Abdenour jbili, OCP Maintenance Solutions

OCP Group Morocco, explores how digitalisation can help improve the efficiency and reliability of plant operations.

As new innovations are introduced, it has become almost common place for people to talk about the huge impact that the latest digital trends can have across the industrial sector. The Internet of Things (IoT), sensor technologies, drones, robotics, analytics and advanced machine learning have all had an impact on everything from production through to distribution. When discussing these transformations, attention is often focused on the disruptive capabilities of technology. One area that often generates less attention is the important area of plant maintenance

— using these new technologies to increase reliability. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the global food supply chain under new pressures, that issue of reliability has become increasingly critical as everyone looks to ensure that every element under their control can be managed as efficiently and predictably as possible.

It is easy for people to imagine drones flying overhead in distribution facilities or robotics used to manufacture intricate machinery, but some of the greatest efficiencies can be made where this digital infrastructure sits behind operations, contributing to their smooth and reliable running. At OCP, it is in the use of technology to increase that reliability where the company has been able to take huge strides and now shares its knowledge and experience with other interested companies.

There are numerous reasons why a company might choose to embrace digitalisation: businesses could be looking to improve effciency, quality and quantity of production, reduce environmental damage, or enhance their reporting and strategic decision-making. In the fertilizer industry, with the crucial role it plays in the food supply chain, it has never been so important to maintain stability. As people worry about acute food shortages worldwide, fertilizer companies have needed to adapt quickly, and digitalisation has been key in helping to do this effectively.

OCP has found that technology has been crucial in transforming reliability. By introducing predictive maintenance methods at its sites, the company has been able to achieve substantial improvements in reliability and maintenance costs. With the recent introduction of lockdowns and an increased focus on remote working, the company has needed these advanced technical sotutions    to carry out interventions and remote monitoring to supervise equipments.

This process can be summed up as an attempt to create ‘intelligent factories’ using the ever-increasing number of interconnected and automated devices to ensure that decisions are made based on data rather than intuition and observation atone. Through self-learning and a smart system that predicts failure, makes diagnosis and triggers maintenance, decision-making is easier and more efficient, ultimately leading to failure-free operations.

Technology for reliability

In 2016, OCP launched its ‘Movement’ initiative, which is designed to maximise innovation through providing employees with the necessary means and time to work on a topic of their choice. One of the results was OCP Maintenance Solutions, an asset management unit centred on using advanced technologies around wireless connections, combined with the company’s own experience in mining, to increase both its own reliability and to advise other companies on improving their performance.

In 2019, OCP Maintenance Solutions was able to prevent stoppages that would have cost €7 million at the company’s Safi site in Western Morocco alone. This was achieved by using in-house loT platforms, installing and configuring more than 500 wireless sensors, supervising more than 3500 pieces of equipment, and detecting more than 654 anomalies.

The premise behind this work is that regular monitoring of the actual mechanical condition of machines and process systems will not only minimise the down time required by repairs, but also reduce the number and cost of unscheduled outages created by machine failures. This is not about removing the human element from plant work. Instead, it ensures that expertise and knowledge can be used where it is most effective— analysing the information and using knowledge and experience to interpret it — rather than trying to spot potential problems that may be invisible to the human eye, or carry out checks that may be unnecessary and inefficient.

Key trends

Broadly speaking, digitalisation in plant maintenance can be broken into three key trends: loT and the use of sensors, machine learning and analytics, and drones for industrial use.


loT streamlines plant inspection via sensors placed on machinery, enabling maintenance experts to monitor closely the health of equipment in real-time and, therefore, make timely decisions before problems get out of hand. The result is efficiency and reduced downtime.

In 2018, one of OCP’s grinders experienced an exponential increase in its vibration levels, going from 5 mm to more than 40 mm, with the potential to cause substantial damage leading to a complete shutdown of the line and a significant impact on productivity.

These kinds of anomalies cannot be detected through intuition, and the operational team did not notice any change. However, an instant alert was relayed into OCP Maintenance Solution’s loT platform, calling for urgent action from the team. After multiple tests, they pinpointed the malfunction — the connected air Compressor’s grease spray system was releasing water instead of lubricant     and were able to quickly fix the problem. If wireless sensors had not been feeding into the IoT platform, the problem would have gone undetected until it was too late, causing a month’s shutdown to repair and costing the company €2 million.

Machine learning and anatytics

Machine  learning  and analytics  is  one of  the most powerful and advanced forms of digital transformation, releasing the power of mining data and realizing trends. Predictive maintenance is a strategic application. Data is collected over time to monitor the state of equipment, or the ultimate goal of finding patterns that can help predict and prevent failures. It leads to major cost savings, higher predictability and increased availability of the system.


In a relatively short space of time, the utilization of drones by companies for monitoring sites has become more common, and it can sometimes be easy to forget what a valuable addition they are to any industrial facility’s operations. When it comes to maintenance and reliability, drone-based non-destructive testing or drone-based inspection takes advantage of creating a much wider range of possibilities for maintenance inspections. It is cost-effective, safe and quick, with the added bonus of not requiring companies to shut down operations, while being able to repeatedly carry out tests from the same position.

Putting it into practice

The opportunities for the fertilizer industry to take advantage of these kind of advances are potentially hugely significant. Software currently being used by OCP covers everything from measurement tools that track the Condition of moving parts without having to make any form of contact, to programs that enable the company to ensure employees are

maintaining the distancing required to stay safe during COVID-19.

However, one of the biggest challenges is putting different concepts and theories into practice, especially when part of that involves changing the mind-set of the workforce and introducing new ways of thinking. As has always been the case, the technology is only as good as the people using it. Industrial digitalization may be based on highly networked and automated machines, monitoring both themselves and their environments or machine-to-machine communication, but this process still cannot be successful without being complemented by good machine-to-human communication.

Through the emergence of digitalization and loT, the on-field intervention of employees has been reduced by orders of magnitude. However, the human factor for advanced analysis and supervision is crucial. This means that a huge shift in the skills required of employees is essential if a digital transformation is going to deliver the kind of lasting improvements the fertilizer industry wants to see.

Maintenance practices and technologies have evolved to meet the needs of the changing industrial

environment. The function has moved from a community of reactive fixers to proactive professionals and experts using their time and resources more effectively. However, businesses can face challenges in workers being open to change of processes and being willing to learn about digital platforms and tools, while also trying to master hardware and software solutions and understand how to trouble-shoot sensor faults/defects through having enough experience using the hardware.


This may be the most important task facing the industry if it is to get the maximum benefit from the ongoing digital revolution: how to ensure that maintenance workers are upskilled so that they are confident using these new technologies. For all the extraordinary potential that exists in new inventions, people still have to remain at the heart of it all.

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