Digitalisation will lead to significantly more cost-effective operations
Published by : Industrial Automation
Lennart Winkler, Member – Business Management Division for Process Industry, Beckhoff Automation.
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.
In Research and Development, automation companies have functional prototypes utilising IoT connectivity, Artificial Intelligence and other trends to create the next generation of process solutions. For adoption of these technologies in the field, it will be crucial to convince end users that digitalisation of their supply chain will be worth the investment.
Can digital transformation help the Oil & Gas industry which is under pressure from alternate energy sources and low prices?
There are multiple chances for the Oil and Gas industry to leverage the potential of digital transformation. Increased competition in pricing within the energy sector makes more efficient production one of the focal points going forward.
For offshore platforms, a higher degree of digitalisation and automation will result in less personnel required to operate. This will lead to significantly more cost-effective operation as personnel is one of the major cost drivers, particularly in offshore applications.
The downstream sector will see more efficient production processes through the use of multiple technologies such as Digital Twins, for example. Simulation of processes on the virtual model of the plant (the Digital Twin) helps to determine which parameters need to be adjusted for the optimisation of production.
What exactly are the digital trends the process industry can profit from? (IIoT, Big Data, AI & ML, AR/VR/XR, Digital Twins, Cybersecurity)
What digitalisation trend will be most beneficial for the process industry depends on which vertical market is considered. There are big differences between the markets when it comes to the production process itself as well as the deployed control systems. Therefore, their requirements and potential for optimisation differ significantly.
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. Moreover, this allows the opportunity to analyse existing processes for further optimisation.
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. Instead, operators located in a central control room can run multiple plants at the same time remotely.
Is there enough local/indigenous support for emerging technology-based products as well as customer training?
Emerging technology products are supported locally with trained engineers for required support by user customers. TwinCAT software programming trainings, application development and after sales technical support are the key deliverables locally.
Is the multiplicity of standards and intellectual property protection concerns hindering the process of modernisation?
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.
Protection of intellectual property 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. In addition, digitalisation can also provide new ways of protecting the internal expertise. Service providers for condition monitoring can offer their services in the cloud, for example, so that the critical algorithms and data remain within the company.
How critical is Open Process Automation to the success of this endeavour, and its present status?
Process automation is already a highly heterogeneous field where a multitude of systems from different suppliers needs to be interconnected within a plant. Interoperability is a necessity for efficient cooperation: open and standardised communication protocols and interfaces are a key factor to reducing time and costs for system integration.
The addition of new technologies as in the digital transformation process will depend on the same concept. To achieve this vendor-independent interoperability, different organisations are working on standards for the process automation field. The Open Group, which takes care of the Open Process Automation approach, and the NAMUR with their NAMUR Open Architecture are examples.
Safety and Security remain key concerns, especially in politically sensitive regions. 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.
The security requirements must be involved during the conceptional phase, before implementing the technology in the field. A major difference will be seen between greenfield and brownfield applications. In the future, new plants will consider safety and security aspects during the design phase, thus will be able to integrate security concepts with relatively little effort. In the brownfield, it needs to be integrated into an existing network and infrastructure, which may result in a complex task.
Lennart Winkler is a Member of Beckhoff Automation’s Business Management Division for the Process Industry located at their headquarters in Germany. In this function, he drives Beckhoff’s global development in process automation across several markets such as oil & gas, chemicals, energy and pharmaceutical industry. Lennart is an expert in explosion-protected automation products as well as for IT and OT technologies. This includes topics like digitalisation, communication protocols, networks, IoT and advanced software solutions.