From choice to necessity: remote capabilities in day-to-day operations
By Kim Fenrich, Global AR/VR and Digital Services Product Manager, ABB Process Automation
Thursday, 11 November, 2021
Many years ago, somebody wisely pronounced that necessity was the mother of invention, and the past 18 months has proved this beyond doubt.
By now it’s fairly safe to assume that you’ve heard the expression ‘new normal’ more times than you would care to admit. But stepping away from the fact that it is being applied as an all-encompassing catchall for almost everything ‘new’ during the pandemic, it has in fact introduced new ways of working that most people — having now experienced the new power at their fingertips — are incredibly eager to adopt and evolve, turning these new working practices into just… the normal.
Key to these new methodologies is digital transformation — another expression saturating the industrial lexicon. Although now a commodity term, by connecting everything, converging IT and OT and massively exploiting data from every possible asset, node and end point, digital technologies are rewriting the rule books regarding what can be done, from where it can be done and who can do it.
But label digital transformation as a passing fad at your own peril. The whole concept of digitalisation was around long before the pandemic and is almost certainly setting the foundations for industry going forward. Indeed, if you have not yet looked at digital technologies and the power of connected devices, you risk being left behind.
Digital technologies arrived just in time
As part of the foundation of digital transformation, it’s safe to say that Industry 4.0 methodologies and IIoT technologies arrived just in time. Had we not had the networks, connectivity and bandwidth to be able work remotely — both effectively and seamlessly — the pandemic may well have resulted in a very different industrial landscape. Even a few months made a difference, and sometimes it was even just understanding the messaging and rationale as opposed to actually deploying the technology. Once digitalisation entered the zeitgeist, there was no stopping it.
This interconnectivity certainly existed before the pandemic; indeed, a slightly less connected and not so smart iteration has been with us for the last decade or so. But a few years back, someone swept all these new ideas into a single concept and gave them a cool name: Industry 4.0 was here to stay. Advances in smart devices and connection architectures, speeds and bandwidths have since opened up a more expansive digital playground upon which all manner of ‘new-normal’ approaches can now be deployed and exploited.
And they’re proven! Ask anyone in safety-related functions or high-hazard applications and these early adopters will regale you with anecdotes about how these remote capabilities have made their job not only easier, but far safer too.
Oil and gas leads the way
Oil and gas has been at the forefront (and has been the testing ground) of many of these developments. Markets where high price volatility exist tend to get nervous of any external influences, so they ruggedise and introduce the means to save costs through reduced time and effort, and connected, digitalised technologies have proven a real boon.
It was no surprise therefore that more traditional land-based industries soon found they needed to adapt. When social distancing was announced, pretty much globally, the collective intake of breath across the manufacturing community was almost audible, as there was simply little time to prepare. However, engineers are a clever bunch and almost instantly we started to hear about virtual factory acceptance testing (FAT) being performed over Skype and remote maintenance off the back of a mobile phone camera. The world could not stop, so we had to adapt to make things happen.
Indeed, the Skype connection was soon replaced by a dedicated, well-lit, high-definition video stream driven by specialised software. And mark-up capabilities moved from the whiteboard in the design office and the end user’s boardroom into the virtual environment. It all got very virtual very quickly.
Augmented and immersive tech finds its place
There was already a groundswell of technological evolution into virtual technologies, but it was still not commonplace. But these new remote, virtual, augmented and immersive technologies all of a sudden left the realm of being ‘neat bits of kit to play with at a trade show’ and suddenly became day-to-day tools that had to be used… or, to put it simply, nothing would happen. Or if it did, it would not be very fast and it would not be very high tech.
The support function has arguably made (and seen) some of the greatest strides in terms of platforms and offerings, with phone calls and emails being replaced by augmented solutions and dedicated apps, designed, supplied and integrated by leading vendors — especially those in the automation space as suppliers of the technology and infrastructure that underpin successful Industry 4.0 solutions.
These and similar solutions deliver immersive interaction between on-site personnel and remote experts, who can then impart real-time instructions and even overlay advice and graphical pointers on live video feeds from the site, line, cell or machine. It’s like having a highly knowledgeable support engineer on your shoulder, but they are actually sitting at their desk 3000 km away in Zurich.
Fortunately, it was also recognised that technological agnosticism was essential. This was not the time to force customers to exploit specific technologies or platforms. And for this reason, the most flexible solutions support the most common mobile architectures (iOS, Android and Universal Windows Platform), on tablets or phones.
Ensuring business continuity
As with most support and service functions, the primary goal is to impart the means, advice and knowledge to ensure business continuity. So, giving engineers and operators access to in-depth information about their assets and installed base is another primary deliverable. This capability is especially important with reduced operator counts due to social distancing and isolation. No one single person can be expected to know everything about every machine.
In fact, it is this thirst for knowledge and then imparting it in the correct format to those that need it that forms one of the major pillars of Industry 4.0. And what better way to share this knowledge than through immersive overlaid ‘real life’ simulations.
As a result, proactive monitoring of machine data and diagnostics, as well as delivering critical information to improve performance with system-specific software updates, means that self-help is just as important as remote help, especially if it can all be wrapped up in a single-point-of-access portal, another solution delivered by leading automation vendors. The end user shouldn’t need to rely on vendors 100%: there has to be this element of self-help… with the understanding that the vendor will jump in if necessary.
Aside from machine data, similar analyses can also be performed on production and operational data, using dedicated analytics platforms that deliver a remote software-assisted service that not only helps to optimise operations, increase productivity and minimise costs, but also offers definable thresholds that will notify when imminent actions are required.
The same can be said for spare parts management, where reactive and proactive maintenance is essential — even with a limited workforce. Having the right parts on hand at the right time avoids the risk of downtime due to inventory gaps or during supply chain constraints. Machines can even be interrogated for working hours and throughput levels and automated maintenance performed, with spares requests generated but still signed off by a person.
The key word with all these services is ‘remote’, and although things are steadily getting back to normal (there’s that word again), it’s a good bet that we won’t see any mass migrations back to the old ways. People have become comfortable working apart and in different ways and, more importantly, management has found that they can trust employees to work remotely. All it took was a pandemic.
Remote operation: the new normal
In hindsight, sending multiple engineers hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres to a factory for three days to commission, install, test or service a machine is a hugely costly exercise — even at cost prices. Sure, foreign trips are nice, but do enough of them and you soon start to yearn for your own armchair. Once everybody had to go remote it was like a huge lightbulb appeared above their collective heads; and something that might have taken years to percolate through the rather traditional psyche of some companies, all of a sudden became standard operating procedure. And it has been global.
So, what’s on the horizon for remote operations? AI is looking very interesting as it starts to reach critical mass and is fed more and more use cases to chew on. Indeed, we may well see an increase in autonomous decision-making and operations much earlier than you think, leaving humans to do what they do best by removing them from mundane repetitive tasks and letting them undertake more value-adding activities that require the qualities and mindset of an actual person.
5G is also going to make the communication landscape a lot more capable. Higher bandwidths and higher speeds will mean more feature-rich remote capabilities, which will deliver even greater depth of services and augmented realism to even the most remote location. Staying on the comms front, Power over Ethernet (PoE) is going to create a paradigm shift, especially in dispersed operations. In fact, we may well soon see the final demise of 4–20 mA, as the smart-device revolution percolates down to equipment that has remained dumb because of the limitations of its network synapses. Analog 4–20 mA simply cannot handle the complexity of anything more than an electrical signal, let alone deliver fully featured operational information possible via PoE.
If it is possible to put a positive spin on the last 18 months, this is the result: industry is now more connected and integrated and, arguably, more capable than it has ever been all thanks to the rather swift push over the digital/remote edge that COVID-19 delivered. You could say that this almost wartime level of innovation and flexibility to adapt and adopt has provided the groundwork for the next industrial revolution. Perhaps we are already there.
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