Just how connected are we?

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 16

After InnoTrans 2016 Justin Southcombe, commercial director of Perpetuum, examines why the rail industry needs to up its game if it is to meet the future demands of train operators and create a truly connected supply chain.

InnoTrans 2016 proved to be an interesting event for the rail industry, particularly as much of the talk in seminars and around the exhibition centred around the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Cloud computing and Industry 4.0. One of the ‘Big Three’ even launched a technical paper on asset optimisation through data in time for the biennial global rail summit in Berlin. These ideas are exciting, as they are based around connectivity and the trend of automation and data exchange in the manufacturing process. From these ideas, and the possibilities they hold, true transformation in the rail industry could take place. 

For instance, as technology and data allows us to create more intelligent systems, we have the potential to fundamentally transform parts of the rail supply chain in much the same way as the aviation industry did back in the 1990s. Over 10 years, aviation jet engine manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce, created a robust, constructive, condition-based maintenance strategy, which they then deployed and a new business term was coined: ‘servitization’. 

Today, Rolls-Royce advertises 65% of its business around aftersales service and maintenance, with the slogan ‘Power-by-the-hour’. It was truly a transformation, where the interests of the manufacturer and its clients became much more closely aligned. Procurement moved away from a primary focus on ‘new build’ engines. Rather, the engine manufacturers’ interest now lies in the business of keeping jets in service in the sky – or put simply, providing only what their customers need.

On the surface, and with the buzz of innovation apparent at InnoTrans 2016, it seems like the transformative ‘servitization’ model could be just around the corner for the rail industry too. More manufacturers are adding sensors to their products, but the reasons for this vary dramatically and unfortunately there appears to be little collaborative effort to share the data, take risks or meet the business demands from train operators. 

It’s not good enough to fit monitoring sensors just to meet certain legislation or to spruce up an established product for new markets abroad. If you can only demonstrate the connectivity of a product in a full turnkey project, then it’s hardly endorsing the open connected new world of the IoT. Some very prominent manufacturers have still not managed to get their monitoring projects out of R&D, even after many years and significant investment, which doesn’t suggest servitization is close to being embedded. Peer beneath the marketing veneer, then, and it looks a little bit like ‘business as usual’ with the added new technical distraction of ‘data’. 

Unfortunately the ‘power by the hour’ model is still absent in the rail supply chain, but we are moving closer to the time that train operators demand it – their needs must be met. The visitors to our stand at InnoTrans 2016 included some of the largest train operators in the world, and they were concerned about their business needs: availability, reliability, punctuality. They wanted dependable information about what they are accountable for and if that information is live, then all the better. 

With the Perpetuum technology available, operators can drive down costs of ownership now and each year through condition based maintenance and the use of remote condition monitoring. But all too often train operators are having to look at specifying the technology and equipping their assets themselves; their traditional rolling stock supply chain are not fitting condition monitoring as standard, and certainly not at their own cost.  

There is an opportunity, if not a requirement, for the rail industry to learn from the servitization model and there were signs of it in various parts of the InnoTrans ‘Messe’. In all cases it came from players with strong influences from other sectors, or some of the ‘Tier2’ suppliers quietly organising themselves for the future – all armed with recent strategic acquisitions.  

The ability to utilise existing condition monitoring technology, in a similar fashion to the aircraft industry, to save cost and create truly ‘intelligent’ products is within reach. However, as InnoTrans 2016 proved, it is a transformation which will take more understanding and coherence from within our supply chain if the messages at InnoTrans 2018 are to be more compelling for our operators and owners.



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