The Future Horizon Plant

Feb. 12, 2009
More Perceptive Visions Are Neeed to Best Utilize Productivity Tools Commercially Available Now
By Renzo Dallimonti

A call for vision

The automation technology that already exists today is sufficient to improve plant productivity in the process industries for the next decade.  The most pressing need, now, is not more scientific breakthroughs, but more perceptive visions of how best to utilize the productivity tools already commercially available.

The power of modern control and information technology is woefully unexploited in the majority of process plants throughout the world.  Couple this observation with the certainty that automation capabilities can only become more powerful, and you have the case from an urgent need to bring more visionary planning to the automation of process plants.

Stating vision premises

“The productivity of process plants will be significantly improved over the next 10 years through “audacious” use of automation and information technology…..most of which is already commercially available.”

The Horizon Vision

The Horizon Vision is the vision that resolves beyond the linear extrapolation of the Pragmatic Vision.  It seems to create a non-linearity in the evolution of plant productivity.

The essence of its driving principle can be stated as follows:

In the next decade, automation technology will permit the process operations part of a plant to run totally under automatic control from start-up to shut-down.  No essential human presence will be required to perform the moment-to-moment production operations that convert raw materials to finished goods.

The implications of such a goal are vast.  The entire infrastructure of a “Horizon Plant” would undergo major reconfiguration.  In the extreme, the complete multi-shift operating staff of supervisors, foreman and various level plant operators would become drastically altered—even eliminated.  The role of humans in such a plant would evolve upward toward heavier “knowledge” work in the following major categories:

  • Production Control and scheduling
  • Process Performance optimization
  • Maintenance of Automation
  • Automation Technology Management
  • Training
  • Overall Plant Administration

Technology for Horizon Plant

On what technologies and products would the Horizon Plant depend?  Obviously it would be safest to say almost all you can think of.  But it is more constructive to identify the pivotal ones up front.  In rough, priority order one would list:

  • Sensors and actuators
  • Communication networks
  • Process modeling
  • Advanced Control Concepts
  • Artificial Intelligence (knowledge systems)
  • Ergonomics


The term Ergonomics is used to cover a broad area of issues involving the relationship between humans and machines (automation).  In the thrust for total automation, it will be crucial to appreciate the division of tasks between humans and machines.  It seems highly probable that automation will increasingly remove the human from the “muscle” jobs of process operation.  The thrust will be to push people more and more toward “knowledge roles.”  It’s a certainty, for example, that a “Horizon Plant” will be filled with more powerful and highly specialized CRT work stations.  Every role in the plant will have a station tailed to support its domain expertise.

Managing change

While the menu of scientific technologies to be managed seems formidable, the list probably becomes insignificant compared to the final issue to be faced…..the management of changes in the human organizations.  Automation, computers, and general technological progress are commonly viewed with apprehension by the majority of working population.  Yet, it seems unavoidable in an increasingly competitive world economy that technology will continue to be a key factor in achieving competitive advantage.  This inevitably results in changes to old ways of doing things.  Even if automation did not cause a threat of lost jobs, its disruption of traditional roles and practices if traumatic for an organization in transition.  The management of changes, therefore, will probably be the factor that paces the rate at which visions will be implemented.  Most leading corporations recognize this dimension of the challenge!  But, are they addressing it within the framework of a unifying “Vision” bold enough to keep the business competitive in the long run?