Interesting challenges lie ahead

16 October 2013

After over 40 years in industrial automation, more than 20 years at Yokogawa and over 10 years as president for Yokogawa Europe & Africa, Harry Hauptmeijer has decided it is now time to hand over his responsibilities to his successors. He ponders the changes he has seen over the years and highlights some of the challenges to come.

For many years, my motto has been ‘Challenge the existing to achieve the best’, coupled with the management philosophy ‘Direct, support and give freedom under guidance’. These maxims have stood Yokogawa in good stead as we have emphasised the importance of corporate ethics and built up our reputation in areas such as corporate social responsibility and a code of conduct which puts quality and safety first and seeks to balance pure business rationale and local interests by thinking globally and acting locally.

Our industry is now experiencing a number of key changes and trends that present significant challenges for the future. The oil and gas sector, for example, is facing challenges from the impact of shale gas exploration on global manufacturing; exploration is moving to distant and hazardous areas, and there are changes in the ownership landscape in areas such as the North Sea. Other industries are being affected by changing sources of energy and environmental considerations such as water management, the need for flexibility and waste reduction in manufacturing and new developments in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors. And common to all industry sectors are the trends towards increased globalisation and standardisation.

As the nature of the business is changing, so are the demands placed on management. Here we are seeing a move from a hierarchical structure and an emphasis on charismatic leadership to an approach based on reflecting, supporting and coaching. The selection of leaders will key to the future as problems become more complex, and various views will be necessary to achieve the best results and to raise skill and competence levels throughout a company.

Changing roles
The relationship of the automation supplier to the customer is also changing. Automation companies are changing their role from that a product supplier to a solutions provider. This involves a shift of value-chain activities and a subtle re-positioning between the EPC Engineering, Procurement & Construction (EPC) contractor and the Main Automation Contractor (MAC) activities of the supplier, with more emphasis on application consultancy, partnerships, and closer involvement with key customers as business and technology drivers. The result will be that automation suppliers will grow into ‘mini-EPCs’, providing application and optimisation expertise and services to offer a total life-cycle approach as well as technical leadership.

Today’s process automation systems are seeing an increased emphasis on uniformity and standardisation. Remote working is becoming a key element of the industry, and safety is now seen as the highest priority, with great effort being put into alarm management systems. The next generation of systems will see developments in operator support, procedural automation and advanced graphics, along with higher system autonomy.

As far as the technology is concerned, we have seen huge progress since the introduction of microprocessors and personal computing – from toggle switches, paper tape, punch cards, kilobytes and telex we have moved to PCs, Microsoft, gigabytes, remote installation, unmanned operations, iPad, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter etc. Software and communications have evolved from proprietary systems to UNIX to MicroSoft and Internet to iCloud. Good old 20 mA and Modbus are now supplemented with fieldbus and wireless – although Modbus is still maintaining its position and developing!

The future will see more and more advanced and cheaper technology, leading to a broader application of high-quality products – in SMEs for example – and more modular and standard designs. We have yet to see the full influence of miniaturisation and nanotechnology, and it is certain that there will be new developments in areas such as sensing technology, energy conversion and energy harvesting.

We will also see major developments in what can broadly be termed ‘maintenance’ – embracing the areas of repair, prevention and prediction, and integrated diagnostics – alongside advances in monitoring mechanical equipment for parameters such as vibration and corrosion.

Big data
Huge (and exponentially growing) amounts of data will become available for data mining and statistical analysis as an aid to business management and operational improvements. Customers will increasingly realise the value of this information and how to use it to gain a competitive edge.

To handle these vast quantities of data will require high-speed communication technologies – fibre optics, G4, internet IPV6, and wireless. This communications infrastructure will provide the framework for stronger distributed control and a secure environment to guard against security problems. Will we have our industry’s iCloud, and how will this affect cyber security?

Finally, the expansion of ubiquitous technologies will impact on the way in which we interact with process automation systems. Developments in graphics and ergonomics, including virtual reality and augmented reality, will make systems easier to understand and to operate, but how will 3D manufacturing influence our industry? And what will the effect be of on-line simulations, OTS, MPDS, and the increased autonomy of systems? Where are the limits and where are the future opportunities of integration?

We must never overlook the importance of training and education in this environment too: can schools and universities respond to these challenges by producing the new generation of engineers and business leaders equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills? Most importantly, how will the leading automation vendors play their part in helping to educate and train their end-users?

Interesting times lie ahead...

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