Motorways and Steam Engines

Today’s post is by Jeff Roorda, Technology One, and Deputy Chair of Talking Infrastructure.

Is using condition to determine life a fundamental error in asset registers?

Part 1

How long does an asset last? The answer determines life cycle cost, depreciation and infrastructure planning.

Asset registers estimate useful life for every asset but which life do we use? The physical life or the economic life? Yes these are different, and often materially different. I recently was working in Queenstown NZ with Queenstown-Lakes District Council. After work, I boarded the steamer TSS Earnslaw that had been carrying passengers on lake Wakatipu since 1912, and its steam engine is still powered by coal. The Earnslaw and many steam powered transport assets around the world still have many years of remaining physical life after over 100 years of operation.

So why did we stop using steam for transportation ? Was it because the assets reached their physical life?

In hindsight we all know the answer. Because steam power is dirty and technology made steam power obsolete. OK then, so the economic life was determined by function and capacity, not by physical condition. Even though steam powered assets had many years of physical life remaining, they became obsolete relatively quickly, far more quickly than most people managing the assets predicted. How much of the infrastructure we are building right now will be obsolete well before physical life is reached?   So why do we focus on the measurement of physical life using condition instead of function and capacity? The pace of change could be faster now than in the 1940’s and 1950’s when transport shifted from steam to the internal combustion engine which created the infrastructure networks we now manage.

Think about what we are building now and drivers for change.

Infrastructure based on continuing the past where everyone has to travel to the office at the same time creating peak transport loads using internal combustion engines with one person per car does not seem to be a likely future with changes in communications and energy technologies.

Part 2 coming shortly.

4 Thoughts on “Motorways and Steam Engines

  1. (Just left a similar comment on your LinkedIn post, Jeff.)

    Nice article, thanks Jeff.

    Do you think we could view steam devices to have been impaired, not through unforeseen damage, but through unforeseen developments?

    If we lack information to the contrary, when we build the assets we have to take physical life as economic life (possibly with a shortening for the level of service). But then impairments of various kinds might lead us to revise the economic lives as events unfold and we gain information.

    Of course, we will have gained in wisdom when we come to the renewal of the assets. We will choose better types, or perhaps avoid renewing etc.

    Looking forward to your next instalment.

  2. The interesting thing about change is the degree to which the predictable is unpredictable. Change is coming, what will it look like?

    In 1890 “flying machines” were laughable. In 1903 Alberto Santos-Dumont was bar-hopping in Paris in a personal hydrogen balloon, the impossible become commonplace.

    Futurists of the time could make their predictions quite clearly, but not as it happens accurately.

    Happily Santos-Dumont, while at the forefront of lighter-than-air flight had the ability to see different futures, and in October 23 of 1906, flew a heavier-than-air biplane in the world’s first public powered flight.

    Also with information and communications technology – the introduction of the telegraph was surrounded by predictions for a world changed by the technologies – remarkably naive predictions similar to those made in the early days of the Internet, “world peace” included.

    This leads me to autonomous vehicles. Many argue that the roads we are building today will not suit our autonomous future. Arguments like the need for narrow lanes and pavement to support concentrated loads. I’d argue that the emerging software is an excellent platform for “wear levelling”, prolonging the service life of roads by evening-out exposure to of different areas of pavement, and avoiding areas of deterioration so pavement failure is extensively delayed. We could be correcting potholes with appropriate sprays before they emerge, without significant delay to traffic.

    The point I make is that predicting the future impact of technology is a fraught activity. What is certain is change – the shape of it we can guess, and the more perspectives we gather the more likely that one of the futures we consider is accurate. We need to be like Santos-Dumont; be alert to technological change, and adopt the best technologies.

    • Penny on March 29, 2018 at 9:31 am said:

      Thanks Gregory. It is possible to know the shape of change, yet still be in the dark about the timing. When I was just starting in asset management the CSIRO approached me to tell them what the key AM problems ‘would be in ten years time’, so that they could arrange their research programs. I was able to get the issues right, but my timing was way off! What I thought would take 10 years actually took 5. And that was when life seemed to be changing at a much slower rate than it seems today. Predicting change today would not seem to be the right game. I would suggest that perhaps, instead of predicting a particular change, we need to be open to adjusting to any change as it happens. This makes scenario planning a more relevant tool that long range prediction.

  3. Milos Posavljak on May 24, 2018 at 8:07 am said:

    I would say that the term “life” itself is perhaps oversimplifying the complexities of assets at their most granular level and over-complicating their management at a macro-level. Given almost unlimited uncertainty in the business of managing societal infrastructure, the ability to develop and illustrate total (horizontal and vertical) scenarios, on a daily basis, will minimize the lead time of change with respect to our organizational processes.

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