Dr David McGorman takes a look at the demands placed on rail operators by the increasing demand for digitalisation and a connected railway

Digital technology has been transforming business practices and processes for some time and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is having a huge impact on all commercial sectors including the rail industry. The increasing expectations of passengers and government regulators are providing the impetus for train and network operators to invest in new systems and technology that will deliver long term financial and operational benefits.

Digital vision for the UK rail network
The vision for the UK rail network could not be clearer, as highlighted by the launch of Network Rail’s Digital Railway, which intends to integrate technologies for track and infrastructure. This places a greater emphasis on a fully ‘connected’ railway, which requires an enhanced and more efficient supply chain to support it, contributing to both operational and maintenance efficiencies.

An example of such performance gains will include the ability to keep trains running for longer without disruption by minimising planned or unscheduled maintenance interventions, enabling service episodes to be controlled by condition-based intelligence.

Digital in the supply chain
The use of digital technology to improve the effectiveness of the supply chain will have a large impact on the 4Cs that the UK rail industry has as performance imperatives – Cost, Carbon, Customer and Capacity.

There will be cost reductions for maintenance operations as they become more focused on replacing parts that are actually wearing out, and there will be fewer delivery vehicle movements as the supply chain is more co-ordinated to reduce carbon emissions. The customer will have more reliable vehicles to travel due to a focus on train and track enhancements instead of maintenance tasks and there will be increased capacity as the trains are out of service less frequently.

Data use for better performance
Unipart Rail recognises that these developments will impact the supply chain and as such, believe there is a requirement for an integrated Condition Based Supply Chain. This solution offers the seamless management of real-time data and information, combined with multiple data sources relating to the asset, which has the ability to deliver increased operational efficiencies and maintenance savings. ‘On-asset’ sensors are one source of data. However, other information (such as environmental conditions and data from surrounding systems) can be used to help monitor and predict the need for replacement parts. This concept brings together several existing and emerging technologies and capabilities into a complete Digital Eco-system.

A condition-based supply chain provides multiple benefits for train or network operators, including maintenance optimisation and increased asset availability. Transitioning from scheduled maintenance operations to condition/preventative based maintenance, will deliver cost reductions and increased efficiencies in the utilisation of the operators’ workforce, enabling them to focus on vehicle and track enhancements.

The Condition Based Supply Chain from Unipart Rail addresses many of the key themes identified in the UK’s Rail Technical Strategy Delivery Plan. This includes minimising disruption to train services, generating more value from data, delivering intelligent trains and infrastructure and delivering lower cost railway solutions.

Total integration
The integration of existing and emerging technologies and capabilities into a complete Digital Eco-system provides access to full product information history. As the Digital Eco-System uses cloud-based connectivity, the monitoring of performance data and notifications of automated delivery schedules can be accessed at any time, on any device, providing complete transparency and traceability of the supply chain network.

As the industry moves from responsive to preventive maintenance, the overlaying technology needs to continue developing. This is a complex area as the monitoring technology needs to not only detect and send millions of data points, but also not interfere with the surrounding signalling systems.

Data and analytics are an essential element to informing predictive maintenance regimes. A web portal such as Instrumentel’s Paradigm Insight system can be used to display live performance data, deliver notifications and provide transparency and traceability of the entire supply chain network.

Whilst the deployment of digital technologies can deliver many benefits and opportunities for savings and efficiencies, the best results can only be obtained through the close collaboration of train operators, maintainers and owners along with the entire supply chain.

Breaking from the past
The rail industry is historically a mechanical industry and one that has a very good safety record, as a result of this, it is resistant to change and is traditionally slow to adopt new technologies and digital solutions.

It is therefore hugely important that solution providers such as Unipart Rail demonstrate the benefits and reasons why the industry should evolve and adopt new solutions without importing new risk or performance impacts.

In my experience, the best results are achieved by working together collaboratively in order to introduce digital technologies that achieve maximum benefits. This often involves cultural shifts that are required to adopt such technologies.

At Unipart Rail, we are working to support our customers and partners along this journey. We address the challenges of the industry across the asset lifecycle by working collaboratively with our partners to deliver technology and supply chain solutions that improve performance, reduce risk and optimise cost.

Examples of such solutions include a range of Condition Based Maintenance products through to supply chain management and predictive forecasting that utilises machine learning, through to efficiencies created by using RPAs (Robotic Process Automation). If these types of technology are used pervasively throughout the industry – including the supply chain – the potential for a step-change in the industry is huge; as seen in both the automotive and aerospace sectors.

Dr David McGorman is the Managing Director of Instrumentel Ltd, a British company that specialises in precision electronics and telemetry, including Condition Based Predictive Maintenance. Instrumentel is part of Unipart Rail, which addresses the challenges of the rail industry across the asset lifecycle by working collaboratively with its partners to deliver technology and supply chain solutions that improve performance, reduce risk and optimise cost. David is also Unipart Rail & Manufacturing Group Technology Managing Director.