The Search for the Asset Management Holy Grail, Part I

Are We There Yet?

By Nancy Bartels

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By Nancy Bartels

The Holy Grail—that mythical object of desire that is the subject of so much legend and storytelling. It is the object that heroes and heroines go through multiple trials, ordeals, difficulties and dangers to achieve, and frustratingly, it always seems to be just out of reach.

Asset management (AM) and maintenance systems, whatever acronym you choose to give them, have their own "Holy Grail," which, like the cup of legend, seems close, but still just out of reach. For maintenance folks, this grail would look something like this: a system that would

  1. Detect a problem,
  2. Automatically propagate a bill of materials,
  3. Cost out the project,
  4. Assign the work order to the appropriate person,
  5. Schedule it,
  6. Get the info into the control system to let it know that certain piece of equipment is going to be down for repair, and account for that in its operation. Oh, and do all this before the problem brings down the process, but no sooner than is necessary.

We've been on the search for this Holy Grail for decades now, and the trip has been long and arduous, littered with numerous failed initiatives, half-completed projects and frustrating disappointments.

The nagging question remains: Why is this so hard?

The Fog Rolls In

Part of the difficulty with any integrated asset management project is that "Asset management is a lot of different things to a lot of different people," observes Herman Storey, formerly of Shell and now chief technology officer at Herman Storey Consulting LLC. "It can mean instrument management, configuration management, inventory management, work order management and much, much more."

Also, as is often the case on journeys, not all the people you talk to speak the same language you do. Andrew Soignier, North American director of sales for oil, gas and chemicals at enterprise software vendor Ventyx (, an ABB company, explains, "One of the biggest problems in this industry is that automation and IT both use the term ‘asset management,' but they mean different things. From the top level, when we look at widely accepted definitions of enterprise asset management (EAM) and computerized maintenance management systems (CMMSs) they constitute everything from the supply chain on down that's tied to the view of the asset. The traditional automation view looks at it from more of a site or facility level. Automation defines an instrument as an asset. At the top level, it's not."

But these difficulties aren't stopping some companies from starting on their individual asset Holy Grail quests. The operations farthest along the route to the AM Holy Grail are mapping a way forward. In fact, it's not a single map at all, but different for different companies, depending on their particular needs. None of these routes is a six-lane freeway, and that entire, integrated grail vision is still tantalizingly in the future, but the routes are getting clearer.

The DCS Route

Take, for example, the case of Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU). It took the integration-to-the-DCS route to improving its maintenance. CSU provides electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater services to nearly 600,000 people in central Colorado. To help deliver these services, it operates  four hydroelectric plants, the oldest of which, in Manitou, Colo., a remote town in the foothills of Pikes Peak, is over 100 years old. In spite of their age, these hydro units are essential to CSU's operations. For one thing, hydro units can generate electricity for a third of the cost of one CSU's coal-fired plants, but to take full advantage of this low-cost power, the company needed to address key issues with them: system availability and maintainability.

CSU's biggest maintenance challenge is the remoteness of some of these units. It needed to increase system availability at Manitou and at its Ruxton hydro unit, which hovered at 50%. Making matters worse, 20% of the outages were unplanned. CSU's operators couldn't remotely access the hydro units from a central location, so it was always necessary to travel to the sites to assess the cause of each forced outage, resulting, at a minimum, in several hours of downtime—but usually several days of lost production.

Furthermore, Ruxton, CSU's remotest unit, also relied on old equipment that was failing at an alarming rate. CSU's maintenance engineers would journey up Pikes Peak using the Cog Railway an average of three times each month to address malfunctioning equipment. While scenic, the trips were far from profitable. It takes 20 minutes to reach Manitou and two and a half hours to reach Ruxton. After arriving at the facilities, engineers would diagnose the problem and secure parts to repair it, which sometimes required multiple trips up and down the mountainside, extending downtime for days.

The solution was to replace CSU's aging DCS systems and standardize on one control architecture — Rockwell
Automation's PlanPAx ( process automation system. CSU included the hydro units in the upgrade. The company began this process with Ruxton, and then migrated the control system at Manitou.

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