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Digital solutions pave the way for tomorrow’s maintenance

Prevention instead of putting out fires – that might be the future of maintenance work if we adopt new digital solutions and a predictive rather than reactive approach.

Tomorrow’s infrastructure maintenance will bring both challenges and opportunities. When it comes to the challenges, we need to start addressing them today.

“The most alarming shortcomings of today’s infrastructure maintenance are the lack of knowledge about the various installations and the failure to make the most of the new technologies we have at our disposal,” says Johan Ahlström, who is managing the project Concrete and Steel in Buildings Structures – Expected Life Prediction for Maintenance under the umbrella of the Mistra InfraMaint research programme.

“Infrastructure owners are overly invested in corrective and routine maintenance that fails to take account of the true characteristics of the installations. We need to move towards condition-based, predictive maintenance in which measures are adapted to the installation.”

Sensors keeping track of installations

In future, sensor-based solutions will make it easier to keep installations under continuous surveillance.

“This will make it possible to obtain indications of when issues are likely to arise. We will have an early window to fix a problem before it can impact on safety and performance. Maintenance will be more predictable from a financial standpoint and available funds can be utilised at the right place and time.”

I would venture to say that we are pretty good at maintenance in Sweden

John Leander is an associate professor and docent at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. He is also the project manager for Decision Support Strategies for Infrastructure Owners, which deals with how data from sensors can form the basis for decisions on maintenance measures.

“I would venture to say that we are pretty good at maintenance in Sweden, at least in international comparisons.

The problem is that the demand for maintenance is growing with an ageing infrastructure, which requires increased resources.”

Constant wear and tear

One reason for this increasing demand is that the installations that provide critical societal functions – for example, transport and water supply – are subjected to constant wear and tear.

“In order to deal with this going forward, we will need to prioritise those measures that provide the greatest benefits and, ideally, avoid serious damage. Modern sensor technology and the digitisation of society now makes it relatively easy for us to collect and store large amounts of data about what’s going on in an installation.”

Use of data is crucial

The central issue is therefore not how we should collect data but rather how we process it once it is gathered. According to John Leander, a future administration will not necessarily collect more digital information; what they will do is make better use of the available information.

“Hopefully, we will also get better at using and combining different types of data so that, ultimately, we will make better decisions about what measures are required. The aim should be to streamline maintenance measures and preferably to implement them before serious damage arises.”

John sees the planning of maintenance work during the project design phase of new installations as one step towards preventing this damage.

“Prioritising maintenance measures should be a dynamic process in which the results of measurements and inspections can be used in a risk assessment that combines consequences and uncertainties. The ideal future scenario is that maintenance can be performed as preventive measures that eliminate the need for emergency call outs.”