Digitalisation: Where are we now?

20 October 2020

Suzanne Gill looks at the effect of the current global pandemic on the manufacturing digitalisation journey.

The impact of the global pandemic on the speed of digital transformation is still not yet quantifiable and it is difficult to estimate the timelines that will be needed for companies to either integrate digitalisation projects or enhance existing business optimisation strategies to take account of what is an ever-changing industrial landscape. 

However, Mike Britchfield, vice president of sales EMEA at Analog Devices, points out that Covid-19 has brought the need for digital transformation into much sharper focus, and there is already an increased understanding of why the digital mindset is a minimal requirement. He said: “Covid-19 has made business leaders aware that both existing and ongoing digitalisation projects should be a priority, and what was deemed to be ‘digital first’ is now arguably ‘digital only’. A transition to smart manufacturing through next-generation technology – such as industrial robotics, advanced connectivity, condition-based monitoring and other associated digital technologies – is a regular talking point with our customers.”

Brichfield goes on to point out that it is likely that the effects of the pandemic have already cleared the pathway to industry’s digital transformation. “Companies that acknowledge and accept that digitalisation and data-driven processes are the way to succeed and grow will be the winners in the post-pandemic society. Time will tell how the industrial sector adapts to enforced changes, such as social distancing in factories, and the companies that make themselves both flexible and more digitally resilient will be better equipped to deal with any future disruptions.

“The increased adoption of remote working demonstrates the need for a faster communications structure. Going forward, those organisations that do not have access to digital business optimization tools are likely to struggle as they seek to optimise their operations and meet growing customer expectations,” he said.

Necessary acceleration
Jason Urso, vice president and chief technology officer at Honeywell Process Solutions, also believes that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation initiatives – out of necessity. He said: “The onset of the current challenging climate had customers asking some very fundamental questions to foster the health and safety of their employees while also maintaining business continuity.”

Typical questions asked of Honeywell by its manufacturing end-user customers have included:

• How can we operate safely with fewer people on site in order to comply with government and HSE requirements?
• How can we continue to move forward with capital projects without having people travel to project locations?
• How can we service our equipment to ensure it continues to operate without requiring staff to visit the site?

According to Urso, the answer to these questions is to make more extensive use of technology including remote project; remote operations and remote service capability, intelligent wearables and predictive diagnostics.

“The present demanding scenario has created an environment where new digital technologies are necessary to maintain business continuity and safety,” he continued. “In doing so, it is demonstrating that new digital technologies can be employed with efficiency advantages when we move beyond these challenging times. We work in a conservative industry, with good reason given the safety implications of issues in process plants, so change often comes at a very measured pace. With the rapid adoption of new technology during this period, we are also accelerating benefits that might not have been realised for many years.”

Ultimately, Urso believes that digitalisation needs to focus on delivering new value for customers – helping them improve throughput and quality; improving uptime and utilisation; and improving efficiency as well as safety. There are a myriad of technologies that can play an important role in these areas.

Offering examples Urso cites:
• Remote project execution: Utilising technology to engineer, test and deliver a project remotely by harnessing digital representations of the plant equipment, process and automation system.

• Remote operations: Allowing operations to be monitored and even controlled from remote locations with an elevated degree of cybersecurity.

• Remote service: Applying proactive analytics to identify fault conditions that can lead to unplanned downtime; Preparing to address an equipment issue by providing immersive training in a virtual reality environment: and flawlessly carrying out the operation using intelligent wearables supported by remote experts.

What’s it about?
Looking more closely at the issues relating to digital transformation, Shahin Meah, senior director, digital transformation and lifecycle services, Europe at Emerson, said: “Digital transformation is about automating manual tasks, enabling access to information, using analytics to drive decision-making and upskilling workforces. However, it is not just about installing new technology such Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions. True digital transformation happens when real change is effected within an organisation. This is sparked by rethinking and optimising processes and by empowering personnel with the knowledge and tools to do their jobs more effectively from potentially anywhere. When this happens, companies can achieve measurable performance improvements in areas such as production optimisation, reliability, safety and sustainability.” 

Digital technologies have been deployed for some time to enable remote monitoring of equipment and processes in dangerous and remote environments. While no one expected that they would be needed to help cope with the effects of a healthcare crisis, these tools have enabled tasks to be completed remotely to keep essential facilities operational, while also protecting workers. “Companies have been forced to adopt newer, better and more productive methods, including remote and virtual technology tools. These same tools are now helping keep employees socially distanced from each other although, that may not have been their initial intention. Having rethought how tasks can be completed and implemented, there will be no turning back,” said Meah.

“The implementation of easy-to-install wireless sensors has removed the need to send workers into the field to gather data or inspect equipment, exposing them to dangerous situations. A good example of this is advanced wireless corrosion sensors that continuously monitor for pipework metal loss from corrosion or erosion, eliminating manual rounds with hand-held instruments. As well improving worker safety, data from these sensors can power more sophisticated analytics that improves decision-making and ultimately profitability. Data can even be securely monitored by experts remotely with a connected service, allowing for complete outsourcing.” 

“Digital transformation is also helping to better coordinate resources required to respond to problems within a processing plant,” continued Meah. “Process upsets or equipment malfunctions require multiple disciplines to determine implications for health, safety and the environment, impact on production, availability of spare parts and skilled personnel and work permits. Digital collaboration tools, capitalising on new sensor data and technologies like augmented reality, enable collaboration to occur literally anywhere. At the start of the pandemic with worldwide lockdowns, the ability to continue supporting customers remotely could not have been more important and in some cases even critical to continuing safe operations.”

Digital twins
Meah highlighted the role of digital twins in helping connect experts with operations, regardless of location and enable a range of virtual interactions that reduce need for site visits. “With automation system configurations specific to the end user hosted in the cloud, engineers from anywhere in the world can perform programming and configuration work, and engineers and manufacturers can test the final system together from wherever is convenient. Digital twins also allow operators to train on a completely virtual process. The layout of the facility can be modelled using a 3D virtual reality simulation, eliminating travel to the actual facility to train on field procedures. In addition, real time analytics and machine learning application can enhance the digital twin application to provide valuable insights enabling our customers to make critical decisions that lead to improved business performance and profitability.” 

New solutions
With the outcome of the pandemic still uncertain it should come as no surprise that industry is looking to technology for new solutions. Keith Tilley, CEO, Intoware, believes that for this reason digital has come of age. He said: “Process industries are increasingly looking to drive digitalisation, but face their own challenges. They can very rarely or never turn their operations off! They need to meet production targets, reduce costs and improve quality. In addition to this, they are required to meet rigorous safety regulations. Digital data can help enable operations, maintenance and plant workers to more quickly and easily take corrective action to avoid any downtime and help streamline operations.”

However, Tilley points out that, despite digitalisation becoming the ‘new normal’ in some industries, process manufacturing still lags behind, as many rely instead on out of date production processes based on old, or no longer fully understood knowledge. He said: “Typically, data is recorded but scattered in silos, which makes it difficult to access and pass freely between systems preventing the possibility of better, collaborative working. This means that if a change in material specification is needed, then it is difficult to implement, preventing the plant from being fully optimised.”

The challenge faced by manufacturers is a reliance on spreadsheets, word documents or even paper to complete tasks as this fails to offer the granularity that can be gained by digitising operations. “Imagine being able to see how long each task really takes; taking photos or videos to record information in real-time; accessing a process by scanning a barcode or calling for live-help if things need attention – all through a mobile device or headset. Then being able to keep that process up to date simply, knowing that all those who use it are working to the new process,” said Tilley.

Offering an example Tilley cites Bayer Pharmaceuticals which is deploying Intoware WorkfloPlus workflow automation platform with HMT-1 headsets to streamline production changeovers.

Because regular cleaning and changeovers between each batch is required, WorkfloPlus allows this procedure to be taken in a constant and timely manner, to help minimise any unnecessary downtime for greater cost efficiency, while at the same time it provides a thorough audit check that a manual ‘tick-list’ could never deliver.

Ultimately, it would appear that the integration of digital transformation and associated strategies is not a matter of if, but of when. There is agreement that the current pandemic has simply increased the rate of digital transformation within the industry and the adoption of digital mindset. As such, the organisations that continue to acknowledge and accept digitalisation will be the ones that emerge as winners in a post-covid world.

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