WAYSIDE and onboard diagnostics equipment used by infrastructure managers and operators produce reams and reams of data. However, making sense of this and using it to pinpoint potential faults and inform maintenance practices is a complex process requiring a high-level of expertise which is not always available in-house.
A research project undertaken at Luleå University of Technology (LUT) aimed to overcome this shortcoming by looking at how to offer operators, infrastructure managers and system integrators access to a central computerised data analysis laboratory. The result is the eMaintenance Lab, which the founders say is the world's first international eMaintenance laboratory, and is now providing various services to the maintenance and logistics divisions of Swedish mining group LKAB, Swedish infrastructure manager Trafikverket, passenger operator SJ, and port company Norrtåg, among others.
"The main idea behind the eMaintenance Lab is to facilitate research, results and education in operations and maintenance by providing tools for advanced data analysis and data mining," says Dr Ramin Karim, an associate professor of railway engineering at LUT. "We wanted to look at how we could better assist the industry so they could easily implement this architecture and utilise our expertise for their maintenance, research and testing programmes."
The laboratory, which has locations at the university in Luleå and a facility developed especially for LKAB in Kiruna, Sweden, relies on a specially-developed online cloud application to feed data collected from wayside processers and vehicles during operations from any outlying location to the laboratory. Here the laboratory team can build statistical models to correlate the data based on a specific client's needs. These models are subsequently available for analysis in the eMaintenance Lab, which in turn can integrate with an operator's computerised maintenance management system whether this is based on the SAP or Maximo platforms.
Karim says different agreements exist with the different operators. For example, some operators want raw data which they can feed into their own data analysis mechanism, while others want the complete results of a data analysis process. As well as infrastructure managers, system integrators and vehicle manufacturers are also potential clients because it is possible for them to monitor the performance of their equipment by retrieving data on different elements from a singular source. The eMaintenance Lab has also been targeted at other logistics enterprises in the mining, shipping and aviation industries.
Among the studies underway at the laboratory is a project to measure the impact of varying loads on track infrastructure and the performance and condition of wheels to estimate their remaining service life and to predict when replacements are required. The results of this analysis are delivered to the client in a variety of ways - direct to handheld devices used by maintenance staff, a pure HTML web-based interface, or an email.
"This is all relatively simple to configure," Karim says. "The challenge is to correlate data and build the models."
Financial support for the research project was provided by LKAB, Trafikverket, SJ, Green Cargo, Saab Technologies' aviation division, packaging company Smurfit Kappa, and ABB. The pilot is due to end at the end of this year, but its services are likely to continue. Dr Phillip Tretten, a senior lecturer at LTU, says interest in the eMaintenance lab is exploding following a recent €300,000 investment to expand the laboratory's capabilities and the opening of the Kiruna facility for LKAB following a €500,000 investment.
He says the number of employees working on the project has grown from 4 people two years ago to 15 at present, adding that the lab's advantage over similar services provided by private companies is that it does not tie prospective clients to that particular supplier. As a result it offers greater flexibility in their research and testing initiatives.
"When a project is finished, it is finished," Tretten says. "It provides companies with the chance to try different opportunities to develop different ideas and products to allow them to decide what they like, and what they don't like, what works and what doesn't work.
"Many of our clients are very big companies which a lot of companies want to work with. The advantage of working with us is that it doesn't tie them to a certain company or supplier for a long period of time and a relationship that is difficult to get out of. They can pick and choose what they want to do, and the research and technology developed benefits both the company and the lab's experience. It's a win-win situation."
Karim says preparations for turning the laboratory into a full time commercial enterprise following the conclusion of the pilot scheme are progressing with an announcement expected in 2014. This would potentially open up the service to more partners in Scandinavia and further afield. Norwegian infrastructure manager Jernbaneverket has expressed an interest in participating and Tretten says several European projects are already underway. A collaborative research agreement has also been established with the University of Cincinnati, which all bodes well for the future of this alternative approach to field testing and research.
"What we are trying to do is to build cooperation between industry, academia and research," Tretten says. "We are holding different conferences in cooperation with the lab and industry partners and projects to develop our capabilities and experiences which will only help us accommodate further growth."