How to be digital-ready through well-timed infrastructure development

By Claire Bleazard | January 10, 2020

Creating a digital transformation road map can help you plan an overarching digital vision that identifies where you are now, where you need to be in the future, how to set measurable objectives, and how digital technologies can help you get there. But many companies are too eager to skip to the fun stuff: flipping the "on" switch and watching the new digital tools in action.

There’s a critical step in between planning and executing a digital solution, namely setting up the necessary digital infrastructure to ensure your organization is physically prepared to collect the appropriate data from the correct sources. Investing carefully in digital infrastructure upfront will enable the smart connections, visibility, and advanced analysis that the most sophisticated digital solutions can offer.

Fortunately, digital readiness is a low-risk investment, as the full upfront definition of the end-state of your road map is not required to start with the connectivity infrastructure, and that's key. Digital infrastructure is often overlooked, but it’s a good opportunity to create value early on.

From road maps to digital readiness

To get from road maps to being digital-ready, your organization needs to work through the digital readiness engineering phase to assess where your infrastructure gaps are. The role of this phase is to ensure that the required field devices can be installed, connectivity established, and the data centralized. This will involve evaluating, prioritizing, designing, installing, and connecting key elements of hardware and software.

This assessment is obviously different for everyone but let’s say you’re a mine operator and your vision is to have a central location from which to coordinate operations from pit to port. Before you can reach the final solution that might include video walls and dashboards, properly defining your specific digital use-cases will determine whether or not the information you require displayed or analyzed is or can be made available through current digital infrastructure.

Here are just a few examples of infrastructure elements to consider to enable full connectivity and a value-driving digital transformation:

Cellular towers and wireless devices: LTE-network-enabled cell phone towers and wireless technology devices in mine trucks allow communication between operators in remote field areas, and the potential to capture live data such as location, load values, and mine fleet condition data.

CCTV cameras: CCTV cameras allow central monitoring of operations that are often remote and geographically distributed. They must be strategically located where they won’t be obscured by dust and debris, and positioned appropriately to capture the right angles, light, and degree of detail needed for productive analysis.

Centralized data storage systems: a centralized data storage system allows disparate operational information to be connected and visualized in one place. This can facilitate improvements in operational practices, such as matching delayed lab quality analyses back to the sample location and collection time.

Additional monitoring signals and software: condition monitoring signals record key equipment condition information like temperature, pressure, and vibration. Connected software can perform analysis on this data to determine the condition and health of that equipment. These insights allow for optimization of maintenance scheduling and more accurate life cycle planning.

Design digital infrastructure early to open future opportunities and enable collaboration

There are often challenges in adding digital solutions to existing operations where the digital infrastructure is not in place. In such cases, the value proposition can be harder to prove. However, in early engineering phases like feasibility studies, provision for the potential digital end-state can be made in a way that enables its smooth implementation in parallel with the project. As detailed engineering progresses, the required digital infrastructure can be planned for more easily by interfacing with other engineering disciplines. This allows for an opportunity where, by the time the project is complete, the operation is digital-ready for comparatively little additional cost.

In a case study, we found that the digital readiness engineering effort accounted for approximately 5% of the traditional engineering disciplines in a project and added only 3% to the estimated capital expenditure, with significant improvements in expected operations efficiency.

Digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time should be designed today in a way that can respond to the potential applications of tomorrow. By taking the long view and embedding the infrastructure upfront, clients can maximize the return on investment of a digital transformation. But beyond that, it allows companies to tap into unprecedented sources of value, years and even decades down the line with the ability to easily onboard future generations of cutting-edge technologies.

As we continue to witness the acceleration of technological growth, smart digital infrastructure engineering will secure companies’ long-term success in rapidly changing industries.