Empowering the Workforce to Control the Future of Automation

  • January 19, 2017
  • Schneider Electric
  • Feature
Empowering the Workforce to Control the Future of Automation
Empowering the Workforce to Control the Future of Automation

By Peter Martin, VP, Marketing & Innovation, Schneider Electric Process Automation

Stagnancy breeds inefficiency. It’s a motto that rings true in many sectors, but none more so than in automation and manufacturing. Technological advancements, such as the Internet of Things, big data and cloud computing, are transforming everything within the industrial operation, from cybersecurity to supply chain.

Connected products are expected to approach 30 billion by 2020, with utilities, telecommunications and manufacturing as the top three verticals using IoT. The trend has even spawned its own manufacturing subset—the Industrial Internet of Things—that is revolutionizing process automation and manufacturing in general. The revolution is that finally companies have the real opportunity to move from managing their business to actually controlling it.

But seizing that opportunity means companies can’t remain stagnant. A priority needs to be placed on empowering their workforce to make smarter, faster, more efficient real-time business decisions. Why? Because with IIoT, an abundance of wired and wireless pressure, level, flow, temperature, vibration, acoustic, position, analytical and various other types of sensors will be installed in plants and machines, and they will be connected at the edge to the systems that control the process. These connected sensors can quickly improve process efficiency, but the actionable data they provide can also be used to begin to control other important business variables right at the asset, including safety/environmental safety, reliability and of course, operational profitability.

Empowering the Workforce

Moving from real-time process control to real-time business control has always been a critical challenge, one that seemed impossible until today.

For decades computing technology has constrained industrial automation systems architectures. These constraints have meant it was impossible to build a control system that accurately matched the topology of an industrial plant. However, as we move into the Future of Automation, process automation will no longer be constrained by technology. Because autonomous, intelligent plant assets, like pumps, for example, are now able to control, monitor and secure themselves, future industrial automation and control systems will work from the bottom up, beginning at the equipment asset level and moving upward to include unit, area, plant and enterprise assets. This means that important business variables, like safety and reliability, can be controlled automatically right at the asset level.

However, in many other cases, the asset controller doesn’t know enough about process dynamics to automatically control these other business variables, and that’s where the empowered workforce comes into play.

Over the years, many new control strategies and initiatives were based on the idea that automatic control without human involvement was the best method to eliminate costs and maximize revenue. However, most of these initiatives failed because they overlooked the positive attributes humans possess and machines do not, from judgment and adaptability to the ability to deal with the unknown.

In the plant of the future, the industrial workforce will have more opportunities to become more critically involved in the business, leveraging IIoT to begin to control more than the efficiency of the process, which was the historical goal. Soon the workforce will begin to control all those other important business variables too, including cybersecurity risk, safety/environmental risk, reliability risk and, most importantly, profitability.

That means empowering the workforce to make real-time decisions that improve business results needs to be a critical component of any control strategy. In today’s fast-paced industrial environments, real-time decisions typically need to be made quickly with limited information. Therefore, making the best real-time decisions does not necessarily require more data; rather it might actually require less data but more high-level content and context, i.e., the right data. With easy-to-use tools and easily understood information, received in a format that is easily actionable, the enterprise workforce can easily make better, more effective business and operating decisions at the right time.

For example, one major operating challenge is the ability to more quickly identify and address abnormal situations before they impact operations. Many industrial human machine interface (HMI) designs are now obsolete as a result of recent trends in the industry, like larger, more complex control systems, greater volumes of data, increased levels of automation, staffing proficiency and expanded use of remote operations. Today’s HMIs need to be designed on “situational awareness,” a methodology that allows the overwhelmed and sometimes undertrained industrial workforce to perform their jobs with fewer errors.

Updated object templates; consistent and standardized styles, colors and fonts; and consistency in the way alarms are represented across the operation transform the operators’ relationship with their HMIs and maximizes their performance. New HMIs move from simply presenting data to displaying operations information in the correct context. Enhancing situational awareness can lead to a five-fold improvement in detecting abnormal situations before they occur. And then, after an abnormal situation has been detected, better navigation techniques can cut the time it takes to respond and resolve it by more than forty percent. In addition to reducing economic losses related to unscheduled downtime, proper HMI designs based on situational awareness concepts can also help improve safety, throughput and overall plant and business performance.

Connected predictive maintenance and decision-support platforms also empower the workforce to reduce operating costs, improve organizational effectiveness and increase throughput and productivity. Consider that the average unscheduled shutdown or slowdown costs process plants 6.2 days of production annually. The financial impact of such an incident can range anywhere from $1,500 per hour to $1 million per day for some refineries or petrochemical plants. But by providing actionable, early insight into asset performance and abnormal operating conditions across the plant, advanced predictive maintenance tools uniquely enable plant personnel to make smarter business and operating decisions and then act on them from anywhere before an incident even occurs. These tools can pay for themselves within three months of implementation because of their ability to help the workforce slash unscheduled downtime.

Another advancement that empowers the workforce are new Ethernet-equipped process controllers. Developed for IIoT, these new process automation controllers (ePACs) have more processing power and memory, stronger embedded cybersecurity and even redundancy and common I/O and programming platforms. With more connectivity and power, they provide better visibility into the operations and help drive better business decision making. ePACs are proven to reduce time to market by up to twenty-five percent, reduce process energy consumption by up to thirty percent and significantly speed and increase ROI.

Employers should also consider providing access to an intuitive, “smart logbook” application available on web browsers and smartphones that helps organize records, follow up on predictive and preventative maintenance, access log histories, create reports, view energy data and integrate remote alarming from equipment. On the same note, businesses can consider working with their seasoned employees to digitize their records, including old manuals and processes, to keep everything organized and accessible to any employee from any location. Additionally, creating a mentoring program where seasoned professionals pair with newer ones already familiar with emerging technology toolkits can help engender a new-age workforce.

Acquiring, Training and Empowering New Talent

We all know the workforce is aging. For example, some experts claim that fifty percent of all refinery staff will retire in the next five to seven years. These sorts of trends mean that the millennial generation—the digital natives—will soon make up the majority of the workforce. Crossing the gap from an average workforce age of 50+ to a new guard of 20-somethings who have vastly less experience and very different working practices will require digital tools, not only to capture the knowledge of the retiring workforce, but to make that knowledge available to the new generation in a way that supports their preference for digital work practices.

Additionally, while traditional process control knowledge and experience will almost always be valuable, in the future, that knowledge will be a base on which newer technologies and tools will be layered. Because there is a shortage of workers who have the requisite technical skills to work in manufacturing, hiring managers should look for candidates who have other skills that go beyond what is needed to perform traditional industrial tasks. Data science, artificial intelligence and energy management—all non-traditional manufacturing skills—will be relevant and important.

Most entry-level prospects, college graduates and other inexperienced candidates don’t think manufacturing is an exciting field. Yet manufacturing globally, particularly in the United States, is growing, and it will absolutely remain a vital source of innovation and competitiveness, making outsized contributions to research and development, exports and productivity growth.

There is a greater opportunity for companies to empower these younger and new workers with emerging technology so they can be more actively involved in and responsible for business success. For example, they can provide employees with augmented reality capabilities on their work tablets, generating digital overlays of equipment so they can more easily access and diagnose issues and reroute them to plant operators who determine the next best action for solving the problem. They can also enable employees to conveniently tag equipment with specific QR codes and scan them with their smartphone to access past control logs, user guides, wiring diagrams and other resources for each specific piece of equipment. They can even incorporate geolocation, which allows users to take photos of equipment and tag its location in the plant, making it much easier to find when it’s time for maintenance or repair, for example. Things like virtual reality training simulators and access to easy online support should also be considered. 

With the advent of IIoT, the industrial landscape is changing almost daily, despite challenges and barriers to adoption. But even with all the benefits this level of connectivity provides, almost every industrial operation is performing suboptimally when it comes to the potential business value it can generate. Empowering the workforce to control cybersecurity risk, reliability risk, safety risk and profitability in real time will change that trend. By providing the right technology and deploying the right recruiting, training and retention tactics, companies can finally stop managing their business and actually control it. An empowered workforce can help convert their connected products and existing automation and control systems into industrial profit engines that will drive measureable operational profitability improvements (OPI), safely. This is the Future of Automation.  

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