Two-thirds of process firms expect autonomous operations: Yokogawa survey

Oct. 22, 2020

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of process industry companies expect fully autonomous operations by 2030, and the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate their investment in industrial autonomy and decision-making, according to a new global survey of end-users released by Yokogawa Electric Corp. on Sept 16.

Conducted for Yokogawa by research company Omdia, "Global end-user survey on the outlook for industrial autonomy" gathered responses from 504 decision-makers in process industry companies between June and July 2020. Its results provide an in-depth view of future trends in automation and autonomy, business priorities, and technologies being deployed in key process industries including oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petrochemicals, and power generation. A webpage with highlights is at

Beyond moving to fully autonomous operations, 89% of respondents add their companies plan to increase autonomy in their operations, while 64% are conducting or are piloting semi-autonomous or autonomous operations, and 67% expect significant automation of most decision-making processes in plant operations by 2023. Meanwhile, cybersecurity (51%), cloud, analytics, and big data (47%) and artificial intelligence (42%) are three key areas respondents plan to invest in during the next three years, which will let them make better control decisions.

The survey also found that, while COVID-19 has put the brakes on economic growth in 2020, it will be a catalyst for medium- to long-term growth of industrial autonomy because a higher priority is now being placed on the ability to continue running operations without workers needing to be present. In fact, most respondents are expecting to increase their investment in autonomous operations as a direct result of COVID-19. The respondents were also asked to rank the top four applications they're investing in due to COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, remote operations (36%) and remote servicing (30%) were two that have become high priorities.

However, the survey also uncovered significant differences across industries in post-COVID-19 investment priorities. For example, compared with other industries, conventional power generation and chemical/petrochemical participants focus more on investments in worker safety.

Likewise, Yokogawa's survey revealed regional differences in investment in new technologies and the push to industrial autonomy. Relative to other regions, Asia-Pacific is the most engaged in the shift to industrial autonomy. The survey found that the proportion of companies in Asia-Pacific that are prioritizing investment in autonomous systems for operations is 18% to 27% higher than other regions. This is a key statistic, and shows funding moving into autonomous operations in the region. Seventy-one percent of respondents in Asia-Pacific felt they'd would attain fully autonomous operations in 10 years, compared with just 58% in North America and 56% in Western Europe.

"From this research study, we confirmed our perception that the shift from industrial automation to industrial autonomy, which we call IA2IA, will gain momentum over the next decade," says Tsuyoshi Abe, senior vice president and head of marketing at Yokogawa. "As COVID-19 will accelerate this trend, and companies' interest in introducing related technologies continues to be strong, Yokogawa can support customers in strengthening their competitiveness step by step based on our roadmap to autonomous operations."

Duncan Micklem, EVP of strategy and marketing at  Yokogawa Corp. of America, adds: "A large portion of the available enterprise digital transformation value lies in production and manufacturing areas. Digital transformation applied to these areas is what Yokogawa calls 'Smart Manufacturing.' To achieve end-user smart manufacturing goals, Yokogawa believes autonomous operations is the destination. IA2IA is what Yokogawa foresees as the transition from industrial automation to industrial autonomy.

"The most important key takeaway from this survey is the rapid ramp up in expectations, for what we as an industry, define as Level 5, fully autonomous operations," Micklem continues. "Only 1% of respondents anticipate they'll see this in 2020, but this figure rises to 19% for 2023 and 64% for 2030. This trend is common across all industries. In addition, only 7% responded that they had no plans to shift from industrial automation to industrial autonomy such as IA2IA. Energy and chemicals industries may be towards the bottom of the global industry digital maturity rankings, but they carry the greatest complexity and risk. This survey demonstrates that, despite being behind other industries, there's no shortage of desire. It’s just that it takes some figuring out on how to do this safely. Yokogawa’s expansive portfolio of state-of-the-art manufacturing, engineering and service solutions addresses current demands of clients’ operations, while its innovate-forward philosophy anticipates and solves for tomorrow’s challenges."