The worldwide demand for energy is growing exponentially and is expected to triple until 2050. As a consequence power providers all over the world, have to constantly expand and update their electrical grids. Electrical grids are the interconnected networks for delivering electricity from producers to consumers.
At the same time the grids get expanded, older parts of the networks suffer from aging: Due to high replacement costs and the long lifespan of the equipment of 50+ years, it gets used to its maximum usage time. This results in higher failure rates, causing increased customer interruption rates and influences modern economy and society negatively
"Grid Providers fighting in a two-front war to keep up with the growing demand while preserving the existing structures ."
The situation is challenging, especially for midsized companies. The constant need for expansion demands high investments. At the same time maintenance, restoration and replacement cost are increasing, because old equipment needs more intensive care. But due to time consuming and labour intensive maintenance procedures, in relation to high cost pressure, regular and efficient control cannot always be guaranteed. The cause: The chances for accurate problem diagnosis and early risk detection, which would significantly reduce restoration and replacement cost, are left out.
"Midsized Power Provider are in need for more efficient maintenance processes, to be able to overcome these challenges with their limited resources."
But the conservative business lacks behind in adapting to modern processes and digital technology, which could help to optimize processes. As a result, Umea Energi asked us for conceptualizing and designing visionary solutions for the next generation of smart product solutions:
"Through our field research, we identified the process of transformer maintenance as the design opportunity with the highest relevance"
Power transformers step down the power voltage from a transmission level to a distribution level, so the energy can be used by consumers . Transformers are the most expensive, as well as some of the oldest components in the grid systems. They are difficult to replace and a disfunction or failure can cause a cascading effect, resulting in total blackouts, in wide areas of the grid.
Transformers are filled with oil, as cooling medium and for insulation. Over time, the oil gets subjected to thermal, electrical and even mechanical stresses. These stresses can affect the chemistry of the dissolved gases within the oil. If not monitored and maintained correctly, the oil-gas mixture can become highly explosive. To prevent this and detect risks as early as possible, the oil needs to be tested on regular basis. The more frequently the testing is done, the more reliable the problem diagnosis & prognosis becomes.
But the current standard procedure for analyzing these gases is too time consuming and therefore too cost intensive to be done in adequate frequency: Many manual steps, the use of outdated tools , analog documentation and manual data transcription result in an extremely inefficient and error-prone process.
Chroma is our vision, on how this process could be simplified and optimized by a holistic and coherent system solution.
Electrical grids are structures which grew over a hundred of years and the design of the basic components, did not change much over time. Because the equipment is durable, expensive and difficult to replace, even electrical grids of modern metropoles, still rely in their cores on components, which are in use for more than 50 years.
Due to the increasing energy consumption power providers have to spend most of their resources, on the expansion of the grid, making it difficult to maintain the already existing structures properly.
With every year the risk for old equipment to become temporarily disfunctional or to fail completely, increases significantly. As a consequence maintenance costs, restoration and replacement costs are increasing exponentially, while also the demand for new investments for expansion is increasing.
By logic the only possibility to meet the needs of future society, while running a healthy and profitable business, is to become more efficient in maintaining the already existing structures.This could be done in multiple ways, but the essential ingredient for all of them is data.
By collecting more data about the equipments condition, a more accurate problem diagnosis, and moreover a more accurate prognosis on the equipments future performance and durability, would become possible. Advanced information allow companies to use their financial and human resources most efficiently and exactly where it is needed, to ensure a functional and stable grid.
Bigger companies already start to invest heavily into remote monitoring systems, to improve their data quality. But for smaller and midsize companies like Umea Energi, these systems are too high cost. They have to rely on professional personnel to gather the required information.
The problem with this is, some of the current processes to collect the required data, rely on outdated equipment and inefficient workflows, making them time consuming and personnel intensive. As a consequence analytical tests and onsite inspections are kept to a minimum to save costs. The result are diminished chances for early risk detection and proactive risk prevention.
These circumstance become especially important in transformer maintenance: Power transformers are some of the components which are often in use for several decades and therefore need intensive care. They are the most expensive equipment in the grid and play an essential role in distributing the energy to consumers. Transformers step down the voltage level from a transmission to a distribution and utilization level, so the energy becomes usable by consumers.
If a transformer becomes dysfunctional or fails, this can cause a cascading effect resulting in a power shortage for big parts of the network. Having not only a serious impact on the clients business, but also on everyday life of people.
Transformers are filled with oil as cooling medium and for insulation. Due to the high voltage levels, the oil constantly gets subjected to thermal, electrical and even mechanical stresses, which affect its chemistry. Like analysing human blood , the analysis of the oils condition and the chemistry of the dissolved gases within the oil, can give reliable information on the transformers health condition, its performance and even allows to prognose future developments. The more frequently these test are done, the more accurate the diagnosis and prognosis becomes.
For several days we accompanied maintenance engineers infield, to observe their daily routines, in maintaining transformers and in collecting analytical data. We observed a slow, inefficient and error-prone process and saw a big opportunity, to create true improvement by design.
Transformers are most of the time located in so called substations, all over the grid. In northern Sweden for example, are more than 1000 of these substations, usual with 2 to 4 transformers on site.
Before maintenance engineers can enter the fenced sites and start their maintenance routine, they have to inform the command center via phone to partially reroute the electricity, for safety reasons. If forgotten this can become a serious health risk to the engineers life. The engineers unlock the site with a general key. A key which gives access to more than a thousand sites. If it gets lost, all locks have to be replaced for high costs.
The actual maintenance routine can be split in two parts:
At first the engineer does a full visual inspection of the site and its components. All problems and saliences need to be written down in a paper-based inspection record. Damages need to be documented separately by camera. Furthermore basic performance data of the equipment, like temperature, electric currency eg. need to be checked and noted. Later all gathered information has to be transcripted and digitalized manually. The engineers spend several hours daily on the transcription and filing of the records and documenting images. Often transcription mistakes happening and diminishing the information quality.
After the visual inspection is completed, the engineer takes samples of the transformer oil, to later analyse its gas chemistry in a gas chromatograph.To extract the oil , the engineer uses many incoherent tools:
A glass-syringe is attached via a hose to the outlet of the transformers oil tank. The outlet is often located underneath a cooling unit, so the engineer has to crawl underneath the unit. He has to stay in an uncomfortable position, till the sample is fully taken. Before the sample can be extracted,the engineer has to drain several litres of oil to get rid of settled particles. The drained oil has to be disposed later. While taking the sample the engineer has to ensure that no air bubbles get sucked in.Air would contaminate the sample and lead to false results in gas chromatography.
After the sample is taken, it is labeled with a sharpie marker to assign it to the right transformer. Often the writing gets rubbed off the oily outside of the glass-syringe and the sample can not be assigned properly anymore.
Back in office, the samples get injected into the gas chromatograph. The analyzers usually used in house, can only process one sample at time. The analysis of a single sample, takes roundabout one hour. Afterwards the whole system has to be cleaned meticulously by hand, before the next sample can be processed. If several samples need to be analyzed in row, the engineer has to be present all the time, to ensure a constant progress. Also all other components, which got into contact with the oil during the extraction process, need to be cleaned manually.
After the gas chromatography is done, the results need to be manually transferred and filed in the companies folder structures. The use of mainly PDF & Excel formats for documentation, results in complex and confusing folder structures. Furthermore the search for specific information becomes time consuming and annoying.
Due to all these contributing factors, the overall process becomes time consuming and cost intensive. As a consequence its done in minimum frequency, resulting in a small sample size. A small sample size, makes accurate problem diagnosis & prognosis significantly harder.
We realized to create real improvement, which has true impact on the clients business, not a single product but a whole system solution is needed.
Chroma consists of two hardware devices and a digital backbone:
The Chroma mobile application, gives engineers digital checklists to guide them through the whole maintenance process, while allowing an fast and intuitive dada input. Documenting pictures and videos can be integrated right away. It improves further the communication with the command center and improves staff coordination and task management.
The semi-automated Chroma handheld, allows engineers not only to take multiple samples much faster, but also with less risk of contamination and without any environmental impact, by making use of prefabricated sample tubes. Theses disposable and recyclable tubes erase the necessity of manual cleaning, throughout the whole process at all. Saving a significant amount of working time and ensuring to always get reliable test results:
Before the extraction, the sample tubes can directly be scanned on site, to allow a faster and faultless filing and erase the risk for confusion. For sample extraction, the engineer simply attaches the handheld via a circular hose system to the transformers outlet and starts the integrated peristaltic pump. Before extracting automatically a 50 ml sample, the system is flushed ones to remove any settled particles. After the sample is taken, air gets pumped through the system to push the leftover oil back into the transformers tank. No oil is spilled or wasted anymore.
Back in the office, the engineer can insert a batch of up to four samples into the Chroma DGA Desktop Analyzer. The samples get scanned, prepared and analyzed automatically, without interruptions or the necessity of cleaning in between. Engineers do not have to be present anymore during the process. At the end, the results of the gas chromatography are visualized in a clear and understandable way next to the inspection records, in the Chroma Desktop App.
Chroma is our vision on how applied human centered design could have a direct positive impact on our clients business, while improving the everyday work life of people.