The Close-Up of Remote Solutions

In 2014, Assystem’s engineers in Sunderland, UK, were tasked with developing the world’s largest remote handling system for the ITER fusion project in southern France. The brief was to develop a piece of equipment which had never before existed. Our engineering team knew that this was a frontier that could not be crossed alone; a unique project of this scale and importance would require collaboration and diverse thought from all over the world.

The Divertor Remote Handling System (DRHS) is an essential tool for maintaining the ITER reactor. As the largest fusion prototype ever developed, it is a harsh radiated environment requiring regular maintenance. The only safe way of entering the reactor after it has begun deuterium-tritium operations in 2035 is with a robot.

The challenge for the project team, therefore, was to create a tool that could securely enter the reactor to remove and replace parts on regular basis through its lifetime. The solution would have to be both agile and robust. Without doubt, this was a mammoth undertaking. But it was also an opportunity to work at the cutting-edge of nuclear technology – and who doesn’t want to build a giant robot?!

Importance of team spirit

Assystem set about building a diverse team, not only of individuals, but also with international partners (SMD, Wälischmiller, Axon Cables, RACE, VTT and TUNI) who could contribute a wide range of expertise, and experience across disciplines, geographies, cultures and genders. The result was a core project team of experts from more than five countries, including Spain, France, Italy, Finland, Germany and the UK.

Uniting the team was a shared commitment to a single vision: fusion as a revolutionary source of energy generation. Successful production of large-scale fusion has been elusive for decades, but at ITER this is likely to happen within our lifetimes. The DRHS forms a crucial part of this larger ambition, and the knowledge of its impact was the most significant element in driving towards success and inspiring collaboration.

By bringing together a diverse pool of talent, we were able to build this ground-breaking machinery: two large movers which can carry approximately 10 tonne components. The DRHS will enter the reactor vessel during maintenance shutdown periods to remove, repair and replace the 54 Divertor Cassettes (large load-bearing steel structures, approximately 3m x 2.3m x 0.8m each) which are located at the bottom of the Tokamak (device which uses a powerful magnetic field to confine hot plasma in the shape of a torus.)

Innovative thinking to solve challenging problems

The movers can operate in small spaces and are equipped with manipulator arms which precisely lock and unlock the cassettes and cut and weld pipes. The range and variety of what this machinery can do is unprecedented in the industry and will set the standard for the future of fusion.

Creating equipment this complex was no mean feat and required innovative thinking to solve challenging problems. While technical approaches were broadly consistent, there were differences in ways of working and processes which had to be accommodated by all participants on the project. The UK team, for example, learned that their approach was heavily process-led and were encouraged to work more flexibly by adopting alternative and more efficient approaches employed by their project colleagues which may not have otherwise been considered.  

From the outset of the project, communication was the key priority. The team regularly worked together over Skype and also scheduled face-to-face meetings once a month, hosted on rotation by the different organisations and stakeholders involved in the DRHS. This gave the team a vital chance to build a rapport, learn about each other’s skillsets, and cultivate a working environment where ideas could be openly discussed and critiqued even when working remotely.

Working remotely and with multiple nationalities also quickly showed up the importance of articulating ideas clearly and precisely.  No more relying on implied details! While this meant it sometimes took more time to deliver a piece of work, it also had the effect of raising the quality and ultimately worked to the strength of the project – and taught us all a lesson about patience!

The DRHS is the type of project that only comes along once in a while, but it highlights the advantages to be gained from embracing diversity. Large-scale collaboration certainly presents challenges, but it is also a rewarding and fulfilling opportunity to absorb new ideas, learn from peers and listen to new perspectives. Getting to work on first-of-its-kind technology such as the DRHS as well is the icing on the cake.

Working remotely and with multiple nationalities also quickly showed up the importance of articulating ideas clearly and precisely. No more relying on implied details!