Gunnar Zank, ABB
Electricity in today’s world is required like the air we breathe; we can’t live without it. But we only realize the importance of power availability when electricity supply fails. From industrial manufacturing and food processing facilities, to data centers and support systems like lighting and air conditioning, almost every aspect of the modern world requires a constant, reliable source and distribution of electric energy through switchgear systems.
Switchgear systems are used to distribute electricity safely and effectively from the high-voltage powerplant and utility network to low-voltage distribution networks. Switchgear technologies typically contain several electrical components such as circuit breakers, power monitors, motor and feeder controls and protection devices.
According to market research firm Global Market Insights, the global switchgear market was worth more than $120 billion in 2019 and is estimated to grow by over 6 percent by 2026, as investments in infrastructural development continue to increase along with growing demand for efficient transmission and distribution control systems. But how do plant operators make the right choice between traditional switchgear technologies and taking the leap to digital?
Traditional switchgear devices are designed to disrupt an electrical circuit in case of a fault, making them an acceptable choice in less critical areas of power distribution that can withstand sudden interruption of electrical supply due to a circuit breaker trip.
At the other end of the spectrum, mission-critical operations like a data center, or those that can’t accept sudden interruptions such as in food or chemical processes, may lead a plant operator to select ‘smart’ devices that can be connected and controlled remotely. These allow the operator to prevent or mitigate damage of an interruption, as they would provide an alarm, which is activated at a pre-defined threshold. Smart devices can also collect a wealth of data related to the operational condition of the devices we want to monitor, such as the circuit breakers, motors or feeders.
There are often various reasons that lead many operators to choose traditional, simpler switchgear or devices over smart devices. Even smart devices, if applied only to focus on process control or electrical monitoring with only a few data points required, fail to utilize the device to its full capacity and waste the data that is available. This may be caused by either not appreciating the value of the data a smart device can deliver, or not being able to justify the extra investment needed for data collection. However, over the lifetime of the equipment, the cost of not having or using data through smart switchgear is typically much higher than you would expect.
Hidden cost in traditional systems
If traditional switchgear is chosen you should be aware of many hidden costs, among them are:
• The initial cost of device implementation and correct parameter value-setting, which can be time-consuming
• Coordination between the engineering and commissioning teams is often needed to reconcile information used in the design phase versus on-site, real-world load and rating changes
• Switchgear testing, including manual operational data collection and report creation, which is a time-consuming coordination activity involving the buyer, operator and manufacturer
• Operational costs, including regular visual inspection, function checks and further maintenance that is conducted on a preventive basis rather than on a need basis.
For decades these costs have been present and seen as a given, but with the emergence of digital switchgear technologies tackling those costs is a main target and can lead to further OPEX savings.
Operational expenditure (OPEX), mainly maintenance costs, are influenced by the manufacturer that may recommend inspection and maintenance every two years while plant shutdown could for example be scheduled for intervals of five years, creating a conflict in planning. Maintenance teams and spare parts need to be ready at any time to minimize the impact of a sudden failure, whereas with smart and connected devices an evolving issue could have been detected early. Despite being more expensive and disruptive, this type of maintenance is still far more common than preventive maintenance, which would keep the switchgear running in top condition and minimize downtime. But while preventive maintenance is little more than just giving the switchgear its annual check-up, accessing all data from the smart devices in the switchgear allows the operator to identify small symptoms and to act before it becomes a more serious problem, thus moving to a predictive maintenance approach. In some cases, digital switchgear can provide up to 30 percent cost savings on OPEX with better insight and intuitive actions.
We need to keep in mind that switchgear has an average lifespan of 30 years. While conventional switchgear may be great for your capital expenditure (CAPEX), this can lead to a situation where your switchgear is engineered and built in accordance with your known requirements at the time of purchase, and not meeting the needs of your business in 10 or 20 years’ time. With data analytics the current and past conditions are assessed, and it becomes possible in digital switchgear to determine the usage, available spaces or operational ranges to increase the efficient use of the electrical system and make the investment on the system work harder, for longer.
Unlock your data
Your electrical infrastructure is already capable of producing more data than you may realize. For example, protection relays today are equipped with a communication interface. They do not only operate the circuit breaker under normal conditions, but also trip it when critical situations are detected in the electrical network. While relays count the operation and trip cycles, they can also be used to estimate contact wear and other circuit breaker condition data.
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Motor controllers are also readily available with a communication interface and are used in everything from industrial operations to HVAC systems. They can collect not only operation and trip data, but also motor load conditions, which can help the operator detect evolving problems in motors or attached machines.
The data your devices create is only as useful as your ability to collect, access and process all the data points. In many cases, this data remains in the protection relay, motor controller and other devices throughout the facility, due to the need for an additional communication network and processing systems to manage the aggregation of data. However, if accessed and incorporated into a cloud-based digital system, this data could be used to identify the right threshold settings and help drive cost-effective predictive switchgear maintenance based on actual condition information, rather than waiting for a costly failure to occur.
The advantages of digital switchgear
Collecting and managing the right data is a precondition for our digital future. With a digital switchgear solution, you can collect all your data automatically and on premise. Furthermore, you can also store and analyze it, so your team can make daily and timely data-driven decisions while applying lifetime analytics for further value creation.
You can think about it like a flight data recorder or black box, with on-site data collection from day one that continues through the lifetime of the device.
For example, our medium- and low-voltage switchgear incorporates intelligent devices and sensors that connect to the ABB Ability platform, collecting and analyzing the data which allows you to:
• Verify switchgear function and performance before a factory acceptance test (FAT)
• Demonstrate switchgear condition with a condition report during FATs and commissioning
• Identify areas that need repair before they fail during operation
• Analyze performance data to determine condition-based maintenance requirements
• Better plan maintenance in advance, shifting from preventive to predictive maintenance
The connection to ABB Ability enables plant operators and system engineers to monitor, visualize and turn data into actionable insights that can reduce OPEX costs and improve lifetime value.
Digital switchgear solutions provide the basis for asset management solutions that better estimate the remaining useful life of electrical equipment and the probability of failures. Connecting this to a cloud-based solution such as ABB Ability unlocks even more possibilities to ensure reliable power distribution and availability that is critical in all areas of today’s life.
You can learn more in the ABB white paper Making the switch to digital switchgear.