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How can technology support data centres through a global skills shortage?

In this Q&A, Danel Turk, Data Centre Portfolio Manager at ABB, discusses the impact of the global skills shortage on data centre development and operation and highlights key technologies which are helping operators to navigate the challenges posed.

A lack of skilled workers and contractors seems to be problematic for a number of industries. How big is the issue in the data centre sector?

Our customers are telling us that the skills gap is one of the biggest issues they are facing right now, and it’s impacting everything from the construction of new data centres to daily operations and maintenance, and their supply chains.

At the end of last year, we carried out some research in the Asia Pacific region, and almost three out of four operators (74.2%) said that access to specialist sub-contractors and trades was their greatest area of concern, after supply chain resilience (82.2%) and health and safety precautions (77.3%).

The concerns raised in our Asia Pacific survey mirrors trends in Europe, where research reveals that 42% of data centre operators believe there’s not enough skilled labour to deliver increased capacity requirements across the continent. Over 80% of European companies say they have been affected by labour gaps and more than seven out of 10 believe the pandemic has made the industry’s skills shortages worse.

While the shortage of suitably skilled people has been an industry issue for many years, the problems are really starting to bite now, with operators experiencing problems such as extra costs and delays in project delivery times. Operators need solutions – and fast.

With growing global demand for data and the need to increase capacity quickly, the industry will be keen to avoid extended project delivery times. How can technology help data centre operators get new capacity built faster and work around the shortage of construction labourers and skilled subcontractors?

The shortage of construction labourers and trades is being felt around the world, and this is driving a shift in the way data centre capacity is built, as traditional ‘stick built’ designs give way to modular and prefabricated building technology.  

Prefabricated products – such as eHouses and skids – are built off-site and factory-tested before being delivered to site as an integrated solution which can then be installed and commissioned quickly and efficiently. Modular electrification solutions are flexible and scalable, and incorporate standard blocks of power which can be repeated to allow for future expansion.

Our research suggests that modular, scalable equipment can reduce build completion time by as much as 50% compared to traditionally built data centres and they can help negate labour shortages in three ways; firstly, a prefabricated solution is resource efficient from an operational point of view, as it requires one project manager dealing with one vendor. Secondly, the products are pre-engineered to spec by the manufacturer and pre-tested before leaving the factory so there’s less need for specialist consultants to design the system or engineers to troubleshoot issues on-site. Thirdly, some manufacturers offer installation and commissioning services for their prefab products, therefore there’s no need for the operator to find their own skilled subcontractor to do the job.

It’s worth noting that digitalised solutions are also quicker to deploy as they require less wiring and less time to assemble on-site than traditional switchgear.

Ultimately using prefabricated, predesigned modular solutions means additional capacity can be built quicker and with less people. 

Some reports suggest that the industry needs to recruit another 300,000 people over the next three years to run the world’s data centres. While that recruitment drive goes on, is there a way of reducing the impact of staff shortages on operations and maintenance activities?

Yes – and again, digitalisation is a key enabler. By proactively monitoring data centre equipment and performance using smart maintenance technology, digitalisation moves operators away from the traditional calendar-based maintenance schedules to a predictive maintenance approach, focusing on the most critical maintenance activities. Preventative maintenance is a more efficient use of time for data centre engineers who are based on-site.

The intelligence and analysis digitalisation also streamlines the running of the data centre for operational workers and helps keep it performing efficiently. This maximises employees’ time and is particularly helpful for under-resourced teams.

Digitalisation is also being used by companies like ABB to support data centres with remote maintenance solutions. Last year, we launched two augmented reality (AR) tools to help empower site engineers. CLOSER (Collaborative Operations for electrical systems) is the first port of call. It’s an app which provides fast and easily accessible guidance through an AR-based troubleshooting guide.

If further assistance is needed, or should critical components need to be replaced, site engineers can connect directly with an ABB technical expert through RAISE (Remote Assistance for electrical systems). RAISE allows the field operator and an ABB expert to share a live video connection and use extended reality features, such as digital overlays (like arrows or symbols), in the field of view to give instructions or guidance. RAISE allows users to take and share pictures, audio and video, and guidance can also be given via live text chat.

Can advances in technology support data centres facing supply chain issues too?

To some extent, I think it can as the manufacturing process is faster. Prefabricated, modular build solutions use a standardised design and this speeds up the purchasing and manufacturing processes, and makes deliveries for standard solutions much faster. Digitalisation, which uses less wires and connections, and configurators also expedite the ordering, manufacturing and delivery process.

With modular designs, there is the option of scalability too. This can support operators to negotiate supply chain issues as they don’t need to have everything for their complete build on-site on day one – it can be brought online a section at a time, and added to, which helps smooth out supply chain snags.

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