Kris Oldland, Editor-in-Chief, Field Service News talks to Kevin Starr of ABB’s Oil and Gas Division, to get his take on just how pivotal it is we all get on board with the digitalisation agenda…
Kevin Starr, Program Director, Advanced Digital Services, for ABB jokingly refers to himself as someone who is just getting started, having spent 31 years in the industry.
Given Starr’s wide-ranging background which encompasses installing industrial automation, working with pneumatics, then electrics, DCS and now digital and across roles that include R&D managers, software developer, data scientist and cloud specialist – he is perhaps the very personification and embodiment of how the field service sector is in constant flux on a journey of continuous evolution.
Yet, underneath all that evolution, there also remain fundamental goals in place that we mustn’t lose sight of either.
As Starr himself explains – across his varied career the core objective for ABB, regardless of the technology surrounding the discussion is always to allow their clients to “hit their value, production and quality requirements by providing them with solutions.”
Regardless of the technology surrounding the discussion is always to allow their clients to “hit their value, production and quality requirements by providing them with solutions.”
Indeed, certainly within field service circles, when it comes to digitalisation Starr is to be regarded a leading subject matter expert – a fact that is attested to the fact he is a highly sought-after speaker at industry conferences as well being the host of a successful YouTube series and author on the topic.
“We definitely are in the industrial revolution 4.0,” Starr asserts with conviction when I spoke to him recently during whilst recording a forthcoming episode of The Field Service Podcast.
All well and good, but what exactly does this shift to the Industrial Revolution 4.0 actually mean in real terms for most companies, who perhaps are lacking the innovative streak ABB certainly have embedded at their core.
Whilst there are undoubted opportunities to be had, for many it means stepping into a brave new world of the unknown and for many, this can be a daunting proposition.
“We are definitely moving into an area where our customers may have some new concerns and fears. There are some misunderstandings that need clarification and there are a number of different issues relating to digital that they have to consider,” Starr explains continuing, “so what we’ve tried to do is make this discussion feel more real for them, we’ve tried to make it concrete and actionable.”
When clients hear things like Data Science, Cloud Computing, Big Data, and all the other tech jargon that is being thrown around, they can get nervous.
Additionally, the wave of technological innovation we are witnessing today is only part of the sea change of disruption that currently surrounds us.
“It is something of a perfect storm,” Starr agrees expanding on the topic.
“There is an ageing workforce, there is knowledge retiring, there are new people coming into the workforce who just aren’t ready to spend thirty years with the technology,” he adds.
Yet, it is exactly within these challenges that Starr sees big potential for innovation.
“We have here some opportunities to really change the game for our industrial clients and along with this is what is really an industrial explosion of automation.,” he explains.
“When I started off the controllers were on a wall, so the size of the service was aligned with the physical proximity of a wall. Now, you have dots on a screen. Where once you might have had thirty or forty devices, now you have three or four thousand.”
What we’ve always done in the service space, doesn’t work today”
This is something which needs to be fully understood and acknowledged for companies to be able to bring their business and operational processes in line with modern means of tackling service delivery.
“What we’ve always done in the service space, doesn’t work today,” Starr states bluntly.
“What this means is that there are a lot more failures, a lot more downtime and a lot more product instability. This leads to a lot more fear, uncertainty and doubt – because if that phone rings and your client calls you and says my system is down – what do you do? That is a terrifying call to get and it always has been, but with digital, we can solve all that.”
“In the Oil and Gas sector, for example, we have clients who are trying to remain competitive in an industry in which price changes sent a complete shockwave through the sector. Companies who used to have large corporate staff are shrinking, with reduced manned or unmanned solutions becoming more prevalent.”
“Yet, most solutions involve people working on a system, so we truly have a gap. We’ve got to keep the site running but we also have to make our production and our quality efficient – and of course first and foremost we have to make sure our people are safe.”
“To me, the digital arena is what will allow us to use devices to reduce this problem space.”
Of course, many of the challenges that Starr outlines are also prevalent in sectors well beyond the Oil and Gas industry and searching for solutions for those challenges within the digital realm is now well established as the correct path to follow.
Yet, one of the reasons perhaps Starr has proven to be such a popular speaker on this topic is his ability to blend the technical and the practical and to help those listening to visualise how the often vague concepts sitting under the umbrella of digitalization will manifest in real, pragmatic terms – something he demonstrated again when we spoke with a particularly neat and effective summary of how the implementation of such tools can really have a significant impact on service delivery.
“It’s kind of like a heads-up display in a car. When I have a problem, it advises me so I then know when to dispatch somebody and make sure they have the right tools at the right time,” he explains.
When that happens, great things happen and you can actually push through and hit production, quality and cost to produce levels that have literally been unheard of.
“That’s what keeps me just giddy with excitement,” he says before adding wryly “but if it was easy it would already be done.”
Here, of course, Starr has hit the nail firmly on the head with regards to the current dichotomy most service companies find themselves in.
Whilst it seems that digitalisation of service delivery offers us great opportunities they equally bring additional challenges. As with many things in life, it appears there is an ever-evolving arms race between these two. As one challenge is solved thus creating new opportunities, so a new challenge is born.
With this in mind, I was keen to see if Starr sees field service today as something that has been simplified by technology, or in particular as we consider the vast amount of data we are now generating, has it actually become further complicated?
“I was always one of ABB’s smart guys with a bag of tricks. If there was a problem I’d get a ticket and I’d go fix the site. But I was always able to do that because the problem space wasn’t as huge as it is today,” he replies.
“Today our guys have to worry about cyber attacks, IT Security, Back Ups, Disk Space, Uptime, Communication, Visualisation and much, much more – so it’s very difficult to have someone who is an expert in all of those areas – and we’ve got to quit trying,” Starr explains.
“What’s different now is that the components being produced, and ABB makes an awful lot of these, each has their own digital signatures. Basically, they have a built-in data stream associated with the asset.”
If I go outside and see a vapour trail in the sky I know a jet went by – even if I don’t see the jet. That’s the same principle on every single connected asset – it will leave a digital signature behind it.
“I was fortunate to have been the fireman and put the fire out on the site, but I would think ‘If I had just been here yesterday and I could have seen this data trail I could have prevented the failure.’ So that’s where we started packaging that and we called those diagnostic solutions, benchmarks and fingerprints – where we would provide scope and insight.”
“We would go and harvest the data and fifteen or twenty years ago that was very difficult. We would go and hook up resistors and current line – but we learned the technique.”
But it was time well spent and a highly precipitous move that has placed ABB perfectly at home in today’s world where there is more data and storage than they’re ever has been. And a reflection of their expertise in this area is that they are now getting more requests from customers for us to go and look at there data than ever before.
As the conversation begins to conclude Starr offered up one ore excellent anecdote that really helps visualise the importance of digital in service delivery today.
“I was driving along the road in Vietnam the other day when we came to a bridge across a river,” he begins.
That’s what modern service is – you can either fish with a hook or fish with a net
“In our world of automation, you don’t need to physically go and touch every single asset, that is hurting people, putting them in harm’s way. When there are digital components you can actually send out agents, pull that digital signature back, run data analytics and compare it to known failure rates, known performance and you can tell exactly where your systems are.”
“So you can actually know if your safe reliable and optimised and you can demonstrate it.”
If your organisation hasn’t done so already perhaps it’s time to start thinking about what your digital net should look like as well?
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