By Ken Vormwald is Product Manager at Allegro Development
The future has already arrived for utilities companies. But it’s not evenly distributed yet. Emerging technologies and changing consumer habits are forcing utilities to completely re-visit their century-old business models – and the systems that enable them.
The cost of solar continues to drop while consumer demand for renewables continues to rise. Highly responsive urban microgrids that optimize usage are gaining adoption. Tesla’s PowerWall product promises to make in-home energy storage a reality within this decade.
Those changes are pushing utilities towards a more distributed model of generation that all but guarantees even more disruption – along with reduced income from electricity sales as more and more people generate their own.
With all the embedded systems being installed in homes and businesses you’d think that technology would also make predicting and pricing consumption in this new environment easier.
The truth is that all that data being sent back to the IT mothership is too much for many legacy IT systems to analyse quickly. The business insights and improved visibility of risks that big data promises are needed now more than ever, particularly to inform the trading decisions utility companies make about their supply chains.
Because if changing market dynamics weren’t enough risk to manage, you now have to add the unremitting worry of extreme weather. The last few years have shown it to be a near constant that lands without precedent or warning, crashing generation capacity when a polar vortex or heatwave descends, or dampening demand during an extended El Nino Winter.
How can utilities better understand the future impact of weather on both power demand and supply, manage a multiplicity of distributed generation sources, take the steps toward a distributed generation model with minimum pain and disruption, plan the availability of fuel, and deal with associated price swings?
It’s a big ask, but the answer may well lie in – yes – more technology. But this time in systems that can deal with torrents of data to manage unpredictability and risk.
Demand goes up, even if consumption drops
Global demand for power is set to grow by about 85 percent between now and 2040 as living standards rise, economies grow and the electrification of society (see mobile devices, the internet of things and the rise of wearables) continues.
And yet — demand for fuel to produce that power is only projected to rise by 50 percent. For that blame more and more customer-owned generation and improved energy efficiency in generation and transmission. Flat or negative growth to utility revenues has been the result.
If utility companies are going to wring profits from a fast-evolving and shape-shifting marketplace, they have to find new ways to optimize their resources and reduce costs. One way to do that is to invest more in systems that provide intelligence for short-term planning issues like unit commitment and bidding.
It’s easy to say but harder to do. As an asset-intensive industry with major capital commitments, utility companies have always emphasised long-term planning — often conducted separately from short-term planning, and where both tend to be done in isolation from the trading desk.It’s asiloed approach that blurs awareness of the market risks that arise when planning for future portfolio enhancements or resource needs. Significant cultural change may be needed alongside technological changes.
Regulatory changes are another area of extreme risk for utilities. The complexity of reporting, markets, transactions, contracts and accounting rules generate special challenges in complying with the ambiguities of regimes such as Dodd-Frank, REMIT, EMIR, MiFID II and others.
Without accurate internal audits and proper governance, utility companies involved in energy trading can be exposed to significant risk. Forward-looking traders, meanwhile, are seeing that better visibility into the non-standard, structured deals in their portfolios could create new opportunities.
Further complicating matters for utilities are the ever-increasing pressures from global environmental agencies to curb and manage their carbon emissions. Proposals, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s comprehensive Clean Power Plan, are expected to affect carbon-fuelled generating plants around the world. Likewise, in Europe, the 7th Environment Action Programme outlines sustainability and biodiversity objectives based on low-carbon growth.
Not only will utility companies need to manage the physical aspects of these new regulations, they will need to facilitate the complex process of dealing with emissions credits and potential new cap-and-trade markets.
With so many factors disrupting their business models, utility companies need to invest in technology that can mitigate the risks they face. Management needs better access to information and tools for decision making, not only for executives, but also for personnel engaged in planning and trading. Without a commodity management platform, they may not be able to accurately dispatch generation, manage contract terms or pass regulatory scrutiny over feed stock purchases.
The assumption has always been that IT will provide access to the right insight. However, the industry has grown up with a dog’s breakfast of homegrown and off-the-shelf energy trading and risk management (ETRM) applications that may not be ready to meet the needs of todays’ power and utility markets. Spreadsheet-based applications, in particular,typically need a high level of expensive customization each time a new type of generation or fuel is added.
A utility commodity management system should at minimum feature robust analytics, such as forecasting, simulation and optimization; standardized models and forecasts to ensure consistency in analysis,with the ability to trace back model results and assess risk across power and gas portfolios; forecasting, simulation and optimization analytics integrated with energy trading and risk management applications; and simulation of market, outage and weather scenarios fast enough to handle trading requirements.
Before you begin evaluating solution providers, understand your company’s strategy for hedging risk and complying with regulations in detail. Take an inventory of your most used resource analytics, but also consult traders, risk managers and planners to understand what they need to be successful.
The best approach to reduce the total cost of supporting legacy systems or spreadsheets is to invest in a suite of applications that integrate energy trading and risk management with analytics. This approach will also ensure consistency of information across the organisation, which is essential if utilities are going to return to profitability and growth.
Simplifying the Sector: How low code can aid digital transformation in financial services
By Nick Ford Chief Technology Evangelist, Mendix
From online banking to contactless payments and Apple Pay, it has been well demonstrated that the financial services industry is significantly ahead of many others when it comes to technology.
Traders, as well as customers, are now armed with the latest advances in technology and able to operate at super speed with more information at their fingertips than ever before.
However, the sector has not been immune from challenges created by COVID-19. The most significant challenge is maintaining the level of innovation they have been historically known for, with constrained budgets and smaller teams.
The pressure is on
The financial services sector is certainly quite complicated. There are many different regulatory bodies that monitor corporate conduct, which can make innovation a slow and arduous task. It also means that every time a new law is implemented, the sector needs to adjust to it, and that can mean anything from revising security protocols to radically changing the way information is processed, transmitted or audited.
This makes the job difficult for IT managers in the sector. Many of the systems they’re dealing with are old fashioned, dating back many decades and therefore not up to standard when it comes to performance and security. With lockdown restrictions meaning most sector staff are working remotely, this adds an extra pressure to IT teams that now have to ensure systems, data and work devices are functioning and always accessible. Digital transformation can help with this and a recent Mendix study found that 76% of IT managers in the sector believe it can improve operational efficiency.
Tech as a necessity
The sector now must be alert due to a new emerging challenge – the tech savvy customer. The modern age means customers are demanding much more from the services they are offered, with two things being highly desired; speed and transparency. As a result, many banks, hedge funds, and investment firms are investing in the appropriate technology to help meet these demands. The data that comes with upgrading ultimately allows financial institutions to better understand their customers and tailor their services more accurately to the changing trends influencing customer behaviour, Being able to have such knowledge is becoming more vital, as the pandemic continues to significantly affect the behaviour patterns of consumers and the preferences driving them.
Investing in technology can also increase efficiency within the sector at a time where teams and budgets are stretched, which can obviously have massive benefits. Digital transformation also leads to faster, better performing systems provides teams with the right tools they need to effectively get their job done. Tech is no longer a fintech privilege – it’s a currency. So much so that nine out of 10 IT leaders in financial services believe their firm will need to invest in digital projects over the next two years, just to survive in a rapidly changing market.
Powering digital transformation with low-code
To manage these different priorities, IT teams need to look beyond themselves and collaborate with different departments to create revenue-generating services that truly answer the clients’ needs – and it needs to empower all developers with the right tools to do so. This improved collaboration between IT and customer-facing staff means that services are designed to suit the needs of the customer-base, whilst reducing the pressure of an already-stretched IT team.
Low-code is one way to foster this collaboration. It requires little coding knowledge or expertise, meaning software development or the creation of business applications can include staff with non-technical backgrounds. Instead of having a back and forth between tech teams and other departments – of which miscommunication is always a risk – the development of apps can be inclusive involving a variety of teams, bringing together those that understand the business problems with those that understand the IT landscape, core systems and services to contribute to the vision of a product. IT stays in control with governance and guardrails built in to ensure compliance to the various standards required.
Digital transformation is an ongoing process in every industry. With low-code programming some of the current complexities and challenges facing the financial services sector can be tackled, allowing it to fully step into the digital age and continue being a hub of technological innovation.
Leading from the front – why decision makers must embrace automation
By Jeppe Rindom, Co-founder & CEO, Pleo
Ask any decision maker at a business about admin and you’re likely to be met with a familiar response – it’s a necessary evil that swallows time, but also helps inform strategic choices. Informed decisions are always better than uninformed ones, but many businesses still rely on outdated legacy processes to gather the data they need to make critical choices… and we’ve all seen the perils of a poorly maintained Excel spreadsheet in the news recently.
At director level, these administrative tasks can consist of signing off expenses or monitoring company spending to inform upcoming budgets. Although crucial to running a business well, these can be time-consuming and frustrating when you don’t have the right tools to make sense of it all. The solution? A simple change of approach.
A logical solution
This is where automation comes in. Over the last decade, we’ve seen how technologies including chat-bots and artificial intelligence have impacted everyday business, from customer-services and marketing to data analytics and time-management. More than ever, this is allowing employees to free up time to work more efficiently and focus on business-critical tasks. But this isn’t a quick fix. At a decision making is required. Ironically, a lot of these tasks relate to how a business can improve efficiency and productivity.
Add in the fact that many of these senior staff members have tight schedules, and can’t afford to spend several hours trawling through spreadsheets, and it’s little wonder high level admin is still an issue. In a recent customer survey, we found that 75% of senior managers spend over an hour a week on expense reports, with 14% losing nearly a whole working day (five hours or more) a week to managing them – time that could be better spent growing their business. The same study found that our platform saves people an average of 11.5 hours a month on managing company expenses. If you consider this could mean an extra day for a CFO or Finance Director to spend on more essential tasks, such as business forecasting or growth planning, the reward for investing in well designed automation at this level is clear.
But, automation isn’t just a case of saving time; it also fosters trust. Our study found that over half (51%) of users agreed that automating the laborious parts of their expenses like receipt capture, categorisation and expense reports also helped them build trust within their organisation. Automation helped them to excel at the things they’re most interested in, and were actually hired to do. I’m a huge advocate of empowering people with the tools they need to succeed. And through the empowerment automation brings, it’s only natural that employees begin to feel their worth in the business and that they are trusted.
A business-wide approach
Yet for automation to work, a company-wide understanding of its potential is vital. Adoption by senior staff should not be seen as simply a fringe benefit, as automation relies on understanding and endorsement from all levels of a business to work efficiently. A report titled ‘Automation and the future of work,’ published by the British Government in September 2019 noted that the successful implementation of automation “relies on managers and business leaders themselves being able to understand the potential of automation and the impact of technological change.” In this respect, managers will be your biggest ally when embracing automation. Any manager worth their salt understands the benefits of leading through example, and by creating automation ‘advocates’, businesses can ensure teams are comfortable with the impending change. While many busy managers often resist new processes (especially those to do with unfamiliar technology), they usually find that investing a short amount of time getting to grips with an automation platform pays off in the long term.
One of the most frequent pieces of feedback we receive is that an effectively automated platform allows staff to focus on strategy, culture and creativity, with the knock-on effect of automating mundane tasks being felt throughout an entire organisation, not just one relieved individual.
Having a smart, automated platform can also massively reduce the chance of human error at an early stage. This can be disastrous when data is relied upon to make important decisions at a later date. In this respect, having access to accurate information can be a game-changing benefit for decision-makers, particularly those working under increased pressure.
At a time when businesses are facing rapid and unpredictable changes, ensuring your business is equipped with the right tools for success is crucial. And while automation may seem an intimidating change, the huge benefits it can bring to both processes and culture will outweigh any initial concerns. By giving senior staff and their team members alike the ability to embrace smart automation, efficiency will speak for itself, and your business’ success will flourish.
How robotic technology will disrupt the manufacturing industry
By Marga Hoek, author of The Trillion Dollar Shift
Robotics technology has the potential to disrupt industries across all sectors – but its impact on the manufacturing industry will be transformative. Not only can robots increase productivity, efficiency and profit margins but adopting this tech for good will be a key way for the manufacturing industry to transition to a more sustainable future.
Driving productivity & efficiency
Manufacturing processes are faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective when humans and robots work together. Studies show that idle time is reduced by 85% when people work collaboratively with a human-aware robot, rather than in an all-human team. Modern robotic automation is key to reshaping production processes to become more efficient and reliable. They deliver significant benefits for companies and investment is often recouped within just 18 months.
Robots in manufacturing can allow businesses to monitor the production lines from anywhere and pinpoint issues quickly, allowing for production to continue smoothly and efficiently, ensuring companies surpass consumers’ expectations of supply chain speed and reliability. Intelligent industrial service robots are an upcoming industrial tool that will amplify manufacturing capabilities and allow businesses to safely operate faster, in places humans could never go, and with cognitive and physical capabilities not yet imagined.
Transitioning to a sustainable future
Robots are a vital way to reduce pollution and emissions from manufacturing operations. For starters, they reduce our reliance on larger vehicles and machines that are harmful to the planet. Robots’ ability to be extremely accurate and minimize errors is also hugely important in sustainability efforts to reduce waste. Robots also aid businesses in their energy-saving process because they do not require as much energy to operate as humans do. Where humans need facilities with sufficient lighting and heat, robots can work under cold and dark conditions. This drastically reduces the amount of energy used in the manufacturing production process. It is estimated that for every 1C reduced in factory heat levels, there is a potential saving of up to 8%. In addition, up to 20% of energy savings can be reached if the plant turns off any unnecessary lighting.
Case Study: GE
Tech giant GE is a brilliant example of how robotics technology can both boost the bottom line and sustainability.
GE is at the forefront of robotics manufacturing technology. Their value proposition is tightly tied to productivity in field service and manufacturing and offers potential cost savings within operations. While delivering industrial-grade service robotic systems that enable automation, productivity and safety for GE and its customers, the company works closely with GE business units, GE customers and strategic partners across the globe to envision, shape and build intelligent robotic technologies from idea to commercialization.
GE’s recent $125 million investment project at its Decatur refrigerator plant boosted production capacity, added new “smart” technology and increased the site’s workforce. This includes auto guided vehicles, or AGVs, that move materials through the assembly process and more than 50 robots that perform heavy lifting operations and repetitive tasks.
The expansion project, announced in June 2018, allowed GE Appliances to increase production to meet growing demand for its freezer-refrigerators, which are top-rated in the industry for both quality and reliability. The expansion created 255 jobs, bringing total employment at the plant to 1,300. The project boosts production capacity by 25 % and ensures early compliance with 2022 refrigerant changes, making the Alabama plant a super site for GE. GE Appliances said Industry 4.0 technology additions at the Decatur facility include data visualization, 3-D scanning, rapid prototyping and other smart automation that provides the operations team with real-time data to make better and faster decisions.
Achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Utilizing robotics technology within the manufacturing industry can help to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for a healthier planet, to be met by 2030:
SDG 3 – Good Health & Wellbeing: Collaborating with people, service robots work with shoulder-to-shoulder and over long distances, to fulfil dull, dirty and dangerous work.
SDG 8 – Decent Work & Economic Growth: Presenting new growth opportunities for businesses and creating new jobs at manufacturing plants
SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure: Manufacturing value proposition of robotics ties tightly to productivity and brings potential cost savings into those operations.
SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption: Providing a new and rich data source for companies to produce products responsibly
Marga Hoek is a global thought-leader on sustainable business, international speaker and the author of The Trillion Dollar Shift, a new book revealing the business opportunities provided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Trillion Dollar Shift is published by Routledge, in hardback and e-book. For more information go to www.margahoek.com
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