Open Networks: The electricity networks' role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Steve Statham, Associate Director, Manufacturing Technology Centre

Against a backdrop of declining productivity, economic uncertainty and a skills shortage challenge that shows no sign of improving, the release of the Industrial Strategy couldn’t have come at a better time.

The fact that BBC Breakfast chose to broadcast the launch of the white paper on Monday 27th November from the Manufacturing Technology Centre – a place synonymous with pushing the boundaries of existing knowledge, capabilities and technological “know how” – is testament to the importance of how the future success and sustainability of key sectors like energy will be hugely reliant on how well we bring new ideas into the sector, but more importantly how emerging developments in artificial intelligence, data analytics, intelligent robotics can significantly enhance the overall efficiency of energy suppliers.

The Open Networks Project is a prime example of a project where experiences we draw from other sectors could provide crucial support in enabling the outcomes to have the greatest impact to the market. Building a smart energy grid based on a de-centralised delivery model which allows for a flexible delivery model based on localised demand patterns in many ways models the approach taken by many automotive firms who have also made radical changes to their manufacturing strategies:

The clear strategy among many UK car manufacturers has been to move away from shipping built-up units from central manufacturing plants towards a model of local assembly and ultimately full European production in order to be better able to adjust to local needs and minor fluctuations in demand. This allows them to benefit from labour costs, which are much lower than in countries such as Japan and South Korea, while also to some extent, avoiding currency fluctuations. Furthermore, in the context of increasing concern in environmental circles about the impact of global supply chains, particularly in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, major changes can be seen in reduced shipping of thousands of finished cars across the world when these can now be done via localised manufacturing plants.

The excitement around emerging technologies in robotics, informatics, digitalisation and 3D printing comes across very clearly in the Industrial Strategy as academia, research environments and industrialists all acknowledge the potential this could have on production, serviceability and overall impact on GVA. 

Changes in legislation (moving away from internal combustion engines), changes in consumer behaviours (higher awareness of environmental issues), and changes in the way we need energy and consume it (more localised, more personalised energy requirements) means a major shift away from traditional methods of build and maintenance and deploying a model that is not only fit for the twenty first century, but something that is flexible, scalable and (critically) sustainable as the market grows.

The lessons to learn from other industries are readily available to help us on this journey.  Rolls Royce, for example, know the location of every aero jet engine in operation anywhere in the world along with its current energy efficiency, outputs and crucially the condition of its hundreds of parts in real time. Aircraft manufacturers, including Airbus, use similar technology to monitor not only how an aircraft is performing in real time but predict problems which may be brewing in the immediate future. 

Energy suppliers may not need this minutiae of detail but the opportunity to combine robotic platforms such as drones, combined with sophisticated inspection technologies that are able to provide detailed analysis of assets to detect defects, which are then able to be repaired in-situ could change current service business models forever.

Furthermore, why not overlay this with a smart informatics layer that is able to capture the images being found, tag the repair with digital data and provide a historic audit trail of repairs thereby giving the network operator full historical data of the condition of their assets which can also lend itself to providing predicted failures based on known data? Potentially a major step change but one that could redefine the meaning of innovation for the sector and help to establish a smart grid network that symbolises the very essence of Government’s ambitions of deploying an Industrial Strategy to help the UK compete and deliver their services as a demonstration that we can be true world leaders in this space.


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