Automation, digitalization, maintenance

The twenties: the digital age


What are the new challenges that the world of maintenance and design must face? What has been changed forever by the events of 2020? We asked these questions to an expert in the field, who has retraced, for us and with us, the steps of a change that has been accelerated by a “sui generis” year. the following is an attempt to outline how maintenance in the twenties will look like.

The events of last year have changed us, as well as our way of living and working. Being aware of this may be useful, but what it is above necessary to acknowledge that since then new balances and methodologies have been implemented, which will soon become ordinary practice, if they haven’t done so, yet.

To gain a better understanding of the world of maintenance, we have again met Federico Piccardo, paper technician and maintenance expert, one year after our previous interview.

Constantly evolving

The pandemic has brought about changes at any working level and some of them can already be considered as a new way of maintaining and optimizing papermaking processes.

«In the first instance, I would say that everything has become more complicated, » says Piccardo, when asked to tell us his experience in the last few months. «We had to change our way of thinking». Provided everything that is associated with maintenance and optimization of installations requires the capacity to adapt to new situations, i.e., «work that is, and must always be, constantly evolving, » says the expert, «the new challenges now lie in the constant development and change now is the speed, with which these challenges have to be met».

In particular, digital systems are becoming increasingly important in the management of all internal processes of a company. The Covid-19 emergency has certainly not determined the need for digital systems, yet it has accelerated a development that was bound to become tangible. All of this has inevitably influenced work, for good or ill, also when it comes to the design of installations and their subsequent maintenance.

«The most important change that the development of digital systems has determined to planning is the ability to introduce in the basic project the part related to automations and controls, which was optional in the past or represented a second step in the evolution of the installation. This activity is treated as a luxury by several small paper mills, yet it is one for which it is necessary to find the way and the conditions to implement in the necessary forms. All of this should be achieved by bearing in mind the “portfolio” capacities associated with budget differences».

Plus, the eye is digital

Digital systems can greatly contribute to improve maintenance in the paper mill, or make it more efficient, «especially when it comes to prevention, » stresses Piccardo. «Just think of measuring the temperature of a component, e.g. an engine: analyse it correctly, and that value will help you prevent a breakdown». Automated control is so constant and precise, that it enables to detect the minimum variations inside the machinery, to monitor the functioning of installations and machines over time, and to immediately identify the problems that may arise. This, therefore, means being able to act timely and avoid breakdowns or machine down-times.

«We can adopt the same approach for the monitoring of vibrations, which is an important parameter with which the paper mill can have a diagnosis of the health status of mechanical parts».

Yet, Piccardo identifies another change brought about by the mass entry of digital systems, which is no mean change when one must discuss with the client paper mill about new and innovative technical aspects that need to be introduced: communication. If, on the one hand, digital systems facilitate installations management and control, on the other hand they may bring about what our expert refers to as «relationship difficulties».

New and old competences

The digital evolution brings about new skills also in terms of machine data management, i.e. the so-called big data. This implies new systems and, therefore, the emergence of professional profiles, both internal and external to the paper mill, different from the ones of the past. Basically, getting ready for a future that is rapidly advancing and becoming today’s reality is necessary. But how can one get ready for the future, when talking about maintenance?

«Digitalization, which is a fundamental step that all companies should gradually take, has been abruptly accelerated. Consequently, the gap between the IT part, i.e., both hardware and software, and operators has widened. This has led to difficulties that are both management-related and practical, » says Piccardo. «In the future, which we can already refer to as “present”, training is therefore necessary. Only through training can we use and make the most of all digital technologies, ranging from a simple “distance meeting” to system self-diagnosis, and from remote service to a wider and more elaborated data collection».

The new needs and, therefore, the requirements of the paper sector have not only been determined by the events of last year. «The papermaking world is significantly changing, both due to all the consequences of Covid-19, and for the fact that several young people have been hired by companies, whereby this latter fact should not be ignored. The new generation of employees is made up of people, who were born in the digital age and are, thus, more educated and trained in this respect, unlike more “mature” workers, who have had to professionally develop and continuously learn to familiarize with these new technologies, despite the difficulties involved. Today, I believe that the biggest difficulty for paper mills is to rapidly convey their experience to those who are destined to represent the future of the sector». These are operators, experts, and technicians, as Piccardo underlines, who certainly «think digital, but who lack the typical analogue competences».

The twenties are, thus, already characterizing themselves. There will be new experiences and changing habits, however will there be anything that will in any case be irreplaceable? According to Piccardo, yes: «Face-to-face human relations, as we have become used to define them by now, for both meetings and technical inspections, as well as people’s experiences, » he adds lastly.