Asset Management

Process automation for the Millennial generation

Improved training methodologies and technology itself can narrow the skills gap, attract younger workers.

By Keith Larson

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The process industries face a demographic workforce gulf in part of our own making. “And we have only two levers available to address it,” said Vimal Kapur, president of Honeywell Process Solutions, in this morning’s Honeywell Users Group Americas keynote session in San Antonio.

First, industry has to adopt and apply the newer tech tools and digital workflows that younger workers use in their personal lives and have come to expect at work. Second, industry has to find a way to get new workers competent and productive more quickly, so they can operate the process industries’ critical and often hazardous production assets safely and efficiently in the years to come. Technology plays a role in this push as well. “Technology adoption and skills building are the only two ways forward,” Kapur said. “We’ll have to adapt more quickly and make a case for it.”

Millennials rising

Millennials, currently aged 18 to 34, constitute 40% of the overall workforce today – a number that will rise to 70% by 2025. But they’re under-represented in the process industries in general, and in process automation in particular, according to Bruce Calder, Honeywell vice president and chief technology officer. “In part we’re to blame because we’re slow to adopt new technology,” he said.

Workers of the Millenial generation operate differently than their elders. “They’re technology-infused in every aspect of their lives,” said Calder. They expect state-of-the-art technology and access to technology they like to use. They interface differently and often feel held back by rigid, outdated work styles. They prefer to communicate electronically at work rather than face-to-face or over phone. And they’re also “loyalty-lite,” typically spending only two years in any given job.

That last statistic is particularly problematic, said Kapur, since it now takes some two years of experience and training for the typical process operator or technician to become competent. “Some see cyber security as our biggest challenge going forward, but cyber security is just a technical problem – we’ve solved others and we’ll solve that one too. Our biggest challenge is skills: change and disruption are only accelerating and the ability to absorb new technology will be critical.”

A lower threshold

Applied technology itself will make it easier for workers to become productive more quickly, Kapur said, offering as evidence the company’s Movilizer cloud platform, which connects and orchestrates field operations. “It digitizes workflows and has demonstrated a 25% increase in uptime for utility customers as well as a 33% increase in machine uptime for manufacturing customers,” Kapur said.

Further, Honeywell envisions a future in which its “mobility first” initiative for the next generation of workers will result in faster, easier and more productive operations involving all types of field devices, said Rohan McAdam, chief architect, Honeywell. For example, the company’s MasterLink app for managing electronic volume correctors via smartphones and Bluetooth communications already is “changing the way field technicians work” with these gas measurement devices, McAdam said.

Another trend that will become more widespread is the use of mobile augmented reality apps to streamline field operations, such as demonstrated at HUG this week for the company’s new ControlEdge programmable logic controller (PLC). These sorts of apps, which project contextually relevant instructions onto a smartphone or tablet video view of a physical object, already have demonstrated 25% cost savings on installation and 60% cost savings on maintenance, Calder said.

New to the company’s Pulse mobility application are a number of changes that make the app better “fit individual users,” McAdam said. These include the ability to set personal limits on process variables or key performance indicators (KPIs) as well as personal watchlists. “It’s extending the value of automation systems and applications, extending insights to the palm of your hand,” McAdam said.

Indeed, Honeywell is working to responsibly incorporate mobility in all relevant aspects of plant operations. For example, if a field operator sees a process leak, she should be able to take a video with her smartphone and send it to her supervisor via SMS to get guidance quickly. “It should work much the same way tech works in our personal lives,” McAdam said.

Adaptive learning needed

Back on the training front, mechanisms have to be found to bring workers up to competent levels in six months – not two years, Kapur said. Part of the solution is improved training tools such as the Honeywell UniSim Competency Suite, which leverages cloud technology and gaming approaches to bring personnel up to speed much more quickly, while making the tools themselves much easier to maintain.

Kapur labelled this new, six-months-to-productive training paradigm “adaptive learning,” adding that while “digitization provides a way, the path does not yet exist,” Kapur said. “Clearly, a more sophisticated competency development process is needed.”