Digitalization, IIoT and the cloud can help, but they won't do our essential tasks for us

Digitalization isn't a magic bullet or savior for every process application

By Jim Montague

I've probably mentioned it before, but there's a point in my research and reporting for most stories when some trends start to solidify like Jell-O. Some are described outright, but others come across as unstated attitudes and undercurrents to the initial topic. I try not to focus on them much because we non-fiction publications have to stick with what we know—the facts and perspectives as they're presented by sources. However, after the same feeling is expressed by several different sources, who are typically unaware of each other and answering different questions in separate interviews, I start paying closer attention.

This time, the story was this issue's "The argument for proactive process safety" cover story. As usual, I asked a few dozen individuals and organizations if they could talk, and I interviewed about a dozen system integrators, suppliers and other experts about process safety. They provided great input about process safety experiences, best practices and advice. However, when we began to talk about new software and other safety tools, I noticed there was an almost palpable air of relief as many sources described how the major forms of digitalization, including Ethernet, Internet, cloud computing, virtualization and the Industrial Internet of Things, could help improve process safety.

So where did this release of tension blow in from? I had to let my brain chew on this question for awhile because relief wasn't what I expected from this topic anytime soon.

 

This is because process safety, at least in the U.S., has been stalled for many years. The evidence for this is hilariously non-prescriptive regulations and lighter-than-air penalties; underfunded and undermanned investigation and enforcement; zero political will to draft tougher process safety laws; and the logical result—a ceaseless parade of accidents, injuries and fatalities. Ho hum. Old news, and definitely not the inspiration for reduced worry.

Again, why the relief? Well, at least it's the appearance of forward motion—like moving 20 feet in a traffic jam before you're at a standstill again. A puff of breeze before the heat wave bakes you some more.

In addition, most if not all of the stories we've covered in the past couple of years mention digitalization, IIoT and the cloud in one form or another. Simplified networking via ubiquitous Ethernet and increasingly prevalent Internet-protocol (IP) have removed many former industrial network barriers, and will continue to facilitate sending data from plant-floors to business-levels. I think gains in this area sometimes make users and supporters giddy, and believe that digitalization can surpass itself and impact devices and systems that it clearly can't affect.

I remember some IT folks used to talk about software, smart phones or even early graphing calculators in these terms. I'm still waiting for an iPhone that will spit out a hot Egg McMuffin.   

However, digitalization isn't a magic bullet or savior for every process application. It's just a shorter avenue. It can't make uncalibrated sensors or instruments accurate on the process side, and it can't make disorganized or faulty enterprise software sufficient on the business side. Users must still know their applications inside out, and be intimately aware of the data they need to make their operations and businesses succeed. Digitalization is a fine toolset, but the hammer or even the 3D printer isn't going to design and build the house.

So, the apparent relief I picked up on was just a temporary mirage. Plus, it's an illusion we've seen before—the vain hope that we can just buy a box to solve manufacturing problems, instead of investigating directly, talking regularly to coworkers, planning and following up, and doing the hard work required to make real progress. Can't I just take a pill instead of exercising and eating less? Nope.

Similarly, back when I used to cover physicians, hospitals and healthcare in the 1990s, I remember there was intense focus on the latest melodramatic and costly drugs and technologies, even though they typically only produced minimal improvements in outcomes for patients. Meanwhile, the most basic and inexpensive mental healthcare services went unfunded by insurers, even though there was accepted evidence that they could have slashed the incidence of the most common complaints, namely headaches and backaches, by double-digit percentages.

Why do we always seem to go for shiny and sexy con games over substance? Why did we fall for 401Ks over pensions? I don't know, but I do know it isn't love or money that makes the world go round. It's laziness and avoiding boredom.

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