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Transforming Ex inspections in the energy and utilities sectors

30 June 2016

With the release of zone 1 and zone 2 rated mobile devices, the engineering community can now access all the data and documents they require in most hazardous areas, with or without a WIFI connection. In this article, Steve Pearson of Phusion IM says this is a potentially transformational change for energy and utility sector companies preparing for Ex inspections.

When surveying the market, it is noticeable that currently available mobile applications provide the ability to enter data and define value lists to support data entry. However, these applications appear to provide specific functionality and some, in fact, only work on certain hardware or certain platforms, and all of them create another island of data.

You can envisage a field engineer, working to a deadline, with a belt full of mobile devices and having to select the right one for the right job. So in the perfect world of transformation, we want an application that can be configured to do what we want and work with our preferred mobile hardware.

As this article relates to Ex inspections, we can pick up on how to transform this subject. However the mobile platform can be used to transform a myriad of other common tasks. 
When evaluating hazardous area equipment checks, as per IEC 60079-17, the tendency of solution providers up to now has been to recreate the check sheets verbatim, rather than take advantage of new technology and re-engineer the way we do things.

In order to create transformational change, what can be done differently to make inspection checks more robust, easier to perform and at the same time introduce continuous improvement?

Rather than just replicating what has always been done, how can we improve support inspections and enhance their results?

The following six steps represent my suggestions to transform inspections; I am sure you could add more:

1.  Feeding Forward Legacy Data

Owners of facilities have existing data and documents such as hazardous area schedules, tag registers, cable registers, hazardous area drawings, instrument loop sheets, etc. Whilst all this information is rarely stored as a single source of truth, the varying forms of data are held in one or more corporate systems and always represent a significant investment for the operator. 
With the aim of making this information earn its keep, and rather than imposing a tedious data-entry burden on the inspection teams, this data and related documents can be fed forward where they exist. This instantly changes the process from one of merely data collection to one of data verification and gap completion. This first transformation also allows the inspector to spend more time applying their specialist knowledge to the actual inspection.

Data relating to the equipment nameplate, cables, cable glands, isolation barriers can all be fed forward for verification and re-cycling. As is the case throughout, data and documents can be loaded through a data connection or WIFI enabled location and then work can be carried out without WIFI if necessary. All work done can then be uploaded when within WIFI range.

Even today, we have examples where we are working with a client on a Greenfield project and creating for them an electronic single source of truth for around half a million physical items of equipment. Unbeknown to us, in parallel, an Ex inspection company has carried out inspections and completed nearly half a million paper based IEC inspection sheets by hand for the same project. So now there are two sets of information to reconcile – just imagine of the cost of managing and completing paper IEC forms!

With the benefit of joined up thinking, the Ex Inspection company could have simply used the existing data and their work would have then verified the data gathered and stored during the design and build phase of the project. Therefore, rather than having two large data sets to reconcile there would be one data set which had undergone site verification, with £millions saved into the bargain! 

2.  Record the equipment location

The location drawings can also be fed forward, so the inspectors can view and define the actual location of the equipment using the mobile device GPS and/or by manual pin drop when WIFI is not available. This approach means the exact location of all equipment can be determined, which supports every return visit to the equipment for any purpose. This saves time and helps those new to the facility to familiarise themselves with the equipment.

There are a number of approaches to deal with multi-floor buildings or platforms and beacon solutions where GPS signals cannot be picked up.

We are also experimenting with Bluetooth low energy beacons that can be left in location for an inspection follow up. These beacons can be recognised by a mobile device over a distance of 200 meters outdoors and up to 30 metres inside buildings, whether the device has mobile connectivity or not. 

Some interesting observations of current industry practice: when some operators are asked for location drawings, they often provide location plans produced by their external Ex Inspection contractors. These plans usually cover only a small area of the plant, so there can be a large number of location plans. There is an opportunity here to adopt the design location drawings and the hazardous area layout drawings and still provide the degree of resolution needed by the inspectors to locate each item of equipment. This negates the need to externally produce dedicated location plans.

3.  Gather and manage digital images

Mobile devices come with high resolution cameras. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words and a series of pictures over time will show condition and degradation of the specific equipment. A digital image also facilitates remote support from subject matter experts, which ensures any time actually spent on the facility is most effective.

Another factor to consider is the growth in the number of images taken over time and how they can be effectively managed. Just think of the project mentioned above where an equipment, nameplate and tag image for each of the items on the facility would result in 1.5 million images to manage!

To cater for this, inspectors should be able to assign image metadata, or simply categorise images, so they can be automatically cross-referenced.  This would mean that equipment and nameplate images would be related to the equipment. If the equipment is moved physically from one tag location to another, then the equipment and nameplate images would also automatically be moved when the same simple change is made in the digital asset. This form of logical modelling means images are correctly linked at the outset and remain easy to retrieve and manage.

4.  Tap into Generic Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Data and Documents

The Energy and Utilities sectors rely on leading OEMs to provide high performance, compliant and certified equipment, which has related technical data such as protection concept, IP Rating, Temperature class, etc. OEM equipment also has related OEM documents such as hazardous area certificates, operating and maintenance manuals, technical specifications, etc.
Making this reference material available to the inspector on a mobile device adds significant value and reduces data entry requirements. Online and offline availability to the hazardous area certification provides mobile access to the documented special conditions for ‘X’ certified items of equipment. The relevant sets of OEM data and OEM documents can be downloaded prior to inspections so these can still be accessed when there is no WIFI connection.

Some engineering information management companies now have a wealth of externally hosted OEM data and documents for you to tap into, going back more than 20 years and also classified to ISO standards. This resource ensures the inspector does not need to carry out a post inspection desktop exercise or make re-visits when key information is not to hand. 

5.  Carrying out inspections

Having described the above in some detail, hopefully you can now see how inspectors can be better supported rather than them having to answer the open questions posed on the IEC check sheets.

Therefore, rather than asking if the equipment is adequately rated for its hazardous area location, you can feed forward the actual location details and the equipment’s rating details and simply ask for alignment confirmation. Or, if this is a second time around and your technical authority has approved the technical alignment, the inspector can be asked just to confirm that the equipment has not been changed out. If an equipment change has been carried out and this has not been captured since the last inspection, then the process of a site capture and another alignment review can be performed.

Likewise, rather than ask if special conditions are being complied with, the exact details can be fed forward as applicable to provide the inspector with the specific data required.
However you carry out your inspections, you can generate any format of output for wet sign or electronic sign off.

6.  Can you transform your inspections? Give it a go!

The technology and the steps defined above are all available today. Once you put yourself in the position of the inspector, you will undoubtedly see lots of other ways to better support them in their tasks and transform the way things are done.

The great bonus for operators is that you can capture more information about your assets which can then be fed back into your systems of choice to support other activities. This means you can organically grow and verify your asset information, as well as carry out all legislative inspections.

How’s that for transformational?

About the author

Steve Pearson is a chartered engineer with a practical engineering knowledge of all phases of major projects.  Prior to forming Pearson-Harper in 1992 (currently known as Phusion IM Ltd), he worked for BP as a Senior Engineer, specialising in Instrumentation and Control and IT issues.  Pearson and Phusion IM have helped many blue chip operators define their engineering information needs.

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