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DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION Long road to travel, but where to go?

Mar 5, 2021

Ramani Iyer, District Vice-President (2017-2018), Asia Pacific District 14, International Society of Automation (ISA) - Digital transformation of manufacturing is being enabled by fleets of robots made ever smarter through combination of Industry 4.0/IIoT

Digitalisation has radically turned the world topsy-turvy, not just technology but the living world itself. And it’s moving at a pace beyond rational comprehension. The ubiquitous world of brick & mortar instrumentation and automation and the ebullient worlds of communication and IT have merged. It is as if a body’s head and heart have coalesced together to help the stomach work better than before. It is a mind-blowing phenomenon, which has not only shrunk the world but pushed the human imagination to its frontiers.

The earlier world of instrumentation & automation was straddled by a few technology giants who possessed the exclusive knowledge of tweaking technologies for their benefit. But a dozen itinerant technology disrupters upset the apple cart & market and simply exploded, making the technology giants obsolete. There are new companies born every day. With new materials and hitherto unexploited fundamentals of chemistry & physics, every new development in sensor technology spawned a whole generation of smart and sub-miniature sensors. A fine example of these devices’ use is in automobiles and urban transportation, which have changed lives & living. Adding self-driven cars, uberisation of city travel and driverless trains brought about a new wave of change. The three km long freight trains with two locomotives are leading to ‘freight-alone railway corridors’. As a result, farm and factory produce can be delivered from Chandigarh to Mumbai in just 15 hours.

Production technologies in drugs & pharmaceuticals (vaccines included), fast-moving consumer goods in today’s competitive business environment and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are increasingly being used to transport materials within warehouses and manufacturing facilities. The digital transformation of manufacturing, automated assembly, logistics and more is being enabled by fleets of robots made ever smarter through a combination of Industry 4.0/IIoT, including AI, Fieper or Field Operator Robot – yet other operations assistive robot. It is a full-fledged field operator, with functions like gauge detection, flare/smoke/leakage detection, autonomous locomotion, etc. A humanoid robot, Fieper, can perform all tasks/operations that a field operator does, including attending to leaks in a plant and working in toxic atmospheres.

IT’s role in the world of business/finance and communication does not call for any special reference. Management of modern corporations, be it in finance, supply chain management or distribution, depends entirely on IT. A fine example being Amazon and its ilk. IT has the same pervasive backbone role in public governance, like Aadhaar, Income Tax administration, urban water distribution and public health care. Also, the part it has played in vaccine distribution logistics is well-documented. In IT, Robotics Process Automation (RPA) has revolutionised data management by automating routine tasks, freeing operators to focus on more creative tasks.

Now to come to the flip side of this technology beast, it can create havoc in lives. For example, a vicious hacker entered the control system of a water treatment plant in Florida, a US city of 15,000. Using a remote access program shared with the plant operators, the hacker increased the Sodium Hydroxide (lye) from the stipulated 100 ppm to 11,100 ppm. If left undetected, it would have wrought havoc with the health of citizens. Breaching cybersecurity is a left-hand sleight of hackers to collapse any brick and mortar or ICT system.

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