Digitalisation, Products & Technology

Leveraging digital twins to boost rail maintenance and asset management

Conrad Winter, head of strategic projects at Willow, explains how digital twins can enable stakeholders across rail networks to make more accurate and contextual decisions.

Willow is a global technology company that creates virtual representations of built assets for the real estate and infrastructure sectors. 

Willow set up the first rail digital ‘twin’ in the world in Utrecht.

These digital twins enable users to make better, more proactive, and data-led decisions in order to grow their profits, reduce their expenses and better manage risk. Willow has offices throughout Australia, North America and Europe.

Willow head of strategic projects Conrad Winter has been a part of the infrastructure industry for more than 20 years and has directly seen how change management at the organisational level can unleash the power of data to drive real time decision making and the optimisation of rail network performance, safety, sustainability and customer experience. Conrad Winter spoke with Rail Express recently about the WillowRail product.

Key challenges

Rail Express asked Winter what he saw as the key challenges that Willow had been seeking to overcome.  

“Today, rail networks are managed by a number of disparate tools and disconnected measuring devices. The average network may use in excess of 15 different systems, each with their own interface, data silo and process,” Conrad said.

“In this state, owners and operators are faced with a sea of unintegrated information, left to make critical decisions based on incomplete data or toggling between different programs. This presents a huge challenge, as they lack a single, consolidated view of their network along with the real-time data” he said.

“Additionally, most rail owners operate in an incredibly reactive manner, and their technicians in the field don’t possess the right information at their fingertips to resolve problems effectively. As digitisation becomes widespread in our industry, this problem is only set to worsen. Every day, millions of new devices are connecting online, and new technologies are entering the market.”

Conrad said Willow was solving “data challenges” via a digital twin for rail, a single source of truth for asset management.

“Our platform WillowRail is an integrated rail asset management solution for all rail network types, including trams, light rail, metro trains, and heavy haul,” he said.

“It gives rail operators, managers, rail engineers, and maintenance staff holistic insights into their network.”

The digital twin solution from WillowRail today is focussed on track asset management. WillowRail’s digital twin combines operational data and asset management information into a simple and intuitive software platform that can be supported by any web browser. “We overlay static asset information, maintenance information and track health information onto an intuitive GIS interface,” Conrad said.

“In an environment where even the smallest interruption can have serious social and financial implications, WillowRail creates a data-driven digital rail network that can predict faults before they occur, optimise capacity, and increase rail network availability.”

Conrad said the company saw this as a first step toward a digital future for the rail sector.

“The digital enablement of rolling stock, controls, signalling and the importance of leveraging big data present both opportunities and challenges in equal measure,” he said.

“WillowRail is seeking to provide a solution to leverage these amazing new innovations.”

Future Focused

Conrad is unafraid to think big.

“Our vision for the WillowRail digital twin technology is to enable a digitally connected railway that connects real-time KPIs across the track infrastructure, rolling stock and passenger experience.

“Further to this, we see that the technology can be used as an integration layer to enable a fast and secure connection with third-party software providers. Exciting areas that we are looking into include: blockchain contract management, predictive maintenance and improved safety protocols.” 

Conrad spoke of product benefits. 

“Firstly, improved network performance. The platform provides a holistic view of asset performance with embedded algorithms, which supports condition-based monitoring and predictive maintenance.

“The combination of these elements enables us to significantly improve availability, reduce track geometry defects up to 50 per cent and reduce maintenance costs up to 30 per cent.”

Conrad said WillowRail can drive improved decision making by providing the right data at the right time. “WillowRail provides a single view of network data for all stakeholders – for both the client or operator and its contracted parties,” he said.

“By giving decision makers complete real-time transparency into asset performance, they can now accurately track network performance KPIs. This is unique in the market, as the client owns the data and they have the ability to accurately measure and rank their operators and maintaining parties.”

Conrad noted that WillowRail was enabling a more connected workforce. “As part of the platform, we developed a mobile application for the maintenance groups which provides navigation to faults, safety information, the seamless transfer of communication back to the headquarters and real-time location tracking, asset repair status and database updates,” he said.

Technology deployment

Conrad said they were currently deploying the platform with several major owners, operators and maintenance groups in Australia, Europe and North America.

“We’ve recently onboarded a new customer for 1,000 kilometres plus of heavy haul in Australia, another global first for digital twins,” he said.

“For this customer, Willow is connecting and visualising all their static, live and spatial data to give them a complete network view, along with live visibility of the current temporary speed restrictions.

“Further to this we are providing live track analysis information for root cause analysis and decision making live.”

Conrad said there were challenges ahead.

“The key challenges we see are: modernising and connecting to legacy systems; cyber security and end-point risk in an integrated environment; and the change management challenge for stakeholders is to ensure the technology is easily understood and drives practical outcomes of real-time asset management that can be customised to any user experience level.” he said.

“While we have been making some compelling and exciting use-cases for this technology, and experiencing some great traction with customers, we understand the inherent challenges ahead.

“Digital twins are still very much in the early phases of development, and our job is to help rail customers maintain their leadership position in their respective markets.” 

With WillowRail being the world’s first digital twin implemented on a passenger network in the Netherlands over 18 months ago and the first digital twin on a heavy haul network in Australia the benefits have been proven. With this evidence established Willow believe digital twins can become the standard for the operations and maintenance of all rail networks. 

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