According to Kalle Suurpää, vice president valve technology at Metso, developing innovative products and solutions is not a need-to-have. “End users in several sectors are looking for more resilient, reliable and safe products. This is far from easy as process conditions have become more stringent. Due to process optimisations, valves should be able to withstand higher temperatures and pressures.
“On top of these tighter requirements, valves also need to comply with stringent regulations in terms of fugitive emissions. Even in critical applications, cost is a determining factor. However there is a trend,” Suurpää says, “in which TCO has become more prevalent. Plant owners strive to maximise the reliability of their assets and so tend to opt for more reliable and safer product solutions combined with well-planned maintenance strategies.”
Time-to-market is an issue that Metso has addressed within its technology development strategy. This accounts both for general product lines as well as customer-specific solutions.
“If we can provide better solutions faster, we are basically in the driver’s seat,” explains Suurpää. “The key words to realise the above objectives are to focus and to work smarter. Within Metso, we have adopted LEAN and Agile- based methods to re-organise our technology and product development. What does this mean in real life? Well, it starts with input from our customers and the market in general that is generated by our sales and product management colleagues. This input is translated into product requirements, after that our teams go to work. We tend to operate in fixed length, repeatable work cycles that allow us to review our incremental development results constantly to make sure that we answer customer needs the best way.
“It’s in our DNA to invest in technology development and to launch innovative products and solutions. By doing so, we are able to set the bar in various areas such as digitalisation, material selection and design. We are using digitalisation as an enabler in R&D and to make life easier for our customers.
Metso has already applied LEAN and Agile in the design process of its Neles NDX intelligent valve controller, shortening the projected time-to-market significantly. Suurpää elaborates: “Metso has gained extensive experience and knowledge on LEAN in production/manufacturing. The idea was to transfer this method to the way we develop technologies and related products. In general, we have been able to cut the time-to-market by a third or even a half. Our first case with the valve controller has been encouraging, to say the least. Especially in the early stages of product development, we were able to save valuable time. This had to do with focus, for example, by not overloading team members with parallel tasks, eliminating non-value add tasks and allocating sufficient man-hours.”
Apart from focus, Agile first and foremost requires a cultural and attitude change. “It is not about designing complete solution from the get-go but step-by-step exploring/working towards the complete, perfect end solution that is to the satisfaction of the end user.
“3D-technology is very interesting as we will be able to develop and manufacture hybrid materials with increased functionalities and combining the advantages of different materials.”
Digitalisation, simulation testing and 3D-testing have become major facilitators in developing products in a faster, more efficient way. Suurpää states: “As mentioned, we have made significant strides, especially in the early stages of development. For all team members, both internal and external, it is imperative that progress is visible 24/7. Due to time and space constraints, we have developed a digital project environment. The advantage is remote accessibility and visibility. Even the physical whiteboards in our offices have been digitalised, allowing team members to click and drag tasks from ‘in progress’ to ‘completed’.”
Metso has also implemented 3D-technology in its manufacturing capabilities. In 2018, the company shipped the first batch of valves containing 3D-printed components. “There are several advantages for end users,” Suurpää says, “such as shorter delivery times and enhanced functionalities. Recently, we received an urgent call from a customer having issues with their existing valves. They needed an alternative valve with much quicker cycle speed and an exceptionally long service interval. By using 3D printing, we were able to develop and manufacture complex, cutting-edge components faster, with improved reliability, safety, and valve availability.”
As 3D-technology advances, Suurpää expects that Metso will increasingly make use of it, both in product development and manufacturing. “At the moment, we apply this technology exclusively for highly demanding applications for which 3D-parts offer better performance. We don’t yet use 3D-technology for external parts as standards still have to be developed.”
In the near future, he expects 3D-print multi-material solutions will become a reality. “This is very interesting as we will able to develop and manufacture hybrid materials with increased functionalities and combining the advantages of different materials. At the moment, we use traditional production methods such as powder coating, isostatic pressing etc., but ultimately, we anticipate using 3D-technology to produce superior parts and products more efficiently,” says Suurpää.
The impact of digitalisation
According to Suurpää, digitalisation will have a significant impact on the company’s technology development. “I wouldn’t prioritise this because other R&D domains, such as valve design and materials development, are equally important. However, the impact of digitalisation across the board on our company and supply chain will be huge.”
Apart from the role in technology development, digitalisation is one of Metso’s key enablers to serve its customers better. This technology will facilitate more accurate and timely data storage and transfer about various domains, such as installed base, supply chain/logistics, asset monitoring and maintenance and so on.
A telling example is the company’s effort to streamline data transfer in project procurement and project execution. In this phase there are frequent exchanges of valve-related and engineering data going back and forth between EPC companies and suppliers. In the early procurement phase, EPCs require budgetary quotations from suppliers to estimate the project costs. As they move further in the procurement bids with end customers, EPCs require the suppliers to submit the final and firm quotations.
Focus on value-added activities
In the flow control sector, budget quotation and final quotation phases are relatively short. This leaves suppliers precious little time to produce high-quality proposals, especially if technical specifications are unexpectedly revised by clients at a later stage.
To address this issue, Metso has a project quotation team in place, staffed by experienced project quotation engineers. Adding to this strength Metso has further improved response times by employing digital tools that facilitate two-way digital data exchange between the company and EPCs. In addition, Metso continues to enhance dimensional data that can be imported to customer’s own tools.
Suurpää elaborates: “We provide distributor tools to support our partners. For example, they can independently create firm quotations for their clients, drastically reducing the response time to quotation inquiries to the final customers. We have embraced digitalisation both to streamline project development but also as a tool in existing assets. Let’s take the installed base as an example. In many cases, these installed base lists are not up-to-date and incomplete. Over time, new items may have been added by hand, often using varying terminology. Valves may therefore be incorrectly listed as new items. This creates a top-heavy list, which is a real hindrance for effective asset management and maintenance. We have vast experience of this from the pulp and paper industry, where we have streamlined such lists from 5000 items to just 550. Imagine the difference for the maintenance team – the installed base shrinking to little more than 10%. By harmonising and streamlining these lists, significant savings in man hours and inventory costs can be achieved. It also paves the way for more advanced maintenance concepts, such as predictive maintenance.”
At Metso, digitalisation is therefore about making transactions between the company, its partners and final customers as easy as possible to improve efficiency. By using digital technology to automate repetitive tasks, Metso’s people can be freed up to focus on activities that add value to the company and its customers.
“We want to make life easier for our customers at every stage of the valve’s life-cycle,” concludes Suurpää. “So from procurement, installation and commissioning to use and maintenance, clients know they can rely on Metso’s products, services and people.”
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