Industries such as mining and agriculture, which are heavily dependent on natural resources, constantly struggle with rising production costs, labour shortages, and pressure from environmental groups and regulators to be more sustainable.
A new innovation hub set up by management consultancy Accenture in Singapore aims to help these sectors harness the power of cutting-edge digital technology to stay ahead of the game.
The Accenture Internet of Things (IoT) Centre of Excellence for Resources, launched at the Marina Bay Financial Centre on September 23, is kitted out with drones, 3D printers, virtual reality goggles, smart watches, sensors, and other gadgets.
A team of 30 scientists and engineers will use these devices to develop innovative ways to help industries such as oil and gas, chemicals, metals, mining, forestry, and utilities unlock the huge hidden economic opportunity of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) - that is, connecting machines to networked sensors and software.
Some US$14.2 trillion of value can be unlocked from this sector by 2022, according to an Accenture report released earlier this year.
Accenture’s research also shows that harnessing IoT technology can help the chemicals industry reduce the cost of goods sold by up to 12 percent, while mining and metals companies can increase their production by 25 percent. Oil and gas companies can cut repair costs by a tenth, and utilities can boost productivity by as much as 20 percent.
Several examples of exactly how IoT can deliver these gains while also promoting sustainability were on display at the launch event for the centre, which is supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).
Sustainable and safe
For instance, drones can cut down on the amount of coal lost to spontaneous combustion, a common occurrence in coal stockpiles. James Chong, IoT Connected Platforms lead at the Centre of Excellence, shared that up to 12 percent of all coal stocks are lost due to unexpected fires, which are hard to spot using conventional monitoring techniques like manual patrols, or even drones fitted with normal cameras. This is because they burn deep within a stockpile, where ventilation is poor and temperatures are high.
Drones fitted with heat-sensing cameras and analytics software can help solve this issue. When they detect hot spots on coal mountains during surveillance flights, they can transmit their exact coordinates back to companies, which can then bring fires quickly under control, explained Chong.
The centre is working on developing software which can snap and analyse high-resolution images for this and many other applications, he added.
Other sectors can also benefit from drone technology, noted Chong. In the oil and gas sector, for example, they can pinpoint where hot gas is leaking out of cracks in pipes, and companies can seal these gaps to prevent resource wastage.
Accenture’s Centre of Excellence will further deepen the presence of resource companies here by helping them harness IoT capabilities and develop new technology solutions.
Yeoh Keat Chuan, managing director, Singapore Economic Development Board
Accenture has also developed a suite of sophisticated data analytics software, which together with a network of sensors, can help companies reduce energy and resource use.
Senthil Ramani, the centre’s director, explained that in plants which process mineral ore, coal, or wood chips, overloading the conveyor belts that carry the materials through the facility can result in unnecessarily high energy use. This also wears out the belt faster.
Even in downstream processing, more energy and expensive treatment chemicals are required to process oversize raw materials, he added.
By installing sensors and video cameras along the belts, a plant’s operator can detect these problems early on, he said. Staff can then safely pause the belt and remove the objects, sending them back to crushers or shredders to be broken down into smaller pieces.
This technology can also spot sharp tools like screwdrivers which are accidentally left on the belt and ensure they are removed before they cause major damage to plant equipment, he added.
Ramani noted that companies can also save millions on equipment maintenance with the help of sensors and data analytics. Often, machine parts are replaced before they are worn out, simply because a schedule dictates it. At other times, a minor fault may go undetected, and eventually cause a breakdown that is more disruptive and expensive to deal with.
In any system where water flows through pipes, for example, valves may give early signs that they are going to fail - the volume of water flowing through the pipes may drop slightly, for instance. Sensors can detect these slight changes in flow and immediately flag them to maintenance staff.
Thanks to the rise of ‘wearables’ such as smart watches, this information will be delivered right to people’s fingertips instead of a computer screen.
For example, every worker in a mine could be given a smart watch, so that alerts about potential equipment failure - or even sudden dangerous situations such as rock collapses in mines - are sent to them in real time. With the tap of a button, they can also remotely pause a machine and get the equipment fixed, added Ramani.
These solutions are just the beginning of the possibilities that the Internet of Things brings to resource industries, said Accenture.
British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is the centre’s foundation client, but Accenture also plans to bring on board other heavy industry companies.
Yeoh Keat Chuan, managing director, EDB, noted in a statement that Singapore is already Asia’s largest commodity trading hub, and that the centre is a “significant milestone” for EDB and Accenture.
“Accenture’s Centre of Excellence will further deepen the presence of resource companies here by helping them harness IoT capabilities and develop new technology solutions,” he said.
Jean-Mark Ollagnier, chief executive of Accenture’s Resources operating group added that in light of the various economic, labour, and sustainability pressures the industrial sector faces, “digital technology provides a way to gain competitive advantage”.
“This is the reason the centre is here, to help customers navigate any type of business cycle and pursue long-term growth.”