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Twenty-three

Roy Bitrus - RAB-Microfluidics

Heavy machinery learning…

Roy Bitrus - RAB-Microfluidics

Heavy machinery learning

The ability to make any process a thousand times faster and ten times cheaper is a big claim to make for any new technology, but RAB-Microfluidics is now busy proving that its intelligent real-time solution for oil condition monitoring (OCM) could revolutionise the way that many industries look after their heavy machinery – potentially saving billions of pounds in the process...

According to a report by Frost and Sullivan in 2015, companies which rely on heavy machinery – including shipping lines and power suppliers – spend over £2 billion a year on oil condition monitoring (OCM). When things go wrong, they spend a further £2 billion on repairs, plus all the other costs associated with downtime. But according to Roy Bitrus, Director of RAB-Microfluidics, the losses are likely to be a lot higher – most companies don't like to talk about the damage caused by breakdowns because it is such a sore subject.

The stakes are high – and there’s enormous potential for savings. For example, if a key piece of lubricated machinery suddenly goes out of action, oil production may be cut by tens of thousands of barrels a day, or a containership may be delayed for a week or more, not only causing significant financial losses but also reputational damage.

The problem is simple. Whether it’s a ship in the Indian Ocean or a wind turbine in the North Sea, you have to keep a close eye on your machinery, and lube oil analysis is one of the key ways to do that, or else you face the risk of your heavy machinery failing due to wear, contamination or degradation. To try to prevent this, most users of heavy machinery send regular samples of oil for checking in a laboratory, in many cases spending several million pounds a year. The time it takes can also make the problems even worse. If you take the samples once every quarter, for example, you then may wait another two to four weeks to see the results, and this means you may only identify problems long after the machinery has developed a fault or already stopped working.

Traditional solutions are inadequate for critical machines, says Bitrus. Some companies use bench-top “labs” to analyse the oil on site, at a cost of £30–60,000 per device, but these can be too big for most environments. Smaller devices can be retro-fitted, but these are limited in terms of what they analyse, focusing on the physical properties of the oil such as particle counting, viscosity and temperature. In addition, oil sampling is generally done in a hazardous environment, requiring risk assessments and PPE (personal protective equipment), and human error in the sampling can make matters worse, leading to false results.

The solution, says Bitrus, is to automate the process of sampling and analysis of oil, using the “microfluidic lab-on-a-chip” technology developed by his company to monitor conditions in real time, providing both the chemical and physical analysis required for most machinery – in a product which is portable and easy to carry around and install. “Fifteen minutes after the oil is sampled,” says Bitrus, “our solution is already producing results.”

In addition, the lab-on-a-chip technology (patent pending) provides continuous data in real time, every day of the year, which should lead to more intelligent analysis as time goes by, getting to know the individual machinery better, thanks to advances in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Traditional solutions can be “reactive and/or preventative,” says Bitrus, and many manufacturers recommend frequent oil changes for certain machines, to keep the mechanical parts lubricated and avoid mechanical failure. By contrast, his company’s lab-on-a-chip can be used as a predictive tool to enable early and timely diagnosis of failure modes – generating accurate, timely reports which speed up the decision-making process and make maintenance more scientific and more cost-efficient, detecting signs of failure in advance and potentially reducing wastage.

The new technology has also been developed at a time when many industries are changing and the need to reduce costs is greater than ever – for example, to ensure offshore vessels can service a dwindling number of oil rigs at a time when production and profits are falling. “We also believe that the shift goes beyond temporary
cost-cutting measures,” says Bitrus, “and that demand is also driven by the need for innovation in the long run. That is why small to medium-sized companies like us have greater opportunities than ever to show what we can do, especially in industries like maritime and wind.” The Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC), adds Bitrus, has also helped him and the rest of the team understand the market better and learn how to deal with major players in the industry, “to identify their individual needs, pain points and how our value proposition fits with their business model.”

Bitrus likes to talk about the “holy trinity” of heavy machinery condition-based monitoring – thermography, vibration analysis and OCM. Whilst the first two are already automated and online, RAB-Microfluidics is simply completing the job by developing an automatic, online solution for oil which is also mobile, online and easy to fit.

The road to Aberdeen

Bitrus's entrepreneurial skills first emerged when he was growing up in Nigeria, producing new ID cards for his father’s company when he was only thirteen years old, having noticed that the old cards were deficient. Later on, he started selling laptops in Nigeria and made enough money to help fund his studies, gaining a Degree in Geology and Mining from the University of Jos, before leaving Nigeria to continue his studies and also gain more working experience. Meanwhile, Rotimi Alabi, now the Managing Director of RAB-Microfluidics, had graduated in microbiology at Igbinedion University, Okada, and worked as an analytical chemist for the Nigerian Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), before also heading abroad.

Bitrus and Alabi met at Coventry University in 2010 when both of them were doing their Master’s degrees in Environmental Science. When Alabi moved to Scotland to continue his studies at the University of Aberdeen, Bitrus soon followed and after Alabi completed his PhD, he founded RAB-Microfluidics Ltd, inspired by his research in microfluidics for petroleum products – seeing applications in a wide range of industries where lubricated heavy machinery plays a key role, including oil & gas, aerospace & defence, processing & manufacturing, power generation, transport and shipping.

Although he has already proven himself as a salesman, Bitrus believes that the lab-on-a-chip is the kind of product that will sell itself by delivering rapid results for the customer rather than promising what it can do. Sometimes, however, sales are driven by events that happen after the initial presentation. One new client recently called Bitrus out of the blue, six months after he had first approached the company, and immediately bought into the idea of real-time monitoring proposed by RAB-Microfluidics, after a vessel was significantly delayed due to an engine breakdown – after paying out tens of thousands of pounds for repairs that may not have been needed if the problem had been detected in advance, using the lab-on-a-chip.

RAB-Microfluidics is currently conducting field trials to test and prove the new design, and several companies have already expressed interest in the technology and committed to delivery of the MVP (minimum viable product). This could be a major breakthrough for Bitrus and Alabi, since many companies in the oil and gas sector tend to follow each other when it comes to the adoption of any new technology.

Other breakthroughs have come as a pleasant surprise. Initially, Bitrus and Alabi didn't think the lubricant companies would be interested in using the product, since it promised to prolong the life of engine oil and thus reduce sales. However, they have since learned that the lubricant companies are keen on the product because they also stand to benefit if they can use it to demonstrate their oil works more efficiently than others, based on real-time data.

When the MVP is launched in 2019, the company will conduct pilot trials with the early adopters, aiming to drive interest across its target industry sectors. “When potential users see the benefits and added value of the product, selling to various industry sectors will be more achievable,” says Bitrus. “Sales will also be business-to-business – it will take a few years to explore the full potential of the product but there will also be a ripple effect in the market as users report its success.”

Seeking investment

RAB-Microfluidics was set up in August 2016 and has already attracted significant funding, including grants from Innovate UK and Scottish Enterprise, which helped with proof of concept at the earliest stages, plus support from the Energy Technology Partnership (ETP) and the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre – a total of about £850,000 in grant funding. In early December 2018, RAB-Microfluidics also won an award from Scottish EDGE, following its £60,000 BP Technology Prize. Both Alabi and Bitrus have also been RSE Enterprise Fellows, Bitrus gaining his award under the Unlocking Ambition programme launched by the RSE, the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise in mid-2018.

Now that RAB-Microfluidics has started running field trials of its product and talking to potential clients all around the world, the company is actively seeking potential investors, aiming for first-round investment of over £1 million, to take it all the way up to commercialisation – and beyond. Bitrus says they also need to “grow the team,” as well as get ready for full-scale production. Rather than fine-tuning the basic design, however, RAB-Microfluidics will focus on the need to fit the product to individual customer requirements. “We are confident that this first round of investment will lead to sustainable growth,” says Bitrus. “We believe in what we're doing, and our ultimate objective is to grow to the point where we have the capacity and the resources, as well as the name, to serve companies on a global scale.”

Whether the company becomes a global player on its own or becomes part of a bigger global partnership, Bitrus and Alabi have much to look forward to in the next year as their business matures – even if they have to give their products away to begin with, the proof of their idea will be the orders they receive in the wake of the pilots. Bitrus estimates the value of the market for “automated predictive maintenance technology”, or “smart OCM”, is about £250 million a year in the first phase of growth, but with billions at stake and competitive pressures increasing, this may be the tip of the iceberg.

 

The business of business

Roy Bitrus was one of the first batch of RSE Unlocking Ambition Enterprise Fellows, so what does he think of the programme so far?

“The Fellowship has helped me understand our business landscape,” says Bitrus, “as well as provide relevant training in business and strategic business principles with practical problem-solving scenarios. The mentorship has also been invaluable, because it helps me understand my role in the company, including my responsibilities as a director. We also learn a lot about finance and raising investment, how to treat our customers and understand our partners. Not everything is black and white in business. There are many shades of grey. We have to understand what our investors are looking for and learn to ask the right questions.”

“We also learn about maintaining our relationships,” he adds, “and how we interact with people in different countries and corporate cultures.

Ultimately, what we do is all about our customers, and delivering a technology that can help guarantee the reliability and availability of their machines, leading to a predictive maintenance future.”

 

 

 

 

 

"Roy Bitrus - RAB-Microfluidics". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-three)
Printed from http://www.sciencescotland.org/feature.php?id=355 on 20/09/19 09:36:32 AM

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