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The Magazine
Tahaddart power plant, 30 kilometers south of Tangier on the Atlantic coast, is Morocco’s first combined cycle power plant.

Remote diagnostics

One step ahead with remote diagnostics

Remote diagnostics fixes problems, sometimes before they happen, and boosts performance in generation – for example by monitoring the sensors in Morocco’s first combined cycle plant. The system also prevents failures caused by vibrations.

Artificial intelligence turns science fiction into science fact. In 1996, supercomputer “Deep Blue” beat world champion Garry Kasparov at chess. In 2011, supercomputer “Watson” bested the best human players in the television game show Jeopardy. These publicity stunts proved that in some areas, computers can outthink a person.

That has not been lost on Siemens. “Smart bots” are already in action at some 650 units around the world. They help things run more safely and better.

I, not quite a robot

Not that they are called “smart bots.” But the principle behind Remote Diagnostics Services (RDS) is identical: draw on massive amounts of data to make better decisions.

“Massive” is no exaggeration. A typical generating plant looked after by Siemens Power Diagnostics Services, says Group Leader Stefan Pernau, records some 100,000 measurements every day. At midnight local time, a core dump of these is delivered through a safe internet connection either to Pernau’s team in Mülheim, Germany, or a mirror group located in Orlando, Florida, in the USA.

Stefan Pernau is Group Leader at Siemens Power Diagnostics Services.


Then the computer goes to work. Trends are compared to the plant’s own history and to operating records of similar plants. They might be very subtle, such as a temperature creep in a certain unit of 0.1o C every day for ten days straight, or a switch turning on milliseconds late. They might be fiendishly complex, requiring complicated algorithms or case-based reasoning to unravel. Or they might be insignificant, just random fluctuations within an acceptable range.

RDS sifts and sorts the measurements, flags up potential problems, and posts these to the Power Diagnostics staff. These people investigate further and start discussions with on-site operators or expert colleagues throughout the Siemens network.

Not long ago, such remote analysis was impossible. Bandwidths were too slow and computing power too weak. All that has changed.

Pickin’ up bad vibrations

RDS monitors many phenomena, but one stands front and center: vibration. In the worst case this can lead to a turbine "trip", i.e. be completely shut down. “A small change in vibration conditions,” Pernau cautions, “can lead to massive problems.”

A further goal of RDS is the increase of efficiency and performance. This aspect is about helping the best to get better. With deep computing, Power Diagnostics can try to identify which of the 100,000 conditions should be tweaked, and how; to get more output from the inputs; and to generate power exactly as desired.

A small change in vibration conditions can lead to massive problems.
Stefan Pernau, Group Leader, Power Diagnostics Services


RDS also “watches the watchers” by policing a power plant’s sensors. Recently in Tahaddart, Morocco, RDS detected two pressure sensors were deviating from their expected values, the remote analysis showed that it is was a false alarm. An on-site operator investigated, calibrated the sensors and averted a pointless shutdown.

Obviously, RDS was not capable of fixing the problem itself, which shows the ongoing need for cooperation between man and machine. “Operators have absolutely critical jobs to do,” Pernau notes. “RDS is not about replacing them, but about helping them to improve his work.”

Eric Johnson, journalist based in Zurich.
Picture credits: Jann Averwerser