by Neuero Industrietechnik, Germany

The ports and the construction industry are in an exceptional situation currently, due to worldwide working restrictions. The common feeling is that 80 percent of the news is now concerning COVID-19. Topics of discussion centre upon strategies on how to flatten infection curves and the numbers of ventilators. In a short time, we have gathered millions of specialists concerning pandemic infections. Virus specialists decide if we can or cannot work and there are discussions about horizontal or vertical protection strategies.

In this situation, Neuero got caught in the middle of equipment assemblies taking place outside Germany. What do we do in such a case? Our first step was to keep calm, check the local situation with our clients and then discuss and find solutions with our colleagues that were abroad. We puzzled over what to do. Do we leave the site immediately and call everybody back? Or do we try to find a way to remain safe by carefully monitoring of the day-by-day situation, checking the country's risk and health conditions and especially taking into consideration whether colleagues agreed to stay or not? The work takes more time and visas can expire; but it isn't clear who is responsible for this.

Media depictions

We noted, however, that most uncertainty came from colleagues in our home country and not from those working on site. This is a result of the prediction of worse case scenarios shown in the media. The available information isn't always helpful for planning because countries close borders and airlines stop flights or change their schedules. The foreign ministry is much involved with the thousands of tourists that want to return home. A planned return is not possible because only emergency flights are handled. The hope is a slow return to normal travel situations after 30 days.

From our clients, we received a positive response towards keeping our people safe and continuing the work as planned with precautions to protect their health. Today, the complexity of our machines requires specialists for final setup and software adjusting. This is normally done by electricians with field and programming experience. Bringing supervisors back home is easier because most countries accept the return of their own citizens. However, it is not currently possible for foreigners to enter a different country. At the time of writing (April 01st, 2020) in Germany there are no (or very limited) inland flights and many international flights are cancelled.

The best alternative is today's new normal – working at a distance from the home office. The first experience we had of this was a project in Canada that started cold tests on April 13th and hot commissioning one week later. Instead of going on-site and doing the job it had to be done by describing in detail what to do and waiting for the result. A wrong (or no) signal of a limit switch is an easy fix for an experienced technician; however, it can take 15 minutes to a day for someone without experience to find the problem if it is not a simple fault.

Working remotely

A good point for us is that most of our machines are supplied with a router that will allow a connection to the PLC via a separate local Wi-Fi signal or through a SIM Card with the data package plan. This, however, was planned to be done on-site with our specialists for a future remote troubleshooting not for machine commissioning.

Also, a potential problem is that many companies have a problem with internal policy to allow a card to be used. The cost is very low, but our experience is that, during the internal approval process, very few want to decide. This has been a problem in two installations, and what we thought would be easily accepted was not possible to arrange via a simple SIM phone card. The option to use the installed LAN is even more problematic because IT is afraid to open a door to internal information.

Again, it is a problem to get a final approval decision even showing that are different networks (different IP sequence) used and only if the client wants to be connected.

On May 11th we were able make the load test before our team returned home after several weeks overtime at site. The delay was caused by another part of the plant behind our equipment that was not ready.

More COVID-19 challenges

It was easy for a ship to arrive before COVID-19, but now is difficult to get one for a hot test. A lot of patience is needed to finish the job. On May 18th, the next project is taking place in Paranagua Brazil, a 1,500t/h mobile ship loader will be tested. Firstly, however, we need to get a SIM card again…

In summary: As a result of the complications of COVID-19, not only does it take more time to arrange deliveries, the time zone difference of six hours between Germany and Brazil does not help either. Seemingly simple hurdles such as getting a phone card for improved data connection makes remote commissioning difficult. Even information provided several months before now needs reviewing, given the current situation. This is a dilemma; a problem can be brought to attention early and looks easy to solve yet can remain problematic if trained staff members are unavailable on-site.

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