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COVID-19 impacts process users, industries

April 1, 2020
ISA leaders and ARC experts examine effects and responses to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on process automation and control

Along with its toll on human life, healthcare systems and staffs, and every other aspect of daily life, the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is already causing similar impacts on process automation and control and the many industries and professionals they serve.

Countless local and national governments, companies and organizations of every kind have released statements reassuring customers and constituents of their capabilities, support and resolve to persevere despite COVID-19 and the temporary shutdowns it's triggering worldwide. Many process applications such as power generation/distribution, water/wastewater, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and others have been designated as essential and are allowed to keep operating, while most mainstream businesses and services have been ordered to close to comply with social distancing, shelter-in-place, self-quarantines and other efforts to restrict human interactions and group sizes, and limit the spread of the disease.

"From the perspective of the International Society of Automation, I believe it's too soon to fully assess implications and impact from our clients and customers," says Eric Cosman, ISA president for 2020, principal consultant at OIT Concepts, and co-chair of the ISA99 committee on IACS Cybersecurity. "However, I think it's reasonable to expect we'll see some impact on some of our business in areas such as training as companies place their focus on more pressing matters. Hopefully, this will recover quickly after the immediate crisis passes.

"Based on what I've seen and read, it's clear many companies and industries are rapidly adjusting to new circumstances. For example, several small distillers in our area near Austin, Texas, have suspended normal production in favor of making alcohol-based hand sanitizer. In the process industries, I've seen reports of major suppliers also adjusting their product mix to accommodate shifts in demand."

Infected market trends

While these unprecedented events are forcing many businesses to shrink or close, resulting in widespread unemployment and the need for financial relief, they're also generating numerous questions about how soon and how severely other industries including process applications will be affected. Unfortunately, many of these queries are proving difficult to answer quickly.

"The calls we're getting so far indicate demand for pulp and paper, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, packaging, and other consumer goods is up, but this demand could rapidly change to other products once the present surge is over," says Craig Resnick, vice president and automation consulting team member at ARC Advisory Group. "In either case, greater manufacturing and supply chain flexibility is needed when sales of certain items go way up unexpectedly, just as it is when they plummet again as demand shifts to other items."  

Larry O'Brien, ARC's vice president for research, adds the oil and gas industry was already facing slackening demand due to $25-per-barrel oil caused by Saudi Arabia and Russia's price squabbles, but reduced travel due to COVID-19 is likely going to push it down even further. "Many producers are running out of places to store and transport their oil and gas," says O'Brien. "Demand will go up later, but this scaling back of capacity is a lot like the conditions before the 2008 recession, even though the causes are different.

"We've already revised our models downward because markets are likely to be 10-20% off due to COVID-19. The numbers are obviously going to be bad for 2020's second quarter, and the third quarter could be off, too. If the virus abates, there might be a boomerang upward in July and August, with increased activity, spending, celebrations and everyone trying to make up for lost time, but this would create its own challenges for process and other industries."

With so many more users working at home, O'Brien adds that COVID-19 is also increasing cybersecurity vulnerabilities and risks because home networks are often not as secure at those at work. For applications that can't be managed from offsite, he reports that some users are reportedly setting physical barriers in formerly crowded control rooms by moving control functions to peripheral offices at their facilities, or making greater use of laptops and tablet PCs. 

"Phishing and other forms of Internet fraud are expected to spike because users are more distracted by recent events and more vulnerable," he says. "So it's more important than ever for them to practice good cybersecurity hygiene."

System integration

Just like everyone else trying to cope with COVID-19, system integrators and their clients are also trying to handle its direct and indirect effects.     

"I work for a specialized engineering firm that supports critical process industries, and we're remaining busy," says Paul Gruhn, P.E., ISA president for 2019 and global functional safety consultant at aeSolutions, a consulting, engineering and CSIA-member system integrator in Greenville, S.C. "The majority of our 150 people are in three different cities and are working from home, so we're able to support our clients remotely. We've also restricted non-essential travel, tripled our VPN bandwidth, and developed documentation on how to facilitate and conduct remote meetings. Much of our work involves facilitating team meetings, such as process and cyber-hazard analyses, safety integrity level (SIL) selection, and alarm rationalization. Face-to-face team meetings have essentially ceased, but we're still able to facilitate these meetings remotely, and have developed written policies on how to do it."

Digital transformation cure

Resnick and O'Brien report the COVID-19 crisis is also spurring implementation of digital transformation and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) projects, which can give users more of the flexibility, staff access, centralized functions and remote working capabilities they need to maintain operational productivity despite the facility shutdowns and self-quarantining required to blunt the spread of the virus.

"Everyone is reporting they were blindsided by COVID-19, but this probably isn't the last pandemic, just like climate change disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes aren't going away," says Resnick. "Even if capital and operating expenditures are curtailed for now, this pandemic is putting industrial end users into planning and education mode. They'll come out on the other side determined to make sure their ability to operate their businesses aren't impeded again, and end up using the remote collaboration, monitoring and control and other forms of digital transformation technologies they're either planning or implementing now."

Where traditional distribution of food, beverage, pharmaceuticals and other products used to mean building up large shipments from manufacturers, storing them in warehouses, and breaking them down for retailers, O'Brien adds that digital transformation is moving towards Amazon-style delivery straight from manufacturers to consumers, including businesses and industries. "This is changing products and packaging because they don't need to go through warehouses or stores," explains O'Brien. "Now, we're shifting our supply chain flow because of the pandemic, but digital transformation will allow it to rapidly pivot to where it's needed, and be more flexible and resilient in the future."