems and how they are monitored
In the health industry, this principal is already being applied. Instead of collecting isolated data of key parameters of a person’s health, a holistic picture is generated of their human body by an advanced computer system. This characterization of data into the subset of a particular human temperament can revolutionize the maintenance of such systems by providing added information and subjective meaning to the monitoring and diagnostics that so far rely only on excellent comprehension of the data, an activity riddled with human error and needing expertise which is in short supply.
Is there a concealed undertaking that will influence Fluid Maintenance?
Technology adoption, data-driven management, cloud and mobile technology will together change the outlook of the shop floor when seen from a maintenance perspective. Assets will be more responsive and run at a higher efficiency. The biggest challenge to fluid maintenance however, where dealing with hazardous compounds is all too common and in-fact a requisite constituent of the field will be the introduction of the spheres of regulatory compliance and environmental impact into its realm.
Companies that survive in the future will be ones that are sustainable in terms of regulatory compliances and their environmental footprint. Exercising this sort of regulatory purview is long past due in India. The governing bodies are slowly coming to this realization. However, globally, the presence of a matured industry dedicated to providing service in this field can already be seen because of the high demand for regulatory compliance and hazardous waste management that is needed.
All users of hydraulic and fluid control systems should be encouraged to rethink how they maintain their systems and what would be the ultimate cost of not paying enough attention to an already easy-to-neglect realm of manufacturing.