All the latest news from the industry weekly compiled by the editorial team for you free of charge.
This eMail is already registered.
An unexpected error occured.
Please accept our Terms of Use.
Registration successful.
1 Rating

AUTOMATION & CONTROL The future-proof plant: Impact of evolving operations, technology & workforce changes

Aug 19, 2020

Industries, today, face critical challenges to process operations – operational acceleration, evolving technologies and a changing workforce. Modern automation systems offer real solutions to these challenges through new functionality that, in essence, can result in a future-proof plant. This article by Schneider Electric, a company that provides energy and automation digital solutions for efficiency & sustainability, explores these challenges and explains how process automation systems can address them. - Peter G Martin, VP, Business Innovation & Marketing, Schneider Electric

Globalisation, energy markets that change in real-time, variations in materials and prices, aging of the industrial workforce, inability to attract the next generation of talent and difficult regulatory pressures are all challenges that are faced by industrial companies. These trends contribute significantly to the high level of stress present within today’s industrial business environment.

New tools and updated automation systems help address these challenges by enabling organisations to keep pace with accelerating operational and market requirements. The benefits of evolving the business through use of these tools include enhanced productivity derived from the new technologies, attraction to the firm of qualified new employees and the ability to then support these employees with the required knowledge.

The speed challenge

Only a decade ago, basic manufacturing processes operated with what was then an acceptable production pace – within the limits and constraints of their material and energy storage boundaries. This storage capacity was viewed as a necessary aspect of production value chains, ensuring that materials and energy would be readily available when required. But, storage-based value chains also added cost to the business and removed agility from the operation.

Over time, critical business variables associated with industrial production have begun to fluctuate with more frequency. For example, today the price that an industrial firm pays for electricity might change every 15 minutes. This increase in speed has also impacted the frequency in variation of the production value and material costs of an operation. Now the speed of business is so fast that industrial operations must be able to respond to market changes in real-time. Unfortunately, the energy and materials storage points in the storage-based value chains of a decade ago are becoming the limiting factor in these operations.

A number of industrial businesses are working to change their process designs by improving their agility. Automation systems must be designed from inception to be extremely agile, adapting to process changes quickly and easily. As these process changes are implemented, object-based industrial Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) can help industrial companies to adopt flexibly, therefore future-proofing the operation while maintaining the operational integrity of the plant.

As the speed of business continues to accelerate, many traditional functions that industrial operations have performed in transactional business systems will require execution in real-time. Therefore, business functions, such as real-time performance measures, real-time activity-based accounting and profitable safety and asset performance management will need to operate in a real-time system.

The technology challenge

As well as helping companies meet business challenges by future-proofing their operations, modern process automation systems also future-proof their technology. Control room components, such as operator consoles and engineering tools have much shorter lifecycles than process-connected components, such as transmitters and control software. Process manufacturers need the flexibility to upgrade all components to meet emerging business requirements, without having to upgrade everything at once.

To accomplish this goal, the most effective automation systems embody a ‘continuously current’ approach, which allows a plant to evolve to the latest state-of-the-art technology while preserving existing hardware, software and applications. Industrial businesses can therefore, protect their engineering investments, and in many cases, use emerging technology to drive more value from their automation solutions.

From an architectural perspective, three key features of such an automation system are:

  1. Providing a distributed software architecture that operates in standard operating system environments, such as UNIX and Windows NT.

  2. Utilising industry standards where available.

  3. Building a distributed object-based communication infrastructure.

In recent years, the concept of continuously current technology has been taken to a new level by extending the basic system design to become an SOA. Incorporated into the process automation system, the SOA design is based on a two-layer set of services that wraps around Microsoft’s Windows NT kernel and utilises open web technologies.

The first layer consists of operating system services that extend Windows NT for highly distributed and secure industrial usage. These services include distributed object management, common name space, inter-process communications and security services, among others. Adding these extended operating system services to the Windows NT kernel means that users experience the full benefit of the Windows NT system services as well as of the industrial context provided by these extensions.

The second layer provides a set of application services that are common across all industrial systems. These services include common human machine interfacing, historical data management and a real-time workflow engine.

This application layer of services is based on the desire among industrial companies to have common approaches across their systems to simplify system design, implementation and operation, as well as to offer operational insight and encourage collaboration across their operations.

The people challenge

An aging workforce is also an important issue (see figure below). This will impact industrial companies in three ways. First, critical expertise and experience will be displaced from the workforce. Second, new, younger workers must be readied to replace the talent that is leaving. Third, industrial companies will need to develop plant environments that attract younger talent. Automation technology can help future-proof industrial operations within each of these three areas in a number of ways.

Properly designed automation software can help capture the intellectual property of both engineers and operators before they depart. On the engineering side, applying an advanced object infrastructure and taking full advantage of the technology-independent characteristics of modern applications can enable these applications to migrate forward easily on new technology platforms, effectively preserving their design intelligence over time.

Software workflow engines at the system platform layer allow intellectual property originating with engineering, operator and maintenance veterans to be embedded into the system environment. These assets can be accessed on demand. Thus, these workflows can offer to new hires operational insights from more experienced contributors who may actually have left the organisation. Highly complex and error-prone operations, such as plant and unit start-up and shutdown can be directed down optimal operational paths. Also, operators and maintenance workers can be guided through unexpected and perhaps unsafe events via intellectual property embedded in automatically triggered workflows.

A properly designed automation system can also address bringing new and younger employees up to an acceptable level of effectiveness in the shortest time possible, so that they can replace retiring personnel. Tightly coupled, first-principle-based operator training simulators used in conjunction with contextualised virtual reality training systems can help new operators achieve certification levels in less than half the time of traditional methods.

Experience demonstrates that operators can become proficient in short order on the day-to-day, repeatable functions they are expected to perform. The challenge has been to train for infrequent and unexpected events. Now these can be programmed into simulation and virtual reality software, enabling operators to practice responding to these events in a repetitive manner and getting them to proficiency very quickly. But reaching proficiency is only the first step. Once operators reach certification levels, they must continue to build on their performance. The advanced automation answer is to embed lifetime training capability into the online environment through performance feedback mechanisms and performance prediction software. Since people learn by feedback control, providing these capabilities within the operational insight environment drives them to even higher levels of performance than that of their predecessors.

In the final component of the people challenge, potential employees from the X, Y and millennial generations may not be attracted to industrial careers because they view them as ‘old and dirty’. But the industrial environment can be made more appealing by system features, such as visualisation software that can run on a traditional CRT console, a display wall or a smartphone and that can be adapted to operate in new human interfacing technologies as they are introduced. Coupling such user-friendly, high-technology environments, with advanced learning environments based on a deeper understanding of how people learn, could be a major attractor of new talent into the operation.

Capability to address objectives

Future-proofing automation technology is only one of the issues industrial companies face as they move forward. Many critical challenges and changes that are expected to impact industrial operations will require similar efforts.

Automation system technologies cannot address every aspect of future-proofing industrial plants, but they can help in three critical areas: protecting the operational integrity of plants, enhancing the operational insight of people and enabling plants to adapt easily and affordably to change. Companies that deploy object-based industrial SOA will gain significant capabilities for addressing all of those objectives.

Image Gallery

  • On average, today’s most experienced workers will retire at an average rate of 10,000 per day in the USA alone

  • Peter G Martin

    VP - Business Innovation & Marketing

    Schneider Electric

Companies related to this article
Related articles