Why Automation Slept

Process manufacturing has come a long way since the days of pneumatic and mechanical controls. Over the past several decades, firms have updated their equipment and operations, increasing capacity and improving quality by varying degrees. Typically, however, process plants and facilities have not been early adopters, and are reluctant to embrace state-of-the-art automation technology and methodologies. This slow-to-adopt approach has driven many of them to a critical crossroads: modernize or face inevitable decline.

As the speed of technological change increases, manufacturers can no longer afford a “head-in-the-sand” attitude toward modernization. Today’s smart connected devices are a far cry from the Gen1 iPhone introduced 10 years ago. Even the laptop you bought just two years ago is already obsolete.

As legacy systems age and supplier support for older equipment wanes, it’s increasingly difficult to keep facilities up and running. In most cases, rip and replace is not a viable approach for manufacturers struggling to get or keep their competitive edge. With Industrie 4.0 upon us and with IIoT, the cloud, mobility, open architecture and advanced data analytics swiftly driving change, legacy factories are finding it more and more challenging to stay competitive.

Add to this the impact of the impending shortage of skilled workforce in the engineering disciplines. As companies lose their long-term employees with specialized operational knowledge, they will need to attract and retain top new talent to survive. Process operations, however, tend to maintain the status quo, hoping the workforce issue will just go away or become the next generation’s problem.

Millennials and the incoming workforce relate better to companies that use the latest technologies. They expect to work with smart, open and flexible systems. They want a modern workplace they can intuitively understand, and they don’t want to deal with archaic human-machine interfaces nor with other obsolete, complicated legacy systems.

Why do process plants and facilities remain sleeping giants while technology takes quantum leaps forward?

Simply stated: risk avoidance and fear of change.

Long-term employees feel comfortable with their current systems; they understand how they work and how to troubleshoot them. The prevailing culture is to keep production going, using quick fixes to patch problems, and these fixes often go undocumented. While some users are interested in trying new technologies, many hesitate to take responsibility and the perceived risk of implementing something new.

For example, wireless technology is a game-changing innovation that industrial users have largely not adopted. Most consider wireless to be unreliable amid concerns about bandwidth, standards, integration, security and overall performance. Today, wireless connections are still not commonly used in the industrial control environment, but are widely accepted in many other applications.

How do we prevent the impending obsolescence of those plants, mills, and process facilities still operating on legacy systems?

Rather than just bolting on “technology just for the sake of technology,” process firms must now actively seek and implement the right solutions and work to overcome any internal cultural factors impeding modernization and forward progress.

For example, consider the benefits of adopting plug-and-play solutions to replace less efficient ways of accomplishing critical tasks. New data analytics solutions replace time-consuming spreadsheets used for analyzing big data. These browser-based solutions deliver better information faster and can be implemented quickly. Users can interact directly with the data and create visual representations, greatly increasing personal productivity and improving plant operations.

Look again at wireless as a quick and inexpensive way to add new points of measurement for less cost and in less time than with traditional wired solutions. These new measurement points automatically join self-configuring wireless mesh networks, sending data to control and monitoring systems that use the data to improve operations. Wireless technology can now be used for monitoring as well as for real-time control.

Even when the decision is made to improve and update operations through wireless or other new technologies, sorting through numerous supplier offerings and arriving at a fit-for-purpose solution within budget is time-consuming and can be overwhelming. Partnering with a solutions provider who has domain experience and who fully understands modern automation solutions can make the difference between the business stalling out or moving forward.

The automation solutions provider must have the knowledge base and perspective to help evaluate each unique process and recommend appropriate improvements to develop a long-term modernization plan. They should possess expertise on multiple platforms and in critical areas like migration, cybersecurity and data analytics.

The technologies and consulting expertise are available to help our sleeping giants unleash their untapped production potential. The time is now for process industries to get more competitive, stay agile and ensure their sustainability. But the clock is ticking, faster and faster…

Paul Galeski

Paul Galeski

Paul J. Galeski, PE, CAP is President and Founder of MAVERICK Technologies, LLC. Galeski is currently Vice President and General Manager, Systems and Solutions Business with Rockwell Automation.

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3 comments

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  • Disagree that there is an impending engineering shortage—saying this as a previous engineering student recruiter—but do agree that industry is seeing a difficulty in retaining employees for a long enough period for significant knowledge sharing. I don’t think this issue will be resolved by implementing the latest technologies, but instead creating cultures that put employees first (competitive benefits, valuing contributions, communicating wider impact to inspire.)

    Otherwise, great thought provoking piece.

  • Paul, great point and I have asked that question for a lot years. Personally I feel a lot of that attitude comes from the old attitude of business in manufacturing. And the varied disconnects that exists between business, engineering and manufacturing.

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