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Industrial digital transformation: Taking control, making an impact

Feb. 7, 2023
Schneider Electric's Michael Martinez explains how a digital transformation can contribute to a company’s profitability and sustainability.

Heavy process industries are on a digital transformation journey. In fact, 60% of companies see this as having a major impact in their business over the next couple of years. So, how can companies manage an impact that will span processes, products, and people, while still supporting their bottom line of profitability and sustainability?

To find out, Control caught up with Michael Martinez, global distributed control systems leader for Schneider Electric's Process Automation business.

Q: What do you hear most often from clients about the status of their control and automation systems?

A: There are really two types of end users that we talk to today, those who are building new facilities, which are referred to as greenfield, who are interested in the latest most advanced technologies and then those who have been in operations for some time, which are referred to as brownfield, who are interested in sustaining their operations and getting the most out of their facilities. There is a subset of those brownfield end users who are expanding their facilities and one of their primary concerns is making sure that the new systems are compatible and/or interoperable with the existing automation infrastructure.

Of all these end users, the largest percentage are brownfield and from them, what we hear is that the automation systems that they currently have implemented are either aging, insufficient or unsupportable. In fact, in a digital transformation report recently released by Omdia, over 60% of those surveyed suggested that their current automation systems were either incapable or only partially capable of achieving the business outcomes that their companies were after. That's not to say that their systems are not capable of operating the facility today but that new initiatives like sustainability, energy management, ESG, asset management, AI/ML and other programs are putting new requirements on the automation systems. Now, not all customers are at the same stage in their digital transformation journey and not all of them are implementing the same initiatives, but with over 60% concerned about their current capabilities, it’s time we take a look at their current systems and reimagine automation in a way that meets these new requirements.

Q: You’ve said that customers are at different stages of a digital transformation journey – what is holding them back from change?

A: I’ll start by noting that 94% of the respondents in the Omdia report perceive digital transformation as having an impact on their business in the next two to three years. This means that regardless of where they are starting, they believe that changes in technology are coming soon, and those changes will be impactful. So, what’s holding these changes back? Not surprisingly, at the top of the list is implementation cost and supplier selections.

 Implementation cost is not only the cost of new technology, but the opportunity cost of outages, start up and training required to get the benefits out of the investment; and supplier selection is critical based on today’s paradigm of proprietary systems. Selecting a supplier has consequences for decades and the challenge of picking an automation platform and potentially dealing with change often leaves end users in a difficult decision cycle that doesn’t get resolved until the existing system is obsolete, unsupportable or, worst case--just stops working. There are other concerns, like cybersecurity and the people aspects of change, but cost and deciding who to partner with on this automation journey are still the biggest challenges.

Q: So, I have to ask, why do anything? By addressing customers’ immediate needs and fixing what’s broken, why encourage them to do more and disrupt their current business models?

A: There are a significant and growing number of trends that are driving us to reconsider and reimagine automation. Workforce skills and availability, technology obsolescence, supply tensions, performance and quality demands, increasing regulation, and more are pushing existing systems and the current proprietary model to and beyond its capacity. For those end users who expect to grow their businesses, it’s critical to examine their automation systems today and understand if these systems are limiting their ability to achieve the business outcomes they are after or if they enable the flexibility, adaptability and capability to leverage innovative new technologies in a timely way that meets not only today’s requirements, but those of the future as well. Groups like OPAF and NAMUR have been envisioning a future of open automation systems for a while now, but today organizations like and technologies like Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Automation Expert are making this vision a reality. 

By decoupling hardware and software, today’s open systems, like those being developed by Schneider Electric, are capable of providing a software-centric automation experience that eliminates the need to replace a system simply because of obsolescence. Because it’s software-centric this gives us an entirely new way of thinking about architectures and incorporating the right hardware, in the right location for the specific application. Everything from running control at the edge in a similar architecture as today, to running in local micro data centers or even the cloud; and when hardware needs to be replaced, simply replace it with something as good or better than, redeploy the software and continue running. Back to the previous question, the reason cost to change can be high is because often it is necessary to spend a significant amount to simply replace an existing system with a new system that does exactly the same thing because of all of the cost to recreate the existing process application in the new configuration tools. Additionally, the reason supplier selection can be so difficult is because making that decision locks you into a proprietary system and puts the end user at the mercy of the selected supplier’s technology roadmap and supply chain. The open systems, being developed and released today, address both of these concerns with the added benefits of empowering end users to deal with the trends that are driving the need to change in the first place.

Q: With the launchpad that digitalization is setting for the industry today, are there any examples you can share that demonstrate this future of automation?

A: There are several. Just last June 2022 at the ARC Forum, ExxonMobil hosted a presentation called  “Open Process Automation-Reimagining Industrial Control Systems” where they described their OPAF testbed and plans for field trials leveraging the and Schneider Electric software-centric solutions. Another ARC Forum presentation by Gr3n, highlighted their use of the same technologies to share their vision for “distributed automation through IEC61499 in plastics chemical recycling industry” in a demo plant where they have identified several opportunities to leverage these technologies for modularity and market scale-up. We have other energy end users who are currently completing Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) and are ready to deploy an EAE based solution in their facilities.  We are in discussions with pulp and paper end users who are reimaging automation and architectures in a way that allow them to accelerate and leverage the convergence of IT and OT both from a technology and resource perspective. We are also working with desalination end users to develop innovative solutions, using EAE, to address some of their top challenges. It really is an exciting time in automation. Ironically, it’s taking advancements in technology to enable us to move from a technology first discussion to a process first discussion allowing us to partner with end users to be the best at what they do, support the achievement of their business ambitions and reducing the need for them to be constrained by that same technology.

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