Digital in Rail Fleet Management: A viewpoint

By Sairam Bollapragada & Rajesh Mohandas

Rail is a vital service to global society and the transport backbone of a sustainable economy. Many of the Rail entities around the globe are sprinting towards Digitization.  In the Global Vision for Railway Development (GVRD) document by the International Railway Research Board (IRRB) the core themes include delivering smart solutions as regards to safety, security, punctuality, availability, accessibility, seamless operation, capacity, connectivity and sustainability. These are the critical success factors of a rail network across any country.

The overall rail supply market has witnessed a substantial growth at 3%, driven for the main part by the Asian Pacific region. At over EUR 159 bn, the world rail supply market has reached a record high level. From a product segment perspective, the largest contribution to the market’s growth in the 2013 – 2015 stemmed mainly from the rolling stock and services segments. Added, these two segments clock at 72 % of the total rail market in the 2013 – 2015 period; and still growing. In line with overall market growth, the infrastructure in operation grew by 26,000 km, primarily in the urban and very high speed track segments, with track infrastructure in sum reaching more than 1.6m kms of urban and interurban tracks.

Some of the salient points to understand and take forward in this segment are:

  • The bulk of the additional track kilometres are attributed to the Asian Pacific region due to the construction of new routes in China and India.
  • As reported by UNIFI: European Research Firm, the total market for rail supply is set to continue its growth of recent years at 2.6 %. The rail supply market is foreseen to reach approximately EUR 185 bn per annum in the 2019 – 2021 period.
  • The highest growth rates are expected in Western Europe and Africa/Middle East, 3.1 % and 3.0 % respectively.
  • Frost and Sullivan claims in its research report that Europe alone is set to replace 10,298 locomotives and 1,860 rail cars between 2015 and 2022.
  • With the above, Africa and Middle East market size is expected to double by 2022, while India and Malaysia in the coming 5 years will see 2x infrastructure expansion.
  • India and China, due to the population challenges, are considering increasing the network length to lower the load while in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Russia and the US private fright operators own most of the rail network.
  • Spain, France and Turkey are expected to have the largest networks by 2022.

Growth Brings Challenges and opportunities too…, one of the areas where the challenges are widely seen is the FLEET MANAGEMENT, the exponential growth followed with high expectations and customer experience certainly needs to be addressed and people are now looking at DIGITAL solutions to ease Strategic and Tactical Operational issues. Key issues with respect to Fleet Maintenance today can be broadly categorized as below:

  1. MAINTENANCE PROGRAMME REDESIGN by comparing experiences of key maintenance approaches and methodologies to assess how each impacts cost and availability, energy flooring and driverless pods become the innovative elements of redesign driven by cost of Energy which is the biggest expenditure incurred by the railways.

  Not to forget the railway telematics through plug and play applications on mobile devices allowing you to report the availability and utilization of locomotives. If we bring in more rigor into planning, safety, operations and execution, with the existing railway infrastructure, we can take an additional capability of 40% through digital means and so on. The overall operational aspects can be improved through digitization as is being proven over the past few years.

  1. INFO MANAGEMENT by examining approaches and new systems for transforming raw data into information to optimize maintenance planning and cost-effectively trigger automatic maintenance operations leveraging the power of BIG DATA and ANALYTICS. Analytics can help us in bettering the routing algorithms, better connectivity, and hence multiple better options, optimize operational costs, a more reliable railway, a better dashboard in the driver’s cabin plugging in critical information for increasing safety (helps avert any mishaps when trains need to cross busy junctions), reliability, punctuality, arrival accuracy, planned travel duration, SoS,etc.
  1. REMOTE CONDITION MONITORING: with so many locomotives on the move, one should continuously know about their health so that you know when it needs attention. One can create the ecosystem whereby all the drive-data is stored (on cloud?) and enabling immediate notification for any anomalies. It will also allow you to anticipate a potential problem and help plan a predictive maintenance. Drones will play a vital role in predictive maintenance and improved security. Electronic tagging or cargo for reliable tracking and reduced delays will improve remote monitoring efficiency.

While solutions like Smart windows are a given for an enhanced customer experience, the bigger offerings are around features like wireless locomotive monitoring and checks for better asset utilization, optimized asset planning with reduced shed times, near real-time locomotive inventory, with component level monitoring bringing in huge efficiency in the entire maintenance processes.

  1. RELIABILITY-CENTRED MAINTENANCE by Identifying a best practice model for applying RCM and examining the extent to which the methodology has increased reliability and eliminated unnecessary maintenance costs leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence. Swarm robotics is another area for future transport and infrastructure projects, the intelligent robots will be used more and more for repair and maintenance activities. Automatic Gauge change for cross border travel powered by IoT will be the new norm.
  1. MANAGING SUPPLIER CONTRACTS by Identifying opportunities to increase control of the supply chain with optimized material costs through efficient supplier contract management and using Cloud based solutions coupled with Social CRM applications as the global consumption of resources will nearly triple to 140 billion tons per year by 2050. The Fleet of tomorrow will be digital enabled with virtual shopping mall experience for the user to benefit adding convenience and ease.
  1. EXTENDING FLEET LIFESPAN: Optimizing component life-cycle, fleet connectivity, fleet integration plans and obsolescence management to extend lifespan of the fleet with the best in class asset management solutions that can be plugged into the existing architecture. Advances in nanotechnology may lead to new materials that are lighter, stronger, smarter and greener. Availability of information of a hub-spoke inventory management through mobility services from the cloud stored data for access will enable Just-In-Time services optimizing the shelf dwell times and hence the level of re-orders needed to be maintained.

While the above 6 key factors can be essential to improve the operations and maintenance, there are multiple other areas (both Strategic and Tactical) like Fleet Planning, Fleet Acquisition, Fleet Distribution and Fleet Disposal which are being addressed leveraging Digital Technologies. We will discuss in a sequel about how the Digital world would bring about strides of changes in these areas. Collaboration between business and IT will drive efficiency and strengthen engagement benefiting both the industry and the economy.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” …our focus and goal in line with Digital 2020 should be to tap into these opportunities and assist the players overcome the challenges in the  Collaborative Digital Transformation that will enable a Win-Win situation, thus embarking into a new journey, partnering and contributing to the overall GROWTH…!

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