Megatrends Driving Industrial Autonomy Across Industries

Megatrends Driving Industrial Autonomy Across Industries

December 22, 2020

Yokogawa Functional Director and Senior Vice President Dr Darius Ngo discusses how APAC is ahead of the curve when it comes to industrial autonomy.

By Dr Darius Ngo

Across every industrial sector, dynamic and intuitive machines are changing how businesses operate. This is the world of industrial autonomy, a key part of what ultimately fuels the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0.

But what exactly is industrial autonomy? Industrial autonomy goes beyond basic automation to empower plants to run, learn, adapt and thrive in tomorrow’s environment, which allows humans to shift to high-value-added activities.

The transition from “industrial automation to industrial autonomy” (otherwise known as IA2IA) is already underway, but it won’t happen overnight. As industries evolve, autonomy will begin to permeate process plants in multiple functional domains, including process operations, planning and scheduling, engineering, field operations, maintenance, and engineering.

Yokogawa recently revealed the results of a global end-user survey on the outlook for industrial autonomy, which provides an in-depth view of future trends in automation and autonomy, business priorities, and technologies being deployed in key process industries including oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petrochemicals, and power generation.

Interestingly, the survey found that APAC companies are particularly positive about investments in industrial autonomy with 24% of those surveyed expecting significant increases in investment to 2023, as a wave of megatrends generate new prospects for manufacturers. These megatrends are a combination of technological leaps and upheavals in global society and the environment that will reshape economies and businesses.

COVID-19 is promoting longer term investment in applications that support industrial autonomy

It is clear that there will be no return to “normal” in the wake of COVID-19. Although the industry was already heading towards autonomous operations, COVID-19 has drastically shifted perspectives on how quickly an autonomous future will become a reality.

Most importantly, the pandemic has changed thinking on what qualifies as safe operations. A higher priority is now being placed on the ability to continue running operations without workers needing to be present.

Understandably, automation is the trend that raises the most anxiety for the workforce, especially as a threat that could eliminate manufacturing jobs. However, the ability to conduct work without the need for workers to be present in a hazardous environment provides significant safety benefits, where primarily, people are removed from harm’s way.

Our industry is about safety first. Another upside is that productivity will increase with automation, to fuel further company growth and, in turn, create new jobs and product lines. More critical is for companies to re-invest in workers’ capacity and in retraining, to give workers time for more higher-value tasks such as problem-solving, finding solutions and developing new ideas.

Companies have therefore begun investigating, piloting, and expanding industrial autonomy in their operations. Fortunately, much of the necessary technology and data for the move to autonomous operations already exists.

Processors with low levels of automation are investing in automation to allow for safe social distancing, and this comes even as processors that are already highly automated take their next steps by investing in connectivity tools to enable remote operations and collaboration from a distance.

Whether these are small or large applications, the result is an unprecedented wave of industrial autonomy, which is providing the manufacturing industry with the capabilities necessary to both withstand the pressures of the current crisis and thrive in the post-COVID future. We expect that this IA2IA shift will gain further momentum as the economic situation improves over time.

As companies move to fully autonomous operations by 2030, they will invest in technologies that aid decision-making

It is imperative that we recognise that current conditions and future uncertainty require us to invest in ways in which we can introduce more autonomy into the mechanics required for the making of essential goods and breakthrough discoveries.

As manufacturers race to redefine processes and build new systems that operate remotely to keep their workers safe and healthy while maintaining output and operational efficiency, they are looking at cutting-edge, breakthrough technologies that are making unmanned and industrial autonomy a reality.

Yokogawa’s survey revealed that cyber security (51%), cloud, analytics, and big data (47%), and artificial intelligence (42%) are three key areas in which companies are planning significant investment over the next three years.  Many of the technologies required are now readily available and equally importantly in a cost-effective way, in 2021.

For example, leveraging the latest AI algorithms that learn and adapt ultimately allows some of the decisions to be made autonomously or with minimal human intervention. Yokogawa also has a partnership with ExRobotics that allows offshore and onshore oil and gas production facilities as well as large refineries and chemical plants to minimise inspections by humans, which are often conducted in remote locations with harsh environments. These technologies will enable organisations to make better decisions across a greater span of control.

Not to forget the less glamorous technologies, which have been around for some time, and, are fundamental building blocks along the path to autonomy. These include process simulators (operationalised with real-time data), APC, modular procedure automation, and more. The information from our plants and assets can be disseminated to workers through KPI dashboards, advanced graphical displays, and mobile devices. To do this properly requires a strong automation foundation within a secure environment utilizing smart sensors and devices and IIOT. This is where the less glamorous building blocks are vital.

Respondents in Yokogawa’s survey were also asked to rank the top four applications in which they were directing investment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, remote operations and remote servicing came out as two of the key applications for which priorities have increased, with a respective 36% and 30% of global participants selecting them.

Social distancing guidelines have forced an immediate realisation of the need for autonomous solutions that allow workers to operate remotely. For certain companies, social distancing guidelines require most processes, including maintenance, service, and general operations to be performed remotely or with minimal human intervention.

Yokogawa’s survey also revealed that a majority of many manufacturing companies have intentions to increase their investments in autonomous operations in the next three years, and around two-thirds of respondents indicated that they expect to achieve fully autonomous operations within the next 10 years. There is no doubt that these manufacturers are looking to expand remote operations, cyber security capabilities, remote servicing, and resource planning due to what COVID-19 has shown us.

There are significant differences across regions and industries in post-COVID-19 investment priorities

In most regions and manufacturing sectors, widespread use of fully autonomous systems seemed like a breakthrough still far out in the distant future, and Yokogawa’s survey revealed regional and industry differences in the push to industrial autonomy.

Relative to other regions, APAC is the most engaged in the shift to industrial autonomy. APAC is putting a lot more investment into industrial autonomy and is embracing new digital technologies, with 88% of companies in APAC planning to increase the level of autonomy in their operations. The proportion of companies in APAC that are prioritising investment in autonomous systems for operations is also 18% to 27% higher than other regions. This is a key statistic and shows that funding is being directed into autonomous operations in the region.

It is not just the investment that matters but also the level of autonomy that companies anticipate. 71% of APAC companies feel that they would attain fully autonomous operations in 10 years’ time, compared with just 58% in North America and 56% in Western Europe. APAC is not only further ahead on the road to industrial autonomy but is putting the investment in place to stay ahead.

Yokogawa’s research also found that autonomous operations are progressing faster in industries such as oil and gas (midstream, upstream), refining, chemicals, and petrochemicals, where modeling and simulation techniques are more advanced.

Over 85% of companies in upstream/midstream/refining are expected to make moderate to significant investments in the cloud, analytics and big data. Particularly true for highly complex, remote, and hazardous facilities, oil and gas companies are pursuing remote operations strategies for both onshore and offshore assets. This may be because it is easy to introduce systems at such facilities, where the need for unmanned operations is high.

However, beyond investments to have better systems and supply-chain insights, the real path towards realising the promise of industrial autonomy is about a mindset and commitment to operational excellence across all aspects of the business.

An operational excellence mindset is required to hasten the IA2IA shift because it requires a holistic approach that addresses all challenges simultaneously. Not only does this eliminate duplicate or conflicting effort, it assures an optimum outcome.

The ultimate destination of IA2IA

While there is still a lot to learn about what fully autonomous operations will look like, it is hard to deny how quickly these systems will become our new normal. Now is the time for manufacturers to invest in expanding autonomous systems in their own companies, embracing what is soon to come.

In preparation for autonomous operations, companies should examine their current processes and practices.  Some manual field operations might need to be automated by means such as the combination of procedure automation and AI or be performed by robots. Equipment and processing capabilities might need to be bolstered with additional sensors (e.g. Sushi Sensors).

When looking beyond individual plants, we can also start to consider the autonomous interaction of data and resources between plants, which we call symbiotic autonomy – the ultimate destination of the autonomy journey according to Yokogawa’s IA2IA model.

In a world that now expects enterprises to consider their operations from the point of view of planetary sustainability, this approach can deliver multi-win outcomes for a much wider range of stakeholders. The ultimate goal of the IAI2A maturity model is to create ecosystems where people, companies, and the entire planet will benefit; as I like to say, “What’s next for our planet? Let’s make it smarter”.

(Ed. Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.)

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