Six engineering predictions for 2020

Jon Lawson

As we begin 2020, exploring what will impact utilities organisations is always an important task to undertake to ensure companies are prepared for the year ahead. A significant factor that comes into play is the role of technology and how utilities companies can harness new innovations to transform their organisations; so that they will be able to continue to provide critical services for years to come.

 
According to Graeme Wright, Chief Digital Officer for Manufacturing and Utilities at Fujitsu UK: “The utilities industry is under increasing pressure to innovate, find new ways to save costs for consumers, increase sustainability and reduce waste. In the past decade, technologies have changed, costs have changed, and the importance of natural resources and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals has changed. And we can only expect this change to continue into 2020. Technology will play an ever-increasing role in how utilities companies operate, and now is the time to put in place an ambitious and forward-looking digital strategy.”
 
In light of this, Wright shares his top six predictions for what we should expect from the utilities sector in the coming year:

Quantum computing

While quantum computing may once have been in the realm of science fiction, quantum-inspired computing is starting to deliver real advancements which can accelerate the speed at which organisations can solve complex problems.
 
The technology will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the utilities sector in the coming year. When used in the right way, quantum-inspired computing will allow utilities companies to make advanced production optimisation and trading calculations to help them reach new capabilities. This will be critical to the sector as it looks to address the challenge of producing energy and supplying water over complex networks to communities and meet consumers’ needs, all the while looking at new ways of managing the risks involved in climate change.

Computing on the Edge

In utilities companies, a considerable proportion of skilled workers and assets are out in the field, away from the corporate centre. Undertaking repetitive visual inspection tasks across quality control is not only monotonous for the engineer, but it adds significant costs to operations, in a period where price pressures are ever increasing. These current processes are also susceptible to human error, particularly in data accuracy and timeliness, risking quality and potential reputational damage.
 
In 2020, we expect to see more companies in the sector adopt edge computing, using Industrial IoT and computer vision to bring the digital and physical worlds together. As a result, they will be able to use this technology to better monitor equipment, receive image analysis and image recognition which can be used to identify and fix any problems, quality issues or security threats much more quickly and efficiently.

Connecting by the power of 5G

One technology which will underpin and enable the success of trends such as moving to the edge and quantum-inspired computing is 5G. As 5G is adopted across the UK, we will see more businesses, including utilities companies leveraging its capabilities. 5G will improve latency and the speed of which utility companies receive data, and as a result, they will be able to respond to situations quicker, improving the overall running of their services. 5G will improve the density of devices in locations, meaning utilities companies will be able to deploy increased numbers of sensors and devices and receive larger volumes of data and insights to help them conduct their business operations. Moreover, we will see an increase in 5G private networks for businesses, where in utility companies 5G will be separate to consumer networks. 

As a result, 5G will improve the levels of security on the network and enable them to deploy 5G in areas where connectivity is typically harder to come by, thereby ensuring utility companies are connected, and more resilient, throughout all points of their network.

Mirror, mirror: digital twins

Finding new ways of planning, designing and simulating situations to improve operations will be key this year as the sector looks to improve its operations. As a result, we expect to see the use of ‘Digital Twins’ increase, whereby utilities companies build digital models of the physical world, creating a digital replica or ‘twin’. Through digital twins, utilities companies can run simulations and optimisations of their equipment and harness insights of these simulations. As a result, they can make decisions and execute them with accuracy, saving time and money for the organisation.  As digital twins become reality, we will see many organisations look to generate alternative revenue from that data and insights generated by sharing with other organisations or government bodies. 

Security from the ground up

As the sector becomes increasingly connected and data driven, 2020 will be the year that we see cyber security become a top priority for utilities organisations. With more and more networks becoming connected, and companies gathering an increasing amount consumer data and insights, the need to have security integrated and built into the foundations and throughout all aspects of the business will only rise. Security must be built in by design and incorporated in a utility company’s core and play a crucial role in the processes and polices to protect the systems and data. Only by doing this can utilities companies avoid the financial and reputational risk that comes with suffering a data breach that we have seen in other businesses especially since the introduction of GDPR.

Working in an augmented reality

Augmented Reality (AR), while typically known for its uses in gaming and entertainment, is a technology we expect to see more and more of in the utilities sector in the year ahead, thanks to its ability to transform and improve employees’ ways of working. There are currently five generations in the workforce and not only do these different generations have different knowledge and skill sets, but the eldest generation will be moving into retirement, or to less physically demanding tasks, taking with them their vast years of experience. By implementing AR, companies in the sector can transfer this knowledge to new employees, providing on-site guidance from experienced colleagues or having a two-way video on a head-mounted display which provides step-by-step advice on how to make fixes.

 

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