Digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation
Digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation represent three aspects of the application of digital technology in industrial businesses.
Early in any innovation wave, there tends to be a lot of hype and even more buzzwords. This leads to wild interpretations and claims with growing confusion in the market. That said, as this technology has not passed the maturity curve, there remains debate on definitions between institutions, vendors and even countries. Definitions for digitisation and digitalisation we can take directly from the Gartner IT Glossary1, whereas digital transformation is more subjective, therefore, I offer my own perspective.
- Digitisation is the process of changing from analog to digital form, also known as digital enablement. Said another way, digitisation takes an analog process and changes it to a digital form without any different-in-kind changes to the process itself.
- Digitalisation is the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.
- Digital transformation is understood as the transition stage between digitisation and digitalisation; however, it offers much more than that. It is where digital data and processes are combined and new models can be created that can substantially change the entire business.
A non-automation example
There was a time when music media was distributed on vinyl disks through bricks-and-mortar retail stores. We saw advancement into cassette tapes and eventually compact discs; however, you could say it was still a traditional model. It was not until music was widely available in mp3 format that you could say that the process was now digitised.
The ‘big A company’ then applied this digitised media to their business processes and was able to develop an end-to-end digital system that included marketing, purchasing, payment and delivery of media — then they even supplied the hardware to enjoy it. You could call this a fully digitalised system. It created value not just for the company, but also for its customers via flexibility and ease of use.
The digital transformation, however, is when other companies were able to analyse this process along with new developments, and design new business models that transformed not only their own companies, but also disrupted the entire industry. This, of course, was on-demand music streaming. While still an end-to-end digitalised system, the real value was created in the transformation.
Going back to process control…
Effectively digitisation took place way back in the 1980s, when PLC or DCS systems were implemented. However, like the example above, the traditional signals were converted from analog to digital, and after processing, returned back to analog for the final control element. We saved on individual controllers or relay logic and we were now able to collect and log data in our SCADA systems and even generate reports.
Over the next 35 years or so, not a lot changed. The controllers became more powerful, networks developed that saved cabling and installation time and some devices could even be set up in a digital manner. But under the surface, we were still performing digital control on converted analog signals. To explain this in more detail, let us create a small example that you would find in most processes.
Figure 1 shows the automation of a single heat exchanger including a temperature sensor, a modulating steam valve and a shutoff valve with feedback. These are connected to a modern PLC and SCADA system.
As you can see in this example, the field equipment is individually wired via 4-20 mA or 24 VDC signals to a distributed control panel that isolates and converts these signals into a network for the PLC. This example is not one from our history books; it still represents around 70% of today’s installations. That said, it is a major advancement on the original centralised systems of previous years with their multi-core cables and massive panels.
To bring this ‘digitised’ system to a fully ‘digitalised’ system, we start with digital field equipment that no longer needs signal conversion, and we connect via a single distributed Ethernet cable right back to the PLC. This is shown in Figure 2.
As is clearly visible, the wiring complexity is drastically simplified and there is no distributed I/O panel required at all. The entire system can be wired without any terminations at all or even the need for a screwdriver. The time and investment to design, build, install and commission this system is drastically less. The additional cost of the smart field equipment is more than covered in the total cost savings, and they deliver higher accuracy and responsiveness overall. Reverting to our digitalisation definition, value is created through design simplicity and increased accuracy, as well as the savings in installation and running cost.
While the above example is a strong enough argument on its own to generate a change in the industry, we are yet to consider the ‘transformation’ part. A fully digitalised installation offers a lot more than just upfront cost savings.
The new wave of digital field equipment is also compliant with the latest demands of Industry 4.0 or IIoT.
As well as the process signals needed for control (cyclic data), they offer bidirectional device management information (acyclic data) including asset management and advanced diagnostics (see Figure 3). This data seamlessly integrates into your control system, engineering workstation or even directly to cloud-based systems.
Continuing with the above application example, let us consider just the shutoff valve. In the original system, we would know what signal we were sending it and thanks to integrated feedback loops, we would know whether it is open or closed. If we send it a signal and it doesn’t transition in the allotted time, we generate an alarm. At this point the operator jumps into action and a service engineer is notified to rectify the fault. Around 30% of a service engineer’s time will go into nothing more than collecting information — what type of valve, what is wrong with it, who made it, how old it is, when it was last checked, plus other diagnostic data.
Consider now a digitally connected valve which has been included in a diagnostic page in the site SCADA system. Immediately the service engineer can see the valve number and type, he can see the voltage supply as well as temperature, the stroke length, cycle time and number of operations performed. He can also see how long the valve has been installed and how many operations it has performed. In addition, if replacements are required, he has the ID number, hardware and software versions at hand.
But that is only after the failure event. As you can see in Figure 4, tolerances can be set on a number of operating parameters that will enable a notification prior to a failure. Perhaps the voltage is low due to added load, or a kinked air tube causes a longer operation time. Such warnings can help avoid process downtime happening in the first place.
The next level is that all the process and diagnostic data is uploaded to a cloud server. From there AI algorithms can be implemented that will analyse the data and report by exception on any change in the operational status in your plant. In other words, it would determine valve opening time post signal and if this did not happen, it would alert you with that detail. Therefore, you could have very powerful diagnostic tools overseeing the operation of your plant, without the need for programming. An example of this is a current feature in the latest Apple watch, which will, without any pre-programming, dial an ambulance and provide your location data should you suffer a significant fall or impact.
Eventually the market will move towards digital twins or cyber-physical systems. In these systems you will have complete status and diagnostic information on components and even complete systems constantly available in the cloud — like Facebook for hardware. From there you will be able to do analysis without even being onsite.
Is this digital transformation?
Technically, only you can answer this question, as it relates particularly to your own business and the daily operational issues that are relevant to you. Perhaps you have 2000 such valves and sensors onsite; perhaps you have limited service personnel; perhaps you are operating this site from 3000 km away; perhaps you are manufacturing a highly expensive or toxic ingredient and cannot afford failure. The digitalised system simply delivers a set of tools along with advanced capabilities; it is really up to you how these tools are used to solve your particular business challenges.
Imagine a dairy that is suffering issues with final product contamination. This may be happening due to a random set of circumstances, a deep programming bug, a working but incorrectly specified product or something as simple as water hammer. If the contamination is high, huge amounts of final product are wasted as well as downtime for CIP cleaning and the like. In the worst case the contamination is not detected and this leads to a product recall that can cost many millions of dollars and loss of brand trust. The ‘digitalised’ dairy could set up a small diagnostic tool to monitor all the relevant variables, process pressure, valve parameters including seat position in 0.01 mm increments, relevant pumps, pipe vibration analysis, etc. While this does not sound too difficult, consider the process may have a vast number of valves, pumps and sensors, and the need for cyclic and acyclic data. Thanks to the digitalised plant, this could be performed online, in parallel to normal plant operation, with analysis done in a diagnostic terminal, edge controller or even the cloud.
Is it for my business?
For many the hype has served to confuse the market and potentially delay implementation. In my mind, it is a stepped process or transformation journey, and let’s face it, when we approach a set of stairs, we do not start our ascent at the top stair. It all starts with getting the backbone in place and generating the data that you will use. Therefore, it must start in the field, as without the right interface to the process, no PLC, edge or cloud system will deliver meaningful results. Having these digitally connected devices installed is the first step; you can then take your time to plan your next. The cost savings that are evident in this first step serve as a great incentive to get you on our way.
Good luck with your digital transformation.
- Gartner IT Glossary, <<https://www.gartner.com/en/information-technology/glossary>>, accessed 22/02/2021
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