How can more sustainability be achieved in the life cycle of industrial plants?

Hardly any software support is used for the construction, operation and dismantling of industrial plants. For reasons of sustainability and greater efficiency during the life cycle alone, this should change. A guide.

factory building exterior, brown

Practice shows that most large industrial plants have similar problems: At the latest when it comes to dismantling or decommissioning, massive information gaps become apparent – both for the further processing of materials and the planning or logistics of the projects. The basic rule is: the more is known in advance, the fewer surprises the dismantling experts have to deal with. Clean planning also means that a deconstruction project is much more likely to be completed on budget and on time. Digital data and transparency are therefore a considerable advantage at this point, which can save a lot of money. In the past, however, such systematic recording was simply not common practice. In the best-case scenario, there is usually some decentralized data, but the dismantling experts often do not know what to expect.

If the necessary database is not available digitally, many problems arise that are often difficult to predict. One of the biggest problems is the lack of transparency. It is painfully noticeable in operations and especially in dismantling if nobody in the workforce knows where to find the right data, information or parts. As a rule, a great deal of time is invested in searching for and collating essential information. The resulting costs are often immense, especially when it comes to radiation protection. A real-life example: when a container containing residual materials is missing during the dismantling of a nuclear power plant, a team of five has to spend several weeks searching for it.

Relying on software retrospectively

But even when dismantling or decommissioning existing plants, a lot can be done today with software solutions to minimize risk and cost factors. The subsequent collection of data is a considerable effort, for example when information on a pump and its surroundings is collected retrospectively. Many industrial plants are already very old and it is often not possible to look everywhere. In the nuclear power plant environment in particular, it is often very difficult to trace which parts are contaminated and to what extent.

Nevertheless, the effort is worthwhile, as appropriate solutions enable not least audit-proof documentation of the dismantling processes and the highest possible level of sustainability. The digital description of a plant should record which materials have been used and the quantities of each, for example concrete rubble or iron. This is fundamentally important for planning downstream processing and recycling. This is because the materials take different routes and are subject to different regulations, for example for transportation to landfill sites or approval procedures for critical substances such as asbestos.

Specific requirements for industrial projects

For new projects, systems that ensure transparency should be procured in advance. In the case of existing projects, an attempt should at least be made to make up for what has been missed to some extent. The earlier data collection is tackled, the better prepared operators are for the end of the life cycle of their systems – after all, it is often underestimated how much time some things take.

A very important component of an appropriate software solution is a module with which recurring maintenance can be implemented digitally. But the issue of regulatory compliance is also crucial: the software should ensure governance and compliance with legal requirements. It must also be ensured that the processes themselves always follow the same pattern. The focus here is on topics such as occupational health and safety and the obligation to provide evidence to authorities. Digital documentation is also essential in the buildings and machinery of industrial companies, for example to know where cables or pipes are located. Taking the chemical industry as an example, it quickly becomes clear what a difference an end-to-end digital solution makes: if certain areas need to be accessed for maintenance or certain pipes need to be cut apart, activation processes can be controlled directly or potential hazards can be specifically assessed in advance.

AI supports professional preparatory work

Some tasks are now much easier thanks to the use of AI technology: for example, image processing can be used to calculate how many electrical cables are located where in the wall based on interior photos with sockets. Architectural plans can also be digitized and then become part of the database, keyword Building Information Modelling. However, the system must not only be able to map maintenance planning and execution: Above all, it is important to have well-founded, systematic documentation in which, for example, extensive data in the form of construction drawings, images or videos can also be stored. Ideally, a digital image of the system with maintenance planning and all downstream processes and documents is available at the touch of a button. It must also be possible to quickly search through large volumes of data.

Old systems can often be upgraded with sensor technology and used for longer by better anticipating failures and monitoring critical components in a targeted manner. RFID chips or barcodes are suitable for tracking residual material containers, for example, in order to ensure correct further processing. Their data can be recorded when certain gates are passed through or scanned.

Spanning the lifecycle from start to finish

The focus should be on the maintenance strategy during the operating life. If machines and systems are equipped with sensors and preventive maintenance is carried out, they will not only last much longer but also produce less waste. Both aspects contribute to greater sustainability. To achieve this, however, the assets must be known down to the smallest detail, from material and parts lists to histories documenting part failures. This is the only way to keep a better eye on problematic components. The continuous maintenance of the maintenance history, possibly even the redesign of particularly susceptible components, are part of a consistent digital maintenance strategy.

With new projects, however, it is now also important to question traditional concepts for industrial complexes. Are large centralized plants still fit for purpose or are smaller, decentralized industrial plants more suitable? Does it make more sense to bring production back to Germany in order to avoid increasingly fragile logistics chains?

Keeping residual quantities as low as possible

Centralized systems are necessary for construction, operational management and later dismantling so that everyone involved has the same level of knowledge and can quickly access important information. This means that everyone knows what is happening at any given time. Digitally supported dismantling concepts also ensure that as many materials as possible can be cleanly separated, reused and fed into the circular economy. A corresponding solution keeps an eye on the individual processing channels, the flow tracking of the dismantled materials and the associated tasks as well as transparent documentation and balancing. The aim is always to minimize the residual quantities that cannot be fed back into the circular economy but have to be disposed of as waste in expensive and complex landfills.

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