The mother of innovation: The need to change during a pandemic

July 9, 2020
Pandemic needs to inspire new solutions destined to long outlive COVID-19

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, it’s pretty good at spurring innovation, too. And, if the past several months have reminded us of anything, it’s that new needs can emerge overnight, transforming our customers’ “nice-to-haves” into “gotta-haves,” and creating business opportunity for those prepared to respond quickly.

At stake for process automation solution providers is helping to meet the challenge at hand on behalf of their customers—or perhaps allowing a foot in the door to a more nimble competitor. (Not to mention replacing lost revenue and inactivity due to the many capital projects now on the back burner.)

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic—and the travel and workplace restrictions imposed to combat it—have brought a rare sense of urgency to the relatively conservative process automation arena. It’s accelerating the uptake of existing offerings designed to facilitate secure remote asset access and collaboration. It also has solution providers reprioritizing their development pipelines to speed such offerings to market. Others are repackaging current offerings to better fit the changed priorities and collapsed time-frames of scrambling end-users, as still others bring to market new solutions that for the first time combine existing technologies in innovative ways. One need look no further than the pages of this issue of Control to see firsthand all these forms of innovation on display.

Endress+Hauser, for example, was in early testing of its new Visual Support service when the pandemic hit. The offer essentially consists of a “see what I see” mobile-device app through which users have access to E+H subject matter experts. Offered for free during the early days of the pandemic, the company announced ahead-of-schedule commercialization of the popular offering in June (p. 12).

Honeywell Process Solutions, which has long supported remote operations for industries such as oil & gas and mining, introduced a prepackaged version of the company’s proven remote operations capabilities as Experion Augmented Remote Operations, or ARO (p. 20). The solution dramatically streamlines deployment, testing and certification of remote access points for control or monitoring from months to mere days. “People across many other industries are realizing its post-crisis applicability—the tremendous flexibility that it offers,” says Jason Urso, vice president and CTO.

Existing solutions extended

At Emerson, augmented reality (AR) provides an interactive front-end to the company’s Plantweb Optics asset performance platform (p. 22). Well suited to plants that may have fewer skilled workers, limited onsite personnel and/or few experts of their own, the tool provides plant-floor situational awareness, displaying key IIoT data (such as instrument health status) in context, as well as live collaboration with remote subject matter experts. What differentiates it from other AR platforms? “The data behind it,” explains Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer. “It’s an integrated solution, not just another tool.”

And at Siemens, two technologies that until early this year would have seemed relatively unrelated are the company’s Simatic Real Time Locating System (RLTS) and Tecnomatix design and simulation software. But by integrating RLTS with a digital twin of the actual manufacturing environment, companies can now optimize workflows and employee movements with proper social distancing as a constraint (p. 20). Further, they can continuously measure distances between workers, provide real-time visual feedback to employees regarding their spacing from others, and create a log of all movements and interactions over time. “The combination will help companies maintain safe work environments today and make educated decisions about ongoing and long-term optimization,” says Tony Hemmelgarn, president and CEO, Siemens Digital Industries Software.

Clearly, the pandemic has both narrowed the focus and intensified the pace of innovation. But take a closer look at these new offerings, and I think you'll agree they address our longer term needs, too.

About the author: Keith Larson
About the Author

Keith Larson | Group Publisher

Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media's Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.