Return, restart and repurpose


The Covid-19 crisis has caused mass disruption for businesses across all sectors, including power industries. The last few months have been about survival, but now energy businesses find themselves facing the next challenge: The new normal. This could mean anything from enabling remote workforces, adapting to changing customer behaviours or even reviewing and changing entire business models. More than ever the answers lie in digital transformation.

Many businesses are still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and for power industries the impact has been particularly severe. The virus has disrupted energy operations on a massive scale, stripping demand for some products whilst creating unprecedented spikes for others. This has left the industry dealing with ever changing production volumes, an under-pressure supply chain and fluctuating workforce demands.

The pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities in traditional energy production environments. And those who have suffered the most have been the businesses whose operational models have not allowed them to be agile in their response. Digital transformation was already the route to cutting costs, identifying efficiencies and boosting productivity, but in a post-Covid world it might be the only way for some companies to survive the new normal.

So, how can the power industry embrace digital transformation and use digital technologies to allow them to Return, Restart and Repurpose?

For all energy businesses, returning to operational normality is vital, but the new normal means that they cannot simply return to operating as they did before. However, there are digital planning and communication tools which can expedite that return to normality and future proof the business against any further disruption.

Digital Twins have long been heralded as one of the most effective ways of unlocking the value in energy production, but in a post-pandemic environment the options for the application of digital twins has never been wider or more important. Energy manufacturers could create a digital twin or replica of their operators or spatial environment to support process and people flow planning. This would aid the creation of a socially distanced production environment and allow businesses to map out and test any changes to how a workforce could enter or exit a space. In addition, the creation of this virtual factory would allow the energy company to test different scenarios, including the introduction of new machinery, without risking real-time interruption to production.

There is often an assumption that a lack of access to 3D or CAD models of a production facility puts the digital twin beyond reach, but that is not the case. A number of key technologies can be utilised to create the digital twin, including Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) scanning, a remote sensing technology and surveying method which uses laser scanners to measure distances and dimensions of landscapes and buildings. This data can then be converted to create a digital twin, supported by techniques such as discrete event simulation and visualisation.

Many employers would have previously claimed that having a partial or full remote workforce would be ‘unworkable’. But as we were urged to social distance and flatten the curve, we witnessed what one CEO described as ‘a historic deployment of remote work and digital access to services across every domain.’ Now technologies exist which allow remote access to plant data from mobile devices, as well as enabling the use of data to predict maintenance requirements and even perform remote diagnostics. And, as many businesses have found themselves adapting their production processes or having to rapidly embrace new tools and technologies, digital tools can also be used to support virtual training and upskilling.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, for many, necessitated a change in direction to survive. For some, the change required has been obvious and they have been able to capitalise on fast growing new markets using existing supply chains. Others may find themselves unsure of what direction they need to head in, but digital technologies can also help provide a way forward. Digital expertise and toolsets can enable data acquisition across social media and other external forces to inform businesses about new market opportunities, enable access to new supply chains and allow that all important monitoring of new trends to support diversification.

The energy businesses who survive the new normal will be those who embrace digital transformation and who have a clear future vision, alongside the skills and authority to guide them from inception to implementation and beyond. Covid-19 has certainly accelerated the need to embrace digital technologies, but power industries should still ensure they analyse all functions within their business, taking into account the data and digital skills and tools they already have to work with. A SWOT analysis of business functions will establish where a digital approach, rather than a doing what we currently do digitally, could deliver results.

The benefits of a holistic, well executed and dynamic digital strategy, which is not fixed in traditional static planning cycles, should both reap immediate results and future proof the business against further disruption. And, crucially, digital transformation is not the preserve of big energy suppliers. SMEs are generally agile in nature – a characteristic which can enable them to adopt new digital tools and techniques much more quickly than larger companies. A growing number of SMEs have seen the benefit of incorporating smart technologies to generate valuable real-time data and are using this information to help them make better decisions to grow their business.

If Covid-19 has had an impact on your business, then University-based digital impact centres offer a wealth of expertise, unbiased advice and practical support. For example, the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC), which is part of the University of Liverpool, is offering digital business continuity support and, alongside its regional partners, recently launched the LCR4 START initiative – offering targeted digital strategy support to Liverpool City Region SMEs, to better understand and plan where and how to deploy digital technologies to achieve business gains, growth and savings.

Dr Andy Levers is Executive Director at the Virtual Engineering Centre, a leading digital impact centre established in 2010 by the University of Liverpool, supported by EU funding and in partnership with BAE Systems and National Nuclear Laboratory. The VEC is a pioneer in industrial digital transformation, using advanced digital technologies and emerging research to help cross-sector businesses of all sizes improve and advance their capabilities.
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