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Software systems for utilities

Patrick Gex, VP of Ventyx, discusses the firm's GCC expansion

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Historically, Ventyx has implemented systems into working plants; in the Middle East, the company is looking to work with pre-operational facilities.
Historically, Ventyx has implemented systems into working plants; in the Middle East, the company is looking to work with pre-operational facilities.

Middle East industries pride themselves on being early adopters of technology and Patrick Gex, VP of Ventyx, is hoping this attitude will see the software company’s GCC expansion a runaway success.

There’s no escaping it – technology is everywhere. To some it’s a burden, overcomplicating our lives and putting our existence into the unfeeling electronic hands of software systems.

But in industry it pays to be ahead of the game; with the Middle East responding to increasing demands on infrastructure, Patrick Gex, Ventyx’s VP, is confident that the region’s conditions are perfect for the company to introduce its plant software solution.

“Right now we are working intensively in the Middle East,” says Gex. “We’ve had a lot of success in the US and in Europe, and we’re trying to bring that success and our unique solution to this region – we’ve had a lot of positive feedback already. What makes us strong and unique is that we can touch every aspect of the utility business as one company.”

The unique solution is eSOMS (Shift Operation Management System), an advanced suite of integrated software modules, which models the processes undertaken at asset-intensive businesses like refineries and power stations on a daily basis.

The idea, drawn from years in the operations management automations field, is to allow a more organised and integrated approach to activities involving equipment configuration and system status and, crucially, to increase efficiency by cutting the level of data entry required.

“It deals mainly with three specific areas – safety, efficiency and compliance,” says Gex. “Everything we do with the software is going to go back to one of those three areas.”

Put simply, eSOMS is the next evolutionary step forward from a paper-based process, allowing staff and management to utilise different modules integrated into a single system, maximising efficiency and levels of safety.

“In a power plant, you have two main groups,” explains Gex. “You have the maintenance group which does the work, and the operations group which is responsible for the system itself.

The maintenance people cannot go and work until the operation people have isolated the system, and to be efficient you need good communication between those groups.

When the system is isolated, that information needs to be transferred quickly to the maintenance team - our electronic log allows information to flow from one group to the other.”

Just one of the modules that make up eSOMS, Narrative Log is driven by regulation and safety. “In a power plant, refinery or any type of plant where safety and regulation are very important, you need to log everything you do,” says Gex.

“Your electronic log book is going to be the key, the main tool for transferring information from one group to another – if you don’t transfer what has happened during your shift, there could be a
major accident.”

Information filtering
“With a paper process you might lose information, and from the flow of entries you have no idea which is critical, which needs to be transferred and so on. With an electronic system you can filter all that information.”

He also emphasises that eSOMS is far from being just a pure information system; it also allows operators to filter and flag critical information, a feature which is becoming ever more relevant in modern plants.

“I went to a refinery in Germany to implement the software,” remembers Gex, “and the first thing the maintenance manager told me is that he didn’t need another system to give him more information – he needed to know which information is critical and relevant.”

“For me, safety is number one. You want to improve efficiency and productivity, but you need to make sure you don’t compromise your safety – it’s everything. If you do, and you have an accident, that’s what people are going to remember; a safety system itself is not going to make it 100 per cent safe,” Gex points out.

“You need to make sure people are monitoring the safety system, that they are reliable, that it works and that the safety logs are in place.”

From a safety perspective, a modern software-based tag or log system is also far more efficient and reliable than the existing manual method.

“When you shut down a power plant, for instance, you have to make sure that all the systems are ready to come back online, and that they are aligned correctly,” Gex explains.

“We use tag sharing – when operators isolate the system to make sure it’s safe to work on, you put a tag or a log on the equipment.

In the past, you’d walk around a power plant and see ten tags or logs on the same piece of equipment, because you had ten different types of work being done.

With tag sharing, you only need one tag or log. On paper it’s impossible but with an electronic system, it’s very easy; we’ve been doing it for 25 years.”

With many plants both in planning stage and under construction in the Middle East, this presents an opportunity for Ventyx to be involved with the implementation at a much earlier stage.

Top Transitions
“Most of our clients are companies that have power plants already in production,” says Gex, adding that the company is in talks with EDF, Areva and Westinghouse regarding the implementation of Ventyx’s system pre-operation, during the construction phase.

“When you build a power plant, you want a good transition
between your construction and your production. If you use a system like ours, you can transition very easily from construction
to production.”

However, Gex points out that implementing systems into an existing plant is also simple.

“What we normally do when we go to a power plant, is we try to find out where the pains are – the problems. With the modules we have, we try to see which would be the best for them to implement at the beginning,” he says.

Implementing new technology does however raise the issue of change, but Gex is confident that the Middle East is generally very good at embracing new technology.

Ventyx is aggressive when it comes to new developments, and was also one of the first companies to bring mobility, in the form of ruggedised hand-held PDAs, to plant operators. The firm currently puts between 18 and 20 per cent of its revenue back into research and development.

“When I started in this business, it was a challenge trying to bring technology to people who had been doing their job for 30 years, and didn’t want to change,” he says, “but you have to go with the technology, you can’t stay behind.

If you came to me and said that your software is going to significantly improve my safety, efficiency and compliancy, it would be a no-brainer.”

Training then, is an important factor. “We do have a professional services organisation that has a lot of experience in the software we sell, so they can come and help with implementation,” Gex explains.

eSOMS - for example the shift-management software - is very easy to implement and train on, because we’re not bringing new process to the operator. It’s already something that they do on a regular basis, and we’re just bringing them a tool to make it easier, not changing their process.”

“It’s the same thing with the isolation system – every power plant has a procedure as far as electrical and mechanical isolation goes. Our system is very efficient in that area, but we’re not telling them to stop what they’re doing – we’re going to take their procedure, and model it using our software.”

With the Middle East hurriedly putting together plans to ensure supply to increasing demands of water and power, it seems that Ventyx has picked a good time to expand into the region.

“We have been successful in Europe and the US, and the timing is recognition of the growth in the region’s power industry,” Gex explains. “Also, the Middle East is going nuclear - it has to – and we are trying to work with the major players in terms of asset and operations management.”

Ultimately, the region looks set to provide a fresh new market for the company, and Gex is confident that little – including competition - should stand in the way of success.

“The strength of eSOMS is not that is has multiple modules,” he explains, “but the fact they are all integrated. It is unique – if you take eSOMS as a solution, with all the individual modules integrated the way they are, there’s really no competition.”

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