Digitalisation yields clear benefits in explosion protection

Interview with Prof. Dr. Thorsten Arnhold, IECEx, on the subject of the opportunities and risks of digitalisation in explosion protection

Ex explosion protection digitalisation R. STAHL

Digitalisation will not stop at anything – certainly not hazardous areas. In this interview, Prof. Dr. Thorsten Arnhold, member of the IEC Board of Conformity Assessment and Vice President of Technology at R. STAHL, discusses where opportunities are hidden, where risks lurk and what Brexit may mean for international Ex standards.

CT: Digitalisation is currently one of the most important topics when it comes to the future of the process industry. What opportunities and risks do you foresee with regard to explosion protection?
Arnhold: The opportunities are obvious – digitalisation aims to significantly increase the efficiency of all industrial processes. In explosion protection, digitalisation supports us when maintaining Ex systems. These must be inspected every three years. Take, for instance, Ex light fittings – these are usually installed in hard-to-reach places. The cost of the inspection is enormous because, for instance, scaffolds need to be set up for the visual inspection. If we could use drones to perform the close-up and visual inspections, this would be a huge step forwards. Devices in flameproof enclosures can also be monitored and inspected using suitable sensors. Similar opportunities are available for other types of protection.

CT: When inspecting Ex systems, documentation stands out from all other tasks as being incredibly time-consuming. What digital tools could help us here?
Arnhold: To start with, individual products can be easily identified using digital rating plates. Test plans, device data, system layouts, test protocols, repair protocols and lots of other important information is saved in specific databases. If a test order is pending, the database automatically informs the technical supervisor responsible for the system and downloads the test plans and other necessary information onto a tablet or smartphone. Together with cameras, smart glasses and other digital equipment, these devices form a mobile employee concept for process technology systems – including those in hazardous areas.

If questions arise during work on the system, the user can contact experts or supervisors and take and send photos. What's more, we can't forget that our employees are the source of a great deal of knowledge. When they retire, this expertise is often not sufficiently passed on. This is a real problem. A comprehensive, intelligently structured database allows inspections to be managed – but also enables knowledge to be transferred. You can see how digitalisation gives rise to obvious advantages.

CT: So does it all look good? Or can you also see potential risks that digitalisation may give rise to?
Arnhold: Even as we look forward to the benefits of digitalisation, we must not forget that all these smart devices will need electric energy to operate, which is typically stored in batteries. Consequently, these products must meet all the requirements with which electrical products designed for use in hazardous areas must comply.

At IEC and IECEx, we have identified these specific issues and their importance for the market. We have founded a special IEC working group to deal with the question of how modern mobile, digital devices can be safely converted to meet the requirements of standards that apply to hazardous areas.

Additionally, we are endeavouring to intensify our market monitoring. IECEx will work hand-in-hand with the EU's ATEX Administrative Cooperation working group (AdCo) to ban unsafe mobile products from global markets quickly. A new working group dealing with these questions was launched in May 2019.

CT: From the speech at the R. STAHL expert forum in autumn 2019, we know with certainty how much effort is required to combine different databases present in a single company. How far has the sector come with regard to the electronic rating plate, which could simplify this process?
It would be possible to use this technology today, as manufacturers are generally able to make device data available on the Internet. Fewer and fewer people understand the cryptic messages on the rating plates of Ex devices. We are working with national and international committees to create rating plates that can be read by mobile devices and used to simplify stocktaking considerably.

CT: Ex certificates are an ongoing topic of discussion – the assessment of explosion protection components according to IECEx international regulations has not yet been extensively applied. What obstacles do you foresee?
National certification authorities subsist on issuing national certificates – this is the underlying principle of their work. As a result, they are not fully prepared to accept fully harmonised regulations. Take, for instance, the situation caused by Brexit – if the UK leaves the EU, the UK will no longer be able to provide Notified Bodies according to ATEX. As a result, I have suggested to my colleagues that IECEx certificates should be automatically accepted. However, they would not consider this option because it would result in six test bodies losing their essential business.

CT: What does this mean for European manufacturers who wish to market their devices in the United Kingdom?
They will have to obtain additional certificates for their devices from UK authorities. Although the "fast-track" process for obtaining these is relatively quick and simple, it does require additional expenditure. However, as the UK's Notified Bodies established branch offices in the EU in good time, ATEX certificates that they have issued for distribution within the EU will remain valid.

CT: What is the current situation with regard to globally uniform Ex standards?
Increasing nationalisation is the biggest barrier that IECEx is facing – and the most recent trade conflicts have not helped. For instance, although China is intending to recognise our type test in future, they wish to send their own auditors to the manufacturers. Nowadays, IECEx and ATEX audits have been interlinked in a very sophisticated manner – the required expenditure is clear and manageable. We can only speculate as to the motivation behind the request for additional Chinese audits.

The interviewer was Armin Scheuermann, Editor-in-Chief at trade journal CHEMIE TECHNIK

Prof. Dr. Thorsten Arnhold
An electrical engineer, Prof. Dr Thorsten Arnhold has worked closely on explosion protection for 27 years, working at R. STAHL from the very beginning. Since 2012, he has been responsible for technology development at R. STAHL. From 2014 to 2019, Arnhold was the Chairman of the IECEx certification organisation and, as of 2020, is a member of the IEC Board of Conformity Assessment. In addition, Arnhold lectures at the Ernst Abbe University of Applied Sciences in Jena and at Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences.