Building an IT innovation platform

Paul McCusker of AES describes an example of innovation at AES and how it is seeding a platform for innovation.

Interview conducted by Vinod Baya and Bo Parker
Photo: Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is the CIO for the AES Europe, Middle East, and Asia region. He joined the company in 2010 with the acquisition of Ballylumford power station in Northern Ireland, where he was the commercial director. Previously McCusker was CEO of a recruitment software company based in Dublin, Ireland.

Other participants in this interview from AES were Philip Moore and Ross Bradley.

In this interview, Paul McCusker describes how digitizing the safety near-miss reporting process using emerging technologies is allowing IT at AES to drive innovation globally.


PwC: Can you please tell us about AES and the role of IT there?

PM: AES is a global company, and our organization, AES Kilroot Power Station, has been part of AES since 1992. We produce a third of Northern Ireland’s electricity, or about 600 megawatts generation. The power plant is a dual coal- and oil-fired plant just outside Belfast. We also participate in the all-island electricity market here.

From an IT perspective, we are narrowing the gap between IT and how IT is viewed by the business. We are aligning IT with the business strategy and how the business is changing. As the business gets larger, our senior leaders recognize that technology and innovation will play a much more important part in the business. We are starting that transformation from being a facilitator to being an enabler and then bringing innovation to the organization, so we can transform business practices and provide real tangible business value.

PwC: You have a particular innovation that has been successful at AES. Can you please tell us about your system?

PM: We have created a system called Revelation. The initial idea was to turn a paper-based log into an application that would interact with users, the plant, the plant historian system, and the operating environment. It is turning into a software suite to allow IT to address current and future challenges of an evolving multifarious business.

The software helps the business collect and process data efficiently, make better and more informed decisions, and reduce risk in key areas such as safety, environment, and compliance. This project evolved naturally and is a real example of an innovative approach. This isn’t a project that came from the top down. It’s a project that came from the bottom up, from employees experiencing business challenges and using their knowledge of emerging technologies to bring improvement on many fronts and deliver business value.

Right now, we have rolled out this project at our power plant. Given the success we are having, we fully expect this approach to become a platform for innovation, so that new and similar ideas at any of our 100-plus power plants across the globe can be brought to business value quickly.

 

"As the business gets larger, our senior leaders recognize that technology and innovation will play a much more important part in the business."

 
 

PwC: What challenges were you were facing?

PM: We observed that there was scope to improve the reporting of safety and environmental incidents within the business. There was a manual process of collecting and scrutinizing data, and there were fundamental problems due to the lack of completeness and timeliness of the data being collected. Currently, most of the data is being collected by a paper-based method. That data then must be processed into various source systems, which is an arduous administrative task. We wanted to streamline the overall process.

Another challenge involved who had access and could use the data. We noticed that we had a vast amount of online monitored data that our PCS [Process Control System] was producing. But that data required daily analysis by engineers and skilled technicians to ensure that the plant was operating correctly. Also, information for operating the business, such as commercial, safety, environmental, and financial KPIs [key performance indicators] were unclear and inaccessible, as data was scattered around various subsystems. We wanted to make data more usable and accessible to a broader workforce. We also wanted to address potential problems before they happen and build the capability for ongoing, continuous improvement.

PwC: Can you please tell us about the solution?

PM: Sure. We have digitized the process of reporting and logging plant safety near misses¹ and related incidents. We have done so by simplifying and lowering the barrier to logging information. Revelation will allow any person with a mobile device to report safety near misses, which could be safety incidents, accidents, or potential problem areas. Reporting happens from the site, during routine safety walks by managers or during any incidents or accidental events.

To create a new log, now all you do is enter the details of the issue as free text, similar to composing an e-mail, and attach a picture of the incident using the camera in the mobile device. This information will then be transmitted back to the server where other people can process the information or, depending on the severity, automatically alert others to a potential problem. No need to carry about multiple bits of paper and store them.

 

"We wanted to make data more usable and accessible to a broader workforce. We also wanted to address potential problems before they happen and build the capability for ongoing, continuous improvement."

 
 

There are three key components to the system. Revelation mobile provides the mobile interface for logging. Revelation Web provides analysis and reporting via a Web interface. And a rules-based engine triggers alerts and work orders on the basis of the analysis and capture of live plant parts and process information. The system is also integrated to the SAP work order system, and rules have the ability to create SAP work order notifications through a secure Web service.

PwC: What benefit have you observed?

PM: The key benefit is reducing the risk of failure of any equipment by catching problems early and ultimately preventing the possibility of plant shutdown. For example, an employee has a handheld in his pocket. He passes a valve that is showing a symptom that could affect the availability of the generator. Instead of needing to remember to go back to the control room and log that as an issue, he can quickly open up the application on his handheld, take a picture, and log that incident straightaway. The information is recorded sooner and does not fall through the cracks.

The system improves our compliance with regulations. For example, one of the pieces of information that the system captures is the amount of oil that has been used by some of our equipment. The station uses various cooling systems to keep our assets operational. Typically, seawater is used as a cooling product. Leaks can occur in these cooling systems, and potentially the oil could discharge into the seawater, causing an unfavorable environmental impact.

By using Revelation and logging all the oil usage of the various tanks, we can now quickly determine how much oil is being used on-site. Using Revelation, we can quite quickly surface if we see an upward trend in oil usage and catch that before the problem manifests. Therefore, we reduce the risk of the plant going offline due to an environmental incident.

If something goes wrong, the earlier you spot it, the better. If something goes badly wrong, it can result in the plant needing to come offline. The commercial impact of that can be huge, not only in the loss of commercial availability for our customers, but also in penalties for us.

PwC: It seems like you have made information more broadly available to employees and improved their ability to act on it. What are your views on how much you open up access to information your systems are capturing?

PM: That’s central to the success of the project. In some sense, we have opened up the data to all employees regardless of stature or position. Lots of information—including commercial, safety, or operational data—that used to be locked away in paper records is now available for all to access, use, and build on. Now anybody can view the information on the system. They have the full capability of seeing their information or others’ information evolve from being logged to actually being closed off. We also have the ability to drive all those statistics and reports. So instead of management coming from the top down to say, “This is how we’re performing,” people can see for themselves and make their own decisions or develop their own views and then challenge management on ways that we can maybe make it better. The feedback that we’ve received is very positive. With the people here—particularly people in the plant, who are not usually very accepting of change—we’ve been very surprised with the support and feedback that we’ve had from the multidisciplinary teams.

 

"We want this system to evolve to be our innovation platform that is global and allows more employees both from IT and non-IT functions to drive greater innovation at AES."

 
 

PwC: Where do you go from here? What is the future of your system?

PM: We want this system to evolve to be our innovation platform that is global and allows more employees both from IT and non-IT functions to drive greater innovation at AES. That’s essentially what the system should be about. Already, we have had quite a few people from the business approach us with a sketch or the idea of a workflow and similar innovations, and we’ve managed to implement some of these.

One of the good things about the rules-based engine is that it enables plant engineers to really drive the behavior of the system going forward, because we are providing the platform and facilitating that. The system is successful only if people pick it up, use it, and that actually changes how they do their job. We expect in the future it should promote and encourage people to share their knowledge and innovative ideas.

¹ A safety near miss is an unplanned event that did not result in injury or damage or any other threat to safety, but that had the potential to do so. Documentation and analysis of near misses improves an organization’s environmental, health, and safety performance.