Talking data: An interview with Dr Felix Guerzoni of Shell Lubricants Asia Pacific

Dr Felix Guerzoni of Shell Lubricants Asia Pacific discusses how leveraging the power of data can help the region to futureproof itself against rising demands for energy

Eight of the world’s most populated countries are situated in Asia Pacific.

China, India and Indonesia among them, the region is developing at breakneck speed both in terms of economic growth and urbanisation.

The upshot? A spiralling demand for energy.

China alone in 2018 saw its electricity demand increase by 8.5 percent, a trend which shows no sign of slowing down, while emerging economies such as Malaysia continue to invest in generation and transmission infrastructure to cater to its own electricity needs.

But is enough being done to keep up? Dr Felix Guerzoni, Product Application Specialist, Team Lead Asia Pacific, Shell Lubricants, is better placed than most to answer.

“The demand being experienced is being met by tangible action to an extent,” he comments. “This is demonstrated by an expansion of services and advancement of grid infrastructure as the transition from outdated coal power stations gains more momentum.

“And indeed, this shift is clearly reflected in the figures, with the Asia Pacific region now existing as the biggest market for power transformers globally, at $8.14 billion – all of which is opening a large market for engineering procurement contractors, OEMs and utilities alike.”

However, as Guerzoni hints, there is more work to do.

For example, coal still represents 69 percent of energy consumption in India and 58 percent in China, and with populations set to continue growing and the emergence of electric vehicles set to accelerate in coming decades, the question of how to transition to cleaner power still remains.

Demand = data

Digitisation, and especially data, provide many possible answers.

In the eyes of Guerzoni, the emerging role of digitisation throughout the industry has largely been a consequence of two things – the increase in energy demand and the consequent pressure for reducing the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) and maintenance costs.

He cites the ability to increase efficiency, enable greater flexibility and reduce the likelihood of grid overload and outage as three major benefits.

“The proliferation of digital technologies has become increasingly inevitable, with those not embracing the advancements running a genuine risk of falling behind in a business sense,” Guerzoni adds.

“Again, this development is borne out by the industry figures, with the digital utility market in the Asia Pacific region projected to grow at the fastest rate globally until 2022, largely as a result of increasing investment in electrical infrastructure, developing smart grid projects and investments in smart cities.”

In terms of his own area within the Shell business, lubricants, the case for data-driven solutions could also not be stronger.

“The way power plants are operated today – with more peaking or cycling duty rather than base-load operation and with increased percentage of renewables integration into the grid – creates new challenges which need to be addressed,” Guerzoni continues.

“The more frequent start-stop duty, with fast ramp-up and ramp down rates, places additional stress on the equipment and the lubricants which are their lifeblood.

“With the advent of connected technologies and digital solutions, operators have access to a vast amount of information which may prove overwhelming and difficult to identify real actionable alarms. Asset management and maintenance scheduling has become increasingly digitalised from the largely paper-based processes.”

And the opportunity is spelled out by financial industry forecasts.

According to the World Economic Forum, $1.3 trillion could be generated by 2025 simply through digitising electricity generation around the world, a projection which backs up Guerzoni’s warning that companies which do not act face missing out.

His message is that big data is no longer a conversation which has perpetually been on the horizon of the industry. Rather, data is here today and companies need to learn how to manage it, or be left behind.

“Take the modern gas-fired power plant,” says Guerzoni. “Just one plant is equipped with more than 10,000 sensors. Now, imagine how much data these generate alone. And this number is only due to increase with the growing adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Plugging the skills gap

While the technology needed to achieve what Guerzoni describes is already in the midst of being deployed, a greater challenge lies in developing the human skills en masse required to exploit it.

The industry’s ageing workforce is a problem. As new technologies and therefore demanded skills enter the market, added strain is being placed on already-stretched maintenance teams who have been brought up in the sector the old school way.

To help tackle the current knowledge gap around maintenance, Shell operates a training programme named Shell LubeCoach, specifically designed to empower maintenance teams to deliver the benefits of a well-designed strategy surrounding lubricants.

Courses are delivered via workshops by technical experts with substantial experience working in the field, the company also partnering with tech companies to deliver futuristic solutions to overcome logistical and operational obstacles.

“For example, we have teamed up with Honeywell to connect our workers with back office expertise through the use of a new augmented reality hard hat,” Guerzoni explains.

“It comes with a built-in voice-controlled computer that’s equipped with a micro-display and a camera. This makes it possible for workers in the field to send pictures and video back to the office in real-time and receive over-the-shoulder assistance from remote operations experts when making repairs and doing work on sensitive equipment around the globe.

“These helmets from RealWear are the first wearable device certified to operate in hazardous conditions where explosive gases are present.”

Further, the Shell Digital Realities team is also working with EON Reality to adopt mainstream VR and AR solutions to provide a global on-demand immersive training programme for its teams.

The future energy mix

It is collaborations such as these which Guerzoni believes will enable a smarter global energy industry and, ultimately, a pathway to achieving the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

Shell sets out its vision in what it calls the Sky scenario, an illustration of a technically possible albeit challenging route towards these ends – ends that will only be reached through adoption of disruptive technology and a culture of partnership and knowledge exchange.

For Guerzoni, this will dictate the makeup of any future energy mix.

He adds: “Due to its dependence on coal, this will be largely driven by the extent to which industry collaboration is encouraged, and whether governmental policies are introduced to enforce greater energy supply security that can help to accelerate the development and introduction of innovative technologies.”

But despite the size of the task ahead, a recent Powering Peak Performance survey conducted by Shell shows a significant level of optimism.

Almost 60 percent believe new equipment maintenance technologies such as connected equipment, autonomous equipment, robotics, cloud-based and big data-based technologies will lead to improved operational efficiency, while just over 60 percent believe they will create cost savings.

However, while these are a sign that awareness is improving, Guerzoni does believe there are arguably too many companies which have not yet fully realised the connection between digitisation and operational efficiency.

“Beyond optimism, it’s imperative that technology now begins to play a leading role in the region’s future energy mix, for all the reasons we have discussed,” he says, rounding off the conversation.

“The benefits that digital technologies can have on energy supply, demand prediction and predictive maintenance are now too significant to ignore, and they continue to create fresh opportunities for power companies in the pursual of smarter, more effective and more accessible systems.

“Building deeper partnerships with equipment manufacturers, operators, academia and lubricant suppliers is also key to driving further efficiency gains and optimising equipment design and operation.”