Emerging Trends in Process Automation
Published by : Industrial Automation
How emerging technologies are offering innovative solutions to the many challenges faced by process industries.
There are eight most fundamental industrial sectors of the Indian economy, also called the core industries, which include Coal, Crude oil, Natural Gas, Petroleum refinery products, Fertilizer, Cement, Steel, and Electricity generation. These eight industries comprise as much as 40.27% of the weight of the items included in the Index of Industrial Production. In terms of technology, what connects these industries is process automation. Apart from Oil & Gas, there are also other industries, most notably the Pharmaceuticals, Food & Beverages and Packaging industries that are very much high on the automaton adoption scale, whereas some others, especially the mining sector, are later entrants but now catching up in quest of better efficiencies, through the digital transformation route, riding on emerging technologies.
So what is the current status of the process industry, in general, in the digital transformation journey? “Currently, the majority of automation systems in the field is using analog technologies that were developed over a decade ago. Field devices were turned ‘smart’ over the years, but often the data they provide is not acquired by the connected systems. The digital transformation will change that as the data retrieved from the field is the basis for all digital trends. An Ethernet-based network infrastructure throughout the entire plant will be a requirement for any modern plant,” says Lennart Winkler, Member – Business Management Division for Process Industry, Beckhoff Automation.
“One of the fundamental qualifications for the digital transformation is the connectivity of devices and assets such as controllers, machines, products and even the operators along the entire value chain. Industries are building networks of seamlessly connected digital systems, and controlling and monitoring them over distributed control systems. With digital transformation, industries are improving safety, productivity and efficiency. To achieve operational performance, complete visibility and optimisation of the operations is essential,” opines G Balaji, Head, Energy Industries Division, ABB India.
“Value chain optimisation is a necessary pillar of digital transformation, and data plays a critical role to connect all dots of manufacturing processes, create full visibility across all value chain operations and endeavours. Data is the new fuel on the value chain system runs. The more we have it, the better is the analysis from the same and deliver insight to be more efficient, productive, sustainable and optimised,” asserts Meenu Singhal, Vice President, Industry Business, Schneider Electric India. “Our EcoStruxure Process Expert allows us to engineer, operate and maintain the entire plant in a single common database. It is the next generation process automation system for a digitised and energy-aware plant and is positioned at the Edge Control layer of EcoStruxure Plant,” he adds.
Can digital transformation help the Oil & Gas industry which is under pressure from alternate energy sources and low prices? “During the times when all stakeholders across the globe are rooting for Energy transition, net zero design, etc., the only way to be sustaining in the conventional energy front is by reinventing and reconfiguring so that the costs (CAPEX and OPEX) are lower and returns are more lucrative,” says Prema Suresh, Director, Mumbai Operations at TechnipFMC. “The current trends in digitalisation such as IIoT, Big Data and also emerging trends such as AI & ML, AR/VR would be the game changer for the O&G industry,” she adds.
“Fluctuations in demand and prices are seen in the oil and gas sector, companies are under pressure to limit capital expenditures. Improving plant operational efficiency by maximising existing assets therefore became more and more important. There are multiple aspects which can help the O&G segment to significantly improve the bottom line while driving safety and quality,” explains Sajiv Ravindran Nath, Managing Director, Yokogawa India Limited. “Yokogawa is partnering with oil & gas partners in this new journey of digitalisation and co-innovating with them to adapt and transform – utilising new digital technology, specifically IIoT, to save money on equipment through predictive and prescriptive maintenance approaches,” he elaborates.
Sunil Khanna, Non-Executive Chairman, Vertiv Energy Pvt Ltd, is of the opinion that while big ticket transformation efforts like creating Digital twins may not find favour with financially stressed companies, other operation improvement efforts can benefit the companies. According to him, there are some areas where digital transformation can help even in this scenario: i. Marshalling resources to a new site by real time tracking of asset availability and maintenance can help in reducing time to bring new sites into production and lower costs.
ii. In downstream operations, especially those that are customer facing, self-service portals with payments solutions, vehicle tracking systems, etc., can improve service delivery and vastly reduce cost as these are scalable and performance measurement is possible. Once these systems mature, companies can use this data to generate customer insights and develop new revenue generating models or optimise services.
“Change is hard but inevitable,” says Sureshbabu Chigurupalli, Unit Head – Plant Operations, Balasore Alloys Limited, and it is not just about oil & gas as he points out. “Traditionally the metal and mining sector is a late adopter in digital transformation. Mining companies are still very hesitant to promote digital mining transformations due to fear of high cost and new technology. The mining and metals industry has costly fixed-asset operations and machinery, whose maintenance and depreciable life can substantially impact production output, operating costs and ongoing capital expenditure. Smart sensors, extended life of the asset by predictive analytics, drones and visuals are the areas where there can be significant scope for reduction of cost by increasing the productivity and asset performance and availability,” says Sureshbabu.
What exactly are the digital trends the process industry can profit from? “That depends on which vertical market is considered,” says Lennart Winkler, as he elaborates further on this point: “If we look at a large chemical or pharmaceutical plant, there is a lot of data available in the field. Digitalisation will fetch the data and make it available throughout the plant network. Big Data analysis or algorithms based on Artificial Intelligence will help with evaluation of the data for improved diagnostics of the plant and production processes. Applications covering large distances, which may consist of multiple remote locations, will benefit from IoT connectivity as it simplifies remote monitoring and control. This will lead to a reduction in personnel cost because it reduces the number of workers required on-site,” he explains.
According to G Balaji, some of the benefits that automation delivers to oil and gas customers, accord are:
i. Alarm and safety systems to identify hazardous situations and guide in prioritising the response
ii. Capturing the information from varied sources such as test reports, shutdown reports and alarms, to ensure safe plant operation
iii. Pipeline monitoring for identifying any leak or theft
iv. Pave the way for virtual commissioning resulting in fewer on-site change, and
v. Configurable I/O reduces marshalling and hardwiring significantly, generating large time and cost savings.
“When the connected field devices and machines understand the information because they use the same communication protocol, they understand the message and respond accordingly. This coordinated interaction between devices creates autonomous state and helps the machines perform any task with minimum supervision. Using advanced methods such as industrial artificial intelligence is an area of focus for ABB towards building an autonomous future for the industries,” says Balaji.
“Latest technologies that are in use include Big data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, AR/VR/XR, Digital Twins, etc. All of these trends are poised to either enter the mainstream or – if already there – to continue to gain acceptance, says Meenu Singhal, and adds that edge computing applications, particularly high-value analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) delivered via machine learning (ML), allow data to be processed near its source. “The spike of investments targeted at this space helps demonstrate its increasing importance. This represents a shift away from a simple ‘run the operations’ mentality to use of real-time data analytics to rethink competitive fundamentals,” he explains.
For Prema Suresh, all the digital trends can be put in a gainful use. “However what is required to look into are the concern/pain areas and policies that act as hindrances in immediate implementation and harnessing the full functionality of the digital tools,” she emphasises.
Is there enough local/indigenous support for emerging technology-based products as well as customer training? “Absolutely,” says Sajiv Ravindran Nath. “Many technology solution providers have realised that tech adoption by the users requires long-term product road map, local domain expertise, customised delivery approach and sustainability of long-term benefit,” he adds, and gives the example of Yokogawa. “While having Global presence, the company has developed full scale infrastructure locally in India and in other parts of the globe, in terms of R&D, product development, engineering and customisation and long-term support infrastructure for the local users. These aspects are critical for users to be assured of protection of their investment,” he states.
Sunil Khanna is of the view that there is a need for training in all these new age technologies for successful adoption. Before a company can decide on processes to digitise, training must be imparted to decision makers, IT teams, OT teams and others. This enables the companies to choose the processes that can give them maximum benefits and then match it with the right technology. The approach must be what outcomes can a company at a given digital maturity level get by adopting digital methods. Here technology experience centres closer to the customers helps. “An outcomes-based approach rather than technical tools-based approach is needed. Here members of the solution provider must be able to assess the digital maturity level of the company and suggest solutions in terms of outcomes but not by using technical buzz words. Relevant training is needed in this area for solution providers,” Sunil Khanna elaborates.
Sureshbabu Chigurupalli, on the other hand, feels adequate support to industries is in place. “Many top-notch companies are developing and designing customer need portfolios. The prominent concern is relearning and ageing of the employees where training is pivotal. Cross-skilling is the new dimension where industries are focusing on using the resources effectively,” he adds.
Is the multiplicity of standards and intellectual property protection concerns hindering the process of modernisation? Lennart Winkler opines that the development of new standards always raises the question how detailed the specification needs to be. “Overspecification typically leads to conflicts with existing standards. In the present, end users are involved in the creation of standards because they will need to implement the developed concepts in the field. They know which existing standards need to be complied with to make the realisation of new specifications feasible. As this challenge must be addressed, it may slow down the process, but it will not end up being a showstopper,” he explains. About protection of intellectual property, Winkler feels that has always been a concern for innovative companies. “Besides claiming the property rights, these companies have developed mechanisms to restrict unauthorised access to their intellectual property, such as encryption, certification processes, etc.,” he adds.
“Digital transformation helps the industries link the real and physical world with the digital world. But this is only possible with industry-wide standardised communication protocols and data formats including the hardware interfaces. Today, ABB is represented as one of the leading organisations developing and adopting the globally recognised standards,” says G Balaji. “To realise the objective of a fully digitalised organisation, processes and equipment must become simplified and standardised. While it is easy to replicate simple solutions than complex ones, standard methods and equipment are further straightforward and much cheaper to monitor, maintain and upgrade,” he elaborates further.
Meenu Singhal feels there is a need to look for the common standards to be followed and these standards should cover the lifecycle of the enterprise and the Automation products in use. “Take the example of Control system PLC, which is loosely based on IEC 61131-3 standards whereas DCS has standard but not followed by any major vendor. Each of the DCS vendors talks more of their system, and would like to lock the customer on their hardware,” he points out, and explains: “However when it comes to the end user, he would like to see interoperability, portability and configurability of the system. Once the end-user chooses different vendors based on expertise, he has a challenge in managing the workforce (each vendor has different implementation and usages). Looking at these issues, large end-users are seeking to define a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture that applies across multiple process industries.”
Prema Suresh, on the other hand, is of the opinion that multiplicity always is a boon, competitiveness is healthy, it provides the end users with numerous options and end users are smart enough to find the best suitable options. “Having said that, multiplicity of protocols and standards shall not put the end users in a fix when going for an upgrade that makes the cost prohibitive,” she cautions. Coming to the is of intellectual property, she says, “IP protection of course poses hindrance as it involves technology and technology related know-hows that come from many years of research and huge data analysis combining their experience of selling their technology and technology services. It involves circumventing the issues related to Non-Disclosure agreements, etc. The industry will definitely find its own way of addressing these challenges.”
How critical is Open Process Automation to the success of this endeavour, and its present status? “Open Process Automation will move forward but it will need time. Users will benefit since they are not dependent on vendors. However this needs careful evaluation, proper testing and also standards to be developed. The synergy is across industries and partners. We are committed with our partners to ensure this successful transition,” says Sajiv Ravindran Nath.
According to Sunil Khanna, Open Process Automation helps many different service providers to come on board a common platform to deliver desired outcomes in process industries especially in mid and downstream areas. “Areas such as accounting, field ticket/billing, customer engagement, supply chain and asset management can all benefit from this. Some companies use collaborative tools for idea generation, cut down on emails and work better and become more agile. Since many of these services now are cloud based, companies can focus on their core business more rather than on maintaining IT systems,” he emphasises.
“Open Process Automation is imperative to lower capital and life cycle cost – the pressure to increase profitability from operations pushing for optimisation of costs of digitalisation journey. Proprietary based automation systems are of high operational, and maintenance expenses and upgrades also require enormous cost. Open access automation provides an easy interfacing and brings value proposition,” says Sureshbabu Chigurupalli. According to him, currently, security concerns are bolted on open process automation. Automation applications require ultra-high availability and real-time performance, and process automation systems have always been highly proprietary. This is especially true at the controller and process I/O level, and this makes the systems very difficult to update or replace for several reasons. “Open access automation enables asset owners' application software at significantly lower cost of future replacement with an intrinsic security model with value creation,” sums up Sureshbabu.
The final point in this Roundtable addresses the safety and security concerns. Are there enough safeguards? In the process industry, safety and security are two of the major requirements from end users and higher connectivity typically leads to more potential areas of attack. This causes the industry to be hesitant when it comes to implementation of technological trends. As this is a well-known fact, committees developing new standards and concepts for new technologies now consider safety and security and make them an integral part of their publications. Therefore, technologies that are critical in this regard usually bring their own security mechanism that needs to be implemented,” says Lennart Winkler.
“It is true that safety and security remain extremely critical and the most focussed aspect as organisations accelerate digital transformation by implementing connected, IoT enabled architectures in order to improve productivity and efficiency. While greater connectivity ensures greater productivity and safety. It also accentuates risk to assets, intellectual property, profits, people and the environment,” opines Meenu Singhal. “Therefore, apart from protecting just data, security is also about safeguarding critical infrastructure, people and the environment. Organisations that want to stay ahead in overcoming these risks need to comply with the latest standards and employ latest technologies to integrate safety and security,” he adds.
Prema Suresh feels safety and security is the most important, critical concern area that requires more awareness to be built in. “Whatever Cybersecurity we have put in place – there are hacking and security breaches that occur and keep the operation personnel on their toes and be wary of the extent of digital transformation that they can be open for. There has to be stringent audit systems in place and all patches and upgrades in the software/hardware shall be put through rigours of security testing,” she says.
“Safety and security are paramount in any region. There are lots of solutions which ensure the safety and security as well as compliance with local and global laws,” agrees Sajiv Ravindran Nath. “For example, solutions provided by Yokogawa cater to specific security and safety needs of the users. The solution that we provide can be deployed either as on- premise solution, user’s private cloud or on a third party cloud. Yokogawa also offers managed cloud services to its users which takes care of security, application maintenance, upgrades etc. to ensure users are able to focus on their core activities,” he adds.
“Industries are coming with solutions by cybersecurity framework – formation of Cybersecurity Cell with the sole responsibility to develop secure cyber processes. Relay training on risks, developing cyber-secure strategies and security standards ISO27001 are paid-for. Comprehensive policies covering the entire company instead of confining to only IT and multilayer security systems with scheduled cyber audits will protect the process industry,” concludes Sureshbabu Chigurupalli.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)