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Mastering the digital transformation network: wind energy’s impact on global sustainability hinges on holistic innovation

digital transformation
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

We are living through a phase of continuous change and Zeitgeist. We may not notice it, but the natural sources of power are all around us, shaping the energy sector, and indeed our lives and our future.

The transition to renewable energy has already begun, but its potential and evolution coincides with another, much more obvious and visible revolution in the form of digitalization.

By combining the two monumental facets of digital transformation and natural resources, how we travel, communicate, manufacture, and generally live, is changing.

Alongside solar power, wind is the most mature source driving – and being driven by – innovation. Leveraging the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals as a tone-setter, sustainability initiatives around the world are exploring a diversification and elevation of their power supply. From the UK, to the US, Central Europe, the Nordics and India, the production, monitoring and delivery of wind energy has drastically changed.

From a technical standpoint, progress in the wind space can be seen through the cost of production equipment and of power distribution, and the rise of techniques like modularization over the past decade. The ability to remotely monitor, identify, track and fix equipment perfectly demonstrates the link between technology and clean and efficient energy.

With a bedrock of maturity established in how the world merges digital development with sustainability initiatives, the next step to achieving complete universal access to energy, is optimization. However, there are still numerous gaps that need to be plugged by the digital transformation era.

Critical challenges

For wind to become a viable energy source on a truly global scale and guarantee universal access to power, the sector needs to learn from adjacent industrial segments that have already found their feet when it comes to harnessing digital innovation.

As with any sector maturation, we need to cross-pollinate ideas. To make the same quantum jump as the likes of automotive or aerospace, the wind sector needs to digitally optimize four critical areas – design, testing, manufacturing and after-market service.

All have the potential to become more cost and time-efficient, and the success of making them so will dictate how effectively a wind power ecosystem is developed, maintained, managed and measured in terms of satisfaction.

The main design challenge hinges on reducing how long it takes for physical equipment innovations to reach the market. This is compounded by additional challenges regarding quality, economical manufacture and improved maintainability of each component or product.

Testing should also be digitalized in order to shorten the trial cycle across the product’s entire lifecycle. Manufacturing challenges revolve around required economies of scale, given the global sustainability drive. Impacting often dispersed supply chains, delivering quality and reliable products determines if wind power initiatives are successful.

Finally, considering that implemented projects are set to reflect the new norm in energy generation, after-sales services are vital and as significant as fulfilling power output demand.

The wind sector is currently at a crossroad. It is mature, but demand is high – not just in terms of volume, but quality. These four critical factors, and how technology is leveraged to address them will dictate how wind’s potential can be converted into a truly accessible source for the future.

Transformation is a network

The solutions aren’t simple, however, nor can they be addressed in isolation. 

Applying digital transformation and innovation to each key factor in the process may sound straightforward or linear - but in reality it represents an interconnected network of solutions that inform each other and must work together to realize the benefits.

To make effective change happen, there are four overriding technological approaches that epitomize the innovation challenge. These are: modularity, the use of digital twins, adoption of digital product lifecycle management (PLM) which then enables a single digital thread as the fourth tenet. The latter pinpoints a need for one common data source where decisions can be made more seamlessly, information can flow more easily, and product developments can be informed by highly effective and conjoined quality management systems.

However, all four intertwine with three overarching pillars in the form of modularization, digitalization and hybridization - which help organizations to speed up development and reduce costs by building in efficiency levers.

Modularization of product structures offers customers increased choice and enables economies of scale across the product lifecycle by utilizing common components for varying turbine designs, allowing current equipment to respond faster to new innovations. The repetition effect reduces unit costs and increases quality.

Organizations can reuse sub-solutions across different products to maintain consistent product quality. These measures help organizations achieve cost savings of up to 25 percent in development, logistics and production - as well as a similar reduction in time-to-market.

Costs can be driven down even further through digitalization, where organizations can address the connection of all value chain elements to streamline processes and accelerate speed to market. Digital orchestration is key to enabling this, as it creates a thread from design to manufacturing, or even design to serviceability, to streamline the process and improve efficiencies and also ensure enhanced customer experience in current times.

Using the right purchasing model also helps organizations save time and resources. Shifting from using a capital expenditure (CapEx) model to adopting one driven by operating expenditure (OpEx) - or hybridization – will be key here. Rather than lavishly spending on maintaining physical components that will soon be outdated, investing in services that can be scaled up or down as necessary allows greater flexibility.

Updating the industry’s approach to innovation requires a complex network of continuous improvement with no strand mutually exclusive.  Sometimes the connection between design, testing, manufacturing and after-market service is concurrent, sometimes it’s sequential. Regardless of which, a holistic approach is required to fully move the sector forward.

For example, optimizing the use of AI and analytics to create a digital twin for testing needs an effective PLM solution to ensure that concept, design and testing phases are receiving consistent and continuous feedback and analysis. A common single point of data, and a digital thread, is required to inform accuracy across this decision-making process, thereby making initiatives like the Digital Twin a much broader conversation rather than just for a specific lifecycle stage.

The tenets of success

In essence, the situation is such that the wind energy sector can’t move forward with only periodic innovations. Transformation should be just that – an all-encompassing transition in accordance with processes that will stand the test of time albeit at a much faster speed.

This transformation is goal-oriented and has a mature platform to work from.

Modularity, digitalization and hybridization will be the tenets that industry development is built upon over the next decade. They dovetail with the innovation accelerators aimed at creating digital threads to complete this web of progression.

Wind power’s potential and status is long-established on the global energy landscape. Its viability as the optimum portal to achieve universal energy access now hinges upon mastering the network of digital transformation.

Gaurav Gupta, Chief Business Officer, L&T Technology Services

Gaurav Gupta is Chief Business Officer at L&T Technology Services.