We live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The current pandemic crisis reflects that. In this time, with the lockdown, many of the plants, factories and infrastructure are operating at reduced capacity, performing at suboptimal level. Increased use of automation and digital technologies can help them perform better.
The Industry 4.0 concept, with process and manufacturing automation, is enabling collaborative flexible manufacturing, real-time optimisation of plant & factory assets and operations. Whether the production is running thinly or in overloaded conditions, resources and assets need to operate efficiently. Such plants, factories and assets can be monitored remotely by connecting to the automation system securely. Supply chain automation and workforce can be integrated with production in real-time with digitalisation to deliver products and services to end-users efficiently.
Integrated command and control centre of smart cities help authorities to manage and deliver citizen services better. In the crisis, it provides emergency response effectively by real-time monitoring and mitigation actions.
In this time of social distancing, collaborative robots can work with human workers in the critical production facilities, reducing human contacts and spread of disease. Diver robots can get into tanks filled with unsafe fluid to inspect, clean or repair. Crawler robots can get inside machines unreachable by human beings, in order to reduce downtime of the assets. Drones can carry out aerial monitoring of plants with hazardous processes and substances, infected areas, agriculture fields, etc.
What’s more, with limited physical access to assets and plants, employees can use Augmented Reality (AR) applications to connect physical data with the virtual world of information to assess health of the asset and its design and maintenance history, to take corrective actions. While completely away from the physical world of plants, factories and infrastructure, new generation of workforce can be trained with Virtual Reality (VR) applications.
While most people have to work remotely, machines closer to the process can be adapted with AI and ML to monitor the processes, KPIs in real-time to analyse, predict and operate the assets and systems in most optimum way. Human experts can augment the learning and intelligence of the machines through remote monitoring and operation.
In these highly connected systems with automation, IoT and digitalisation, cyber security needs more attention than ever. Threat modelling-based defence-in-dept security design of sensors, actuators, controllers, communication and network minimises security vulnerability of the OT system. In addition, continuous monitoring and analytics of security indicators will help detect, prevent and respond to security incidents in the operation.
Automation and digital technologies, together with human and machine intelligence, can take the utilities, plants, factories and infrastructure towards the journey of autonomous operation. It will help manage the VUCA world better, making it more predictable, actionable and sustainable. As human beings, we need to learn, unlearn and relearn with the technologies and their applications, faster than ever.