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What we can learn from the European Spallation Source

Inspiration from a real-life mega project


The upcoming pan-European science park that is located between Denmark and Sweden is a magnificent lesson in how to manage master data in a truly mega-project – to design, build and operate the world’s largest and brightest neutron source for scientific use.


This neutron source and its instruments can in fact be compared to a giant microscope as it enables scientists to see and understand basic atomic structures and forces for the study of different materials, ranging from plastics and pharmaceuticals to engines, proteins, molecules, and nanotechnology.

The accelerator is responsible for accelerating protons produced by an Ion Source up to 96% of the speed of light. The protons are then collided into the target which is a 2.6 m-diameter stainless steel disk containing bricks of a neutron-rich heavy metal called Tungsten. This is where Spallation occurs, where neutrons are flung out from the target wheel. These neutrons are the main product of the European Spallation Source, and they are guided through neutron guides to the instruments that allow researchers to do their research.


First of all, what is the ESS?

The European Spallation Source is a pan-European research project with the aim to build a world-leading research facility. The focus is on the research of chemistry of materials, magnetic & electronic phenomena, life science & soft condensed matter, engineering materials, geosciences, archaeology & heritage conservation, fast neutron applications, and particle physics.

Right now, the ESS facility is currently under construction in the outskirts of the Swedish city of Lund. Once finished in 2022, the project will include the construction of the most powerful linear proton accelerator ever built, in a 750 meter long and 250-meter-wide housing facility.

Other construction includes a five-tonne, helium-cooled tungsten target wheel, 22 state-of-the-art neutron instruments, a full suite of laboratories, and a supercomputing data management and software development center.

Basically, it is a brand-new Big Science organization, built from the ground up. For more information, check out


Why has the European Spallation Source done this when they are only building one such facility?

The main reason is to support the European Spallation Source evolution from project to a sustainable facility enabling world-leading science for +40 years and to establish the foundation needed for future cost-efficient operation and maintenance.

A second reason is a fact that the facility in some areas is producing radiation in the form of radioactivity. This means that parts of the facility fall under the regulatory requirements of the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority which in turn means rigorous control of all technical information as well as configuration management of such information.


Digital Transformation in a PLM Context

The first lesson from ESS is: There is no one system to rule them all. Digital Transformation is a holistic, enterprise-wide connection between systems that enables information flow between platforms. There must be interoperability between each department and across the company but also the software tools. Once interoperability is achieved employees, suppliers, and customers can harvest the knowledge coming from other departments both inside and outside the corporate entity.

The keyword here is interoperability. You need to have an infrastructure set up to support how information flows and how it can be translated between departments, companies, and software tools. It is not a piece of software that should run this initiative, but the business and its champions for change. As has been stated time and again – software enables people, but it does not independently create transformation.

Fact: PLM is an enterprise-wide methodology

PLM includes all aspects of engineering and is used as a product lifecycle management process to help connect, organize, control, manage, track, consolidate, and centralize all the information that affects a product. Just as important, PLM offers a process to streamline collaboration and communication between product stakeholders, engineering, design, manufacturing, quality, and other key disciplines. PLM helps track information related to the safety and control of components especially in aerospace, automotive, electronic, medical device, military, and nuclear industries.

A robust PLM framework improves the development and management of the Engineering Bill of Material (EBOM), Manufacturing Bill of Material (MBOM), requirements management, sourcing, document storage, collaboration, workflow - and other areas all essential to product development.

Here is a visual explanation of what PLM is all about.


The Concept of Engineering Master Data

The second lesson from ESS is: Companies should put the effort into harmonizing their data in different systems and across different departments. Though standards are favored as a fast track for this initiative, they often prove lacking.

Data from one department “silo” in an organization can look like hieroglyphs for the receiving department “silo”.

An alternative method to standards is by creating a dictionary or Rosetta Stone to translate – creating cross-organizational engineering master data. The dictionary enables users to understand the context and meaning behind enterprise data regardless of their touchpoint or role.

Additionally, not all industries have standards, and these definitions allow users to move forward with their data and parts libraries in an easy-to-understand way regardless of its origin.


Why is Structured and Connected Data important?

The third lesson from ESS is: To establish the foundation needed for cost-efficient operation and maintenance, you need data that is connected, clean, comparable, interoperable, and connected to the context it should be used in. Otherwise, the data becomes meaningless.  

The example from ESS shows how connected data is used in the context of capital facility management and how you can combine structured data from that context with data from another context, like product development context.

Now, it is the ability to combine and work with data across structures to reveal context and meaning across the lifecycle. This is where data brings true value.


Create a Dictionary

The fourth lesson from ESS is: It is still unchartered territory as there is no standard way of creating such a dictionary, but because interoperability is so important, it is vital to prioritize having a standardized naming and identification system to make your information flow seamlessly across platforms.

There are companies that have created a dictionary for their data to translate names in different systems. Sometimes this happens due to limitations of one system or another on attributes, characters, or other data points that cause variations in master data. Typos are another culprit.


Data Must be Connected, Comparable, and Interoperable

The fifth lesson from ESS is: Remember, data does not necessarily have to be exactly the same. For data to be fully connected, comparable, and interoperable there needs to be a dictionary that translates between the different disciplines and tools to account for those nuances.

How can we feedback information from the lifecycle phases to reveal insights and meaning without a common understanding? Interoperability is a prerequisite to enable digitalization. However – don’t underestimate the people and cultural aspect. A poorly communicated transformation initiative will fall flat. Keep people in the centre of the process and ensure you’ve well articulated why the initiative is valuable and will generally impact change for good.


Hopefully, the lessons from the European Spallation Source mega-project has provided you with some insights and inspiration you can use.

For more in-depth information, head over to PLM consultant Bjørn Fidjelands excellent description of his collaboration with ESS in this multipart blog series “Tales from a true mega-project”.

About the author

Johnny Minor Mørup

Johnny has a great passion for web communication and digital journalism. He is an expert in creating content addressing both the eyes and mind of the viewer in a unique and unforgettable way. Johnny has a concrete experience in optimizing journalism and communication, whether via an app, a website, through a newsletter, infographics, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, SEO / SEM or Adwords.

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