1660316803182 Willmanagementinvestinfurtherdigitalizationhero

Does management have the conviction to invest in further digitalization?

Jan. 14, 2022
Of buggy whips and Betamax

This holiday season, a media-less portable stereo (a.k.a. “boombox”) found its way under our Christmas tree. But, as it turns out, transferring one’s vast collection of optical media (CDs) to the cloud, so they can be played on the boombox is too ponderous and its utilities are too slow, labor-intensive and poorly supported to be practical.

With more youthful music lovers leading the accelerating changeover to streaming services, one could surmise the old battles over formats and standards for delivering consumer music and video have been rendered irrelevant. With ubiquitous and inexpensive online bandwidth, the talent once devoted to physical media and local storage technologies has moved on. The media for delivering content is immaterial as providers at all levels pursue clicks and premium subscription services.

In the realm of process control applications, our culture tilts away from chasing the latest fad. Most of us have witnessed or experienced the trough of disillusionment, when a foray into the latest tech failed to meet expectations. We’ve had our share of battles over communication standards that didn’t become widely accepted. And today, with Ethernet-APL dawning over a distant horizon, it will conceivably render our standards wars as relevant as VHS versus Betamax.

Fieldbus wars, lack of standardization and weak systems-level support created confusion and stress for digital communications standards explorers, sending most back to their equivalent of optical media, i.e., 4-20 mA. There’s hope that Ethernet-APL, OPC UA, and “NexGen” specifications will address the known pain points, and facilitate the digitalization of previously hidden, siloed or otherwise inaccessible data. But is there a pent-up demand for such integration?

Industry slogs along and often seems indifferent to visions of Industry 4.0. Our management doesn’t even care to look at rudimentary process data, let alone add staff to interpret more. Just dollars matter—a focus on the bottom line means exploration and experimentation is muted. And those who remain don’t have time for it.

It remains to be seen if this revelation of data is something in which we can convince management to invest capital. Consumer electronics and their content providers administer a dopamine-releasing fix for their end users, whose appetite for stress relief, affirmation, a laugh, or just freedom from ennui is unrelenting. The digitalization of manufacturing has no comparable pull; it’s more like prospecting. The expression “data mining” is especially relevant, as we risk extracting an ore that may not be as precious as promised—if our prospects yield anything. Even in the realm of consumer entertainment, capital gravitates to known commodities, as proven franchises are recultivated to spawn multiple roman-numeral sequels and prequels.

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the initial experiments with digital control passed from a novel science project to the first-generation distributed control system (DCS), something plant managers felt was a must have. It was relatively easy to get DCS projects approved, as many felt they'd be left behind if they didn’t invest. A big part of the return-on-investment was the possibility of reduced head count, as centralized control meant leaner operating staff.

Pandemic-induced challenges have renewed this perspective and perhaps provide a lever for digitalization. But how many more sensors, cameras, monitors and bandwidth will give management the comfort to operate a refinery from afar? Who wants to live within the blast radius of an ammonia plant that has no humans on site? If our process assets are meant to just churn along robotically with few human eyes, ears or intuition to assess their well-being, they may not be welcomed by the communities that surround them.

That we have the technology for a vastly improved infrastructure for data delivery is welcome, but along with it must be content—or the faith in that content—that it will deliver distinctive safety, reliability and efficiency. New music from the cloud won’t reach many ears if no one has time to listen.

[sidebar id=1]

About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

Sponsored Recommendations

Measurement instrumentation for improving hydrogen storage and transport

Hydrogen provides a decarbonization opportunity. Learn more about maximizing the potential of hydrogen.

Get Hands-On Training in Emerson's Interactive Plant Environment

Enhance the training experience and increase retention by training hands-on in Emerson's Interactive Plant Environment. Build skills here so you have them where and when it matters...

Learn About: Micro Motion™ 4700 Config I/O Coriolis Transmitter

An Advanced Transmitter that Expands Connectivity

Learn about: Micro Motion G-Series Coriolis Flow and Density Meters

The Micro Motion G-Series is designed to help you access the benefits of Coriolis technology even when available space is limited.