I recently drove from Houston, Texas, to Pittsburgh, Pa., a two-day journey that gave me a lot of time to think. As I focused my eyes on the highway ahead with a dog riding shotgun (asleep, of course) and my wife working on a laptop, I wondered how nice it might be if I had a self-driving car and could kick up my heels to watch movies instead of driving. But nice thoughts sometime turn sour when you also have the time to ponder potential consequences.
I wondered if I’m ready to put the safety of my family in the hands of an autopilot on the road. There’s certainly comfort in knowing I have the wheel and am alert to potential hazards ahead or negligent drivers all around. There’s still a lot to be said for a human touch, especially when it comes to safety and security.
Things on the interstate aren’t that much different than industrial processes. Someone, or something, needs to be alert to dangers ahead, but are humans better at it than software? I’ll let you, the operators and process engineers, make those judgements. After all, you’re closer to the action and more experienced. However, I do know that the human touch may not be feasible, or even available, as we go further down the industrial highway.
I recently met with Chris Stogner, safety and critical control leader at Schneider Electric, for an episode of our Control Amplified podcast, and we talked about the barriers to software adoption for process safety. One of those is the same trust factor that hinders my desire to put my faith in software to steer my car across half the country. What’s not proven-in-use becomes hard to fathom as a practical solution. While I know what my hands on the wheel can do, I’ve yet to experience automated driving. While plant technicians know their safety checks will yield certain results, they’ve not yet experienced in putting their plant’s operations almost entirely in the hands of software.
Here’s where the lack of human touch may soon force their hands. It’s well-documented in Control and other media outlets that the industrial workforce is shrinking. As many veterans retire, interest in filling these positions by younger generations has waned, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean the process industries will simply wither and go away. Take, for example, this nugget from Stogner, “The population of the world is still growing. New plants are coming online, existing plants are expanding, and the industrial workforce is shrinking as more people retire than enter it.”
So, who fills the void? Artificial intelligence (AI) and other intelligent process control systems, that’s who, or in this case, that’s what. While that’s a scary notion today, this won’t be the case tomorrow. It will simply be a necessity.
The good news is that, as much as we want to always have our hands on the wheel, current and emerging process safety software is becoming increasingly intuitive. Adoption of such software won’t replace humans. It will, as Stoger and I discussed, simply augment human productivity. In short, just as automation on my car could make my long-distance drive a bit safer, while still allowing me the control to make decisions for my and my family’s safety, software-based safety systems will make plant operators more productive, and let them provide the world with better and safer energy, water, chemicals, food, medicines and more.