Download the Allianz Center for Technology's 80th anniversary special publication, A Tradition of Risk Expertise & Insight, by clicking here.
A rotating compressor blade in a multi-ton gas turbine is broken; the power plant has to go offline. Millions of Euros lost with no clear answer as to the cause. Defective design, material failure or human error after all? This is a case that calls for the loss assessment experts from the Allianz Center for Technology (Allianz Zentrum für Technik or AZT). Their diagnosis: In a routine replacement of parts, compressor blades with a slightly different material composition were used, which could not sufficiently absorb the vibrations – and without failure the inevitable consequence.
The center has investigated many similar major industrial losses during its 80 years of existence – from the Hindenburg airship disaster (1937) to the turbine shaft accident at the Irsching power plant in 1987 to material problems in modern power plant boilers. Aside from loss assessments, the center, which is now part of Allianz’s industrial insurance carrier Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), also provides expertise in loss prevention. To mark AZT’s 80th anniversary, a comprehensive report has been published, which provides an in-depth look at how the center operates and showcases many of its ongoing research projects.
Experts for industrial technology
AZT specializes in industrial technologies such as energy, power plant technologies and engineering. The center’s 15 engineers – among them electrical, mechanical or process engineers as well as chemists and material experts – investigate damages to core industrial equipment such as boilers, turbines, drives, generators and transformers. “The insights we gain from our assessments benefit not only us as an industrial insurer but our clients as well,” explains Dr. Johannes Stoiber, who jointly heads AZT with Stefan Thumm.
The specialist reports compiled from these investigations are used not only to analyze claims incidents but also to improve risk assessment by AGCS’s underwriters when insuring technical risks. The lessons learned are communicated to the affected companies as well, giving them the tools they need to develop practical responses and prevent future losses. “This way, we help each other to learn from damages,” says Dr. Stoiber.
Detective work on a microscopic level
Each AZT engineer investigates about 20 cases a year. In many instances, the AZT engineers trace the causes to the microscopic level. During laboratory analyses, they discover such root causes of claims as mechanical and thermal overstress, corrosion and material flaws. “Diagnosis is much easier today. Non-destructive testing has made enormous strides over the past 10 years,” co-head Thumm explains. Ultrasonic testing, internal stress measurements and scanning electron microscopes uncover even the tiniest source of a loss.
Nonetheless, on-site inspections remain indispensable. “A loss inspection resembles detective work,” Thumm says. At the site of the loss AZT engineers will closely scrutinize the damaged part, take photos of details, speak to involved employees and analyze operational data. Often there are several intertwined causes that can be attributed to the damage. “That’s why we have to investigate all aspects of a loss – including design, manufacturing and operations,” adds Thumm.
Expanding global activities
Established in 1932 in Berlin, AZT has its roots in Germany. Since its integration into the globally active AGCS, the center has increasingly also been assigned to international claims – for example, when a power plant in Brazil was damaged or a high-speed train in Shanghai caught fire. The international activities will be expanded further in coming years – particularly in the emerging markets of Asia and South America. “We have to know the ins and outs of different claims handling environments,” Dr. Stoiber explains. “But we have a universal strength – our independent judgment that draws from in-depth technical expertise.”
Claims investigation, however, is just one of AZT’s core businesses. The other is loss prevention. The center advises companies on technical loss prevention measures and conducts research for AGCS and third parties which is presented at conferences or published in white papers. “The best loss is the one that doesn’t happen,” says Dr. Stoiber.
Research in renewable energies
In its prevention work, AZT focuses on the fast-growing world of renewable energies such as geothermal energy, wind power and photovoltaics. For example, AZT has developed standards for automatic condition monitoring systems for wind generator units that have contributed decisively to their industry-wide application. The monitoring systems detect initial signs of overstress or material fatigue in the gear box or bearings of wind turbines. As a result, the affected parts can be replaced in time to prevent an actual loss.
The example of wind farms applies to other technologies as well. “We’re frequently faced with prototypical technologies where we lack any case history,” Dr. Stoiber explains. “Just as an industry continues to advance, so do we.”