MTR’s Dr. Tony Lee on foresighted asset management

As Chief of Operations Engineering at MTR Corporation, Dr. Tony Lee is responsible for all the maintenance and asset renewal for the network in Hong Kong. We had the opportunity to sit down for a short chat with him while he was in Singapore a few months ago.

Q: What are the main challenges that MTR Corporation is facing right now?

The main challenge we’re facing is how do we sustain the world-class performance in the next 10-30 years. The demand from passengers is huge and they are expecting fault-free service. We are delivering 99.9% reliability today aiming for 99.99% i.e. ten times better in the next 5-10 years. On one hand, our challenge lies in sustaining the performance and bringing it to the next level.  On the other hand, there’s also disruption management as we still have the 0.1% or 0.01% to manage, and how we can create a fault-free performance to passengers. We are also looking at the value-added services that we can inject into the travel experience from A to B. This is a dream that we’re working towards.

Whether all these will materialize on how well we manage the new assets, especially data collected from the assets. With data asset management, we can bring a breakthrough in passenger experience, disruption management and sustaining the performance of assets.

There are 3 areas we will have to look into. Firstly, governance control – how can we build a system that enables people to manage the data, including data mining and analytics. Secondly, it’s related to how we apply algorithm. From system to algorithm, how can we create an algorithm that can bring new experience to passengers, and that algorithm is related to how we use artificial intelligence. Thirdly, by putting AI in the system, we’re able to gain asset, operational and situation intelligence. These 3 elements are important in delivering the dream I mentioned. If we can manage the asset with AI intelligence, we’re able to foresee the hiccups that happen and prevent them. Hence, the incoming challenge for MTR is how do we build asset intelligence into the asset management algorithm and this is a goal that we’re working towards in the next 5-10 years.

Q: How much investment is MTR committing to achieve this?

We spend HKD8 billion every year to maintain the assets, including ongoing maintenance and replacement. We are nearing the end of the first cycle of asset replacement. Here comes a wave of huge investment in the replacement of assets and the opportunity to inject AI into the assets. For whatever systems that we’re going to replace or upgrade, we would apply IoT and AI on these assets. If we miss this opportunity, we will have to wait for the next opportunity 20 or 30 years later. The main issue is not cost, but how can we materialise all these concepts into an asset management algorithm that will bring us from a process governed by system processes to one that is governed by algorithms?

Q: What are the difficulties that you face in enabling this transition?

The key challenge lies in changing people’s mindsets. How can we shape mindsets that were built over the last 40 years to see something that will come in the next 10 years? It’s a big challenge to shift their mindsets to accept what I have just mentioned.

What I’m doing to facilitate the change of mindsets is to use different success stories. In the past, there is the practice of letting systems run to failure, applying corrective maintenance and replacing them only when they fail. However, the costs of doing this is too high and we move towards preventive maintenance, meaning I see a fault regularly and prevent it from failing, which helps to save costs. Then there’s predictive maintenance, which is largely based on condition monitoring data.

Condition monitoring involves looking at all the data in history while predictive maintenance is to forecast future data and trends based on current data that you have. Once you predict the future, what are you going to do? It’s important that we go a step further and that is prescriptive maintenance where there is a solution. MTR embarked a journey from predictive maintenance to prescriptive maintenance now.  That is not the end of the story though.

We’re trying to push this further. After prescriptive maintenance, the next step is foresighted asset optimization. With prescriptive maintenance, I have all these solutions but how can I optimise the whole network to work in the best state, not just the individual components and systems. Foresight asset optimization is the end game.

I like to compare this to western and eastern medicine. The western approach gives you drugs to relive your pain but the eastern approach seeks to improve the constitution of your body. When we reach the final stage, whatever sensor you have installed on the body, you will never find a fault.  It is the state of fault-free operation.

This is the dream that we are working towards for our assets and we have built a lot of examples using these concepts to shift the mindsets of stakeholders. In the end, it’s not the technology or the money, but it’s the people’s mindsets that we need to change.

Q: In the next five years, what will be key areas of focus be?

I will continue to be a salesman, not just internally, but also externally to establish strategic partnerships/alliance with stakeholders, vendors, research institutes to look into new concepts to build this asset management algorithm. We will continue to invest in building this through the asset replacement cycle. In the next 5 years, we should be able to replace most of the assets that are more than 40 years old. We have already spent around HKD$8 billion a year and we’re going to spend more on asset replacement.

Another area of focus is passenger experience. If you want to put a new experience into a train, you’re talking about 2000 train cars. The elephant is moving too slowly. We need to use the new technology to break through this so that whenever we have new experience of the passengers, we will use a small part of the network to gain the experience first and that breakthrough needs to be done.


Dr. Tony Lee will be sharing more about MTR’s foresight-driven asset management approach. Want to hear more from him? Join us at Asia Pacific Rail 2018.

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