Headquartered in Düsseldorf, Germany, Uniper is an international energy company with a strong presence throughout Europe, as well as a presence in the Americas and Asia. In its own words: “We combine a balanced portfolio of technologically advanced large-scale assets with outstanding technical and commercial expertise. These assets and capabilities enable us to deliver flexible, bespoke, competitively priced energy products and services with agility, precision and speed.”
With plants and offices around the world and a team of 12,000 employees, this precision and speed relies on, amongst other things, highly efficient data handling, and this is where another part of Uniper’s operations come in. As well as its involvement with power plants and energy services in every sector from gas to renewables, Uniper also offers ‘Enerlytics’ – analytical analysis for plant owners and operators that covers everything from market to plant activity.
Recently the company has given its data landscape a major overhaul, bringing it into the modern age and preparing the way for a smooth and seamless future. We spoke with Rene Greiner and Dr. Stephan van Aaken, VP, Data Integration and VP responsible for Digital Transformation of the Asset Business, about these changes and what they could mean for the company’s clients.
“In terms of data, we changed two things,” René explained. “First, we have tried to integrate all valuable data into one place, so the user has no trouble accessing it. Secondly, we have changed how we integrate data. In the past, we did a lot of traditional script writing and would build database connections case by case, which was very expensive and a great long-term effort that meant we lost traction.” Taking too long conducting a case study can render the results useless once it is complete; at the very least, it is not an optimal way to work. As Stephan put it, “The market moves quickly, and we need to quickly react, but in order to do that we need ready and correct data.”
To achieve this, Uniper drastically changed its data handling system, which René broke down for us: “Now, when we ingest data, we feed it into a catalogue that customers can easily search. We can label what the data is useful for, who owns what etc., and can set who has access to what, so that data governance becomes a matrix. For a user, all of this is just like a supermarket – you go inside and you pick and choose what you need.”
This ability to access data themselves is a game changer for Uniper. Instead of providing static reports or conducting lengthy case studies, Uniper now allows its clients to interact with their information themselves, running their own analytics to produce far faster and more personalised results. They aren’t left to fend for themselves; René and his team offer guidance and support, but their aim is to empower and enable clients to have fast and comprehendible use of their own data, no matter the scale.
As well as having a support team at the ready, Uniper’s teams have been aided in their use of this new system through the application of best-in-class, user-friendly software. Uniper uses Microsoft Azure’s Cloud services, which René praised highly in terms of speed and efficiency: “I often get the question, ‘How did you do this? How can I do this?’, and the first thing you have to do is go to the Cloud, because then you are serverless, you don’t have to worry about the administration of those IT tools – all the traditional problems just go away overnight.”
Software such as Shortly Talend and Databricks enable Uniper to record and configure data in a standardised way that draws different types of information in from multiple sources and allows them to interact with each other, and customers can then analyse these interactions using software such as Tableau. René suggested that this approach could reduce the cost of data integration for Uniper by up to 80%.
“Within a year, we connected 120 data sources to the datalink. We can integrate all types of data – there are no restrictions anymore, which means we can create a data economy where all of this information is in one place.” For storage, the company uses Snowflake, as it allows them to build multiple platforms that share seamlessly between functions. “For example,” René elaborated, “We’re now connecting energy generation and energy trading data together, because one produces the other. This can be used for planning, communication to the capital market, closing etc. in ways that were never possible in the past.” This flexibility allows for analysis across departments, and even machine learning.
Introducing a new, self-driven, digitised way of operating may be a highly efficient innovation, but it can take time for people to grow confident with a new system. Uniper’s response to this is not to push their users onto the new product, but to make the option available to them, and to let them take themselves to it, offering support and encouragement where it is wanted.
“The moment we give the free choice to people to create their own future,” said René, “Then a good product becomes a better product. If you force people into a digital journey, it will not be successful.” The speed at which people are willing to try out something new varies from individual to individual, but in part, Stephan and René have found that this can be classified by what business they are in. Power generation, they explained, is a particularly hard enterprise to transition onto the new system, as the majority of the team need to use it in order for it to work in these instances, and it is typically an area that is less receptive of change. “Traditionally, the generation business was about staying steady, keeping running and being reliable.” To assist in this transition where it is taking place, Uniper sends personnel to a power station to sit with the staff, spending between days and months on the ground to answer people’s concerns and get everyone confident with the way this platform works. “Most of the time,” Stephan observed, “people are not afraid of the actual thing, but they are afraid of what they imagine the thing could be. The process takes a lot of time, and a lot of patience, and a lot of listening to people.”
All this being said, last month, the company integrated a North American unit onto their new system without a single person needing to travel to the US, which again shows that different groups move at different paces, and one of the ways that Uniper has managed a successful roll-out is by understanding this. At first, only a few users moved over, but word spread, and now they have almost a thousand customers on the new platform.
The Maintenance Strategy Planning tool is an example of how useful this system is for the company itself. The efficient data management has enabled the company to review the maintenance of its plants and make money-saving changes of up to 16% in some areas. This was achieved through, Stephan explained to us, combining data from trading and generation, which allowed them “to look at the past and the future of our business. Thereby they are able to optimize their asset management and therefore the money spend.” This process would have been too lengthy before the Internet of Things was brought into play, as the data would have been collected and analysed in a much more manual approach. “It would take weeks and months to get it, and then if the situation changed, it would take weeks and months to re-discuss the whole situation, and now you can do it with a click.”
Another example of the system’s internal use is the ease with which Uniper can share information with other companies, such as Fero Labs. Fero Labs produce a machine learning software that focuses on plant optimization, meaning that engineers can create a digital twin of their plants to improve efficiencies, and are able to train multiple models on a daily basis. Sharing the amount of data this would require is now simple with Uniper’s new system.
This type of internal application was not intended by the start – rather, it was the product of communication between Stephan and René. As Stephan explained, “At the time, I was responsible for the digitalisation of our asset business, which is a little bit of a longer process. I would say it’s like cleaning up the kitchen. René and I were talking as I was working on this, and I heard about what he was doing.” Stephan realised that René’s new system sounded like exactly what he needed, and the two combined efforts. “I think that helps in an organisation, that the right people were in the right places, knowing and trusting each other already, and able to bring together the right ideas and technology.”
This isn’t to say that Uniper did everything alone, however. As well as the software that has been listed, the company used external analytics companies and consultants when they needed help with ideas and extra hands on deck. These companies included Confexx Consulting and Principal33 Solutions, the latter of whom stepped in to help with some programming that had the company stumped. “We were getting confused, programming back and forth, and it just didn’t deliver,” Stephan told us. “We talked to Principal33 Solutions, who were already helping us in other areas, and they said: ‘Give us two weeks.’ They worked hard to do it and really impressed us, and really helped us out.”
Realising that they had taken a wrong turn is all part of the experimental process that leads to idea development, but as both René and Stephan told us, such thinking is not common in the energy industry. For the development of the datalink, Uniper made an exception, and this cultural shift has continued to spawn benefits. Compared to a physical project, a digital one doesn’t take as much financial investment, and so Uniper gave itself permission to try something new and, if it didn’t look promising in six months’ time, it would call it off. “Now,” René told us proudly, “we have almost 1000 customers running on this platform, we are ten times faster than traditional IT, we have more than 30 departments on board, and people are adapting to it and growing.”
This freedom to experiment, make mistakes and grow is not shared by all of Uniper’s competitors. “In many organisations, if a project is not successful, it is seen as a bad thing and people get demoted, and this is not ok. Our spirit on this platform is to encourage people beyond limits, but therefore accept that sometimes things won’t work,” René told us. Stephan agreed: “I tell my team, if you’re a race car driver who’s never crashed a car, then you shouldn’t be there, because you’re not going to the limit. It’s ok to crash the car. Try not to kill yourself, don’t overdo it, but it’s ok to go beyond. How will you ever get better if you don’t try to push your limit?”
This attitude has led to not only the development of this platform, but branching off from it, many other innovations as well. For example, René told us that Uniper has now produced its first app: “We provide certain customers a market information portfolio every day, and this information used to arrive by email, PDF etc. We thought, we need to turn this into something different; we need to think what people are looking for; we need to give it a digital touch. So, we created an app that went live in January. After three months, we had reinvested the whole capex we spent on this, and we are now getting questions from competitors asking if we can sell this product to them.” The company has a second and third app on the way, and it credits the innovation that led to all three to their newly non-linear thinking.
Over time, Uniper is hoping to completely integrate business and IT within its staff, to tightly marry the two so the company can utilize both with smooth confidence throughout its operations. René and Stephan concede that sometimes, a situation calls for a firm expert in one area or the other, but for the most part, this blending of both is their vision for their company and its people, and, in their own time, their full body of clients as well.