Digital trends reshaping industry: what are the needs on the ground?

If your company’s digital transformation is becoming overwhelming, it’s time to pick your shots.

Predicting digital trends is like trying to nail a wave to the shore: Change is continuous as technology evolves and improves. Leaders must scan the horizon and identify the most important areas to pay attention to right now to ensure their companies are fit for the future.

By Sanjit Shewale  LinkedIn
VP and Global Head of Digital
ABB Process Industries division

About the author

Sanjit Shewale joined ABB in 2020 as the Head of Digital for Process Industries. He has 20+ years of experience in the advanced industrial software space across many different verticals, including discrete.

First published in CIO Review

Holistic energy optimization is a business opportunity

Energy management itself is far from new, but the objectives and optimization models are changing fast. There is also the need to import and integrate data from many areas, not just from the site or a company’s own systems, but also from external systems. For example, when legacy systems and assets are augmented with modern IoT sensors to gather data, such as from enterprise resource planning systems, building management systems, distributed control systems and data from other third-party systems, such as energy CO2 certificate trading platforms, resource markets, weather data and customer data.

With added horsepower, you can really start to do something with that data and do holistic optimization that will have an impact on your own costs and the whole sustainability performance.

Software systems must account for the whole spectrum of energy sources, way beyond electricity from traditional power plants. This mix includes renewables, hydrogen, fuel and cogeneration gases, water waste, cryogenics and beyond. We’re already seeing agile companies optimize their energy management to such an extent where they are selling their excess power, so it’s a business opportunity. Companies have the capability to reduce their use of energy from traditional power sources in favor of clean hydrogen, for example. This cannot be done in silos – it requires a holistic approach to bring it all together. We are creating a mix of being able to take advantage of short-term spot pricing and planning for the longer term. Planners want to be able to see where they will procure energy and how much is required at their sites, which is also changing as energy efficiency improves across industries.

A human vision for fully autonomous operations

Shifting to autonomous industrial operation is about relieving people from ‘dangerous, dull and dirty’ and opening up more interesting roles for them. The evolution of the control room is fascinating, and we’ve already gone from individual control rooms to consolidated centralized control rooms and integrated remote operations centers. Technology for remote operations has been available for some time, however many companies just never adopted and prepared for it. COVID expedited that. Those companies who didn’t implement remote capabilities were at a disadvantage compared to their competitors. Having people in the office required a much bigger spend, as well as risk, to ensure their facilities were compliant with the health regulations.

We provide technology that lets customers run, monitor, optimize their operations and work truly remotely, from thousands of kilometers away, negating the need to travel to remote areas. It’s first about safety, but also better decision support systems, leveraging AI and ML to operate plants with predictive analysis based on years of data. This technology can make decisions in the place of human operators, getting us to the autonomous state. But it isn’t about taking jobs away, it’s evolving them. When we evolve roles to autonomy, the invaluable human knowledge gets embedded into the AI/ML models so that data and insights empower every role to excel.

We will always need people to continuously evolve those models, and we need to support them in developing their skills to work with autonomous technology. It will result in increased productivity that will make jobs more secure and more valuable. You need years to understand how industrial processes work, especially for a specific site. It’s much easier to learn the newer technology than how a process works – the process part is more valuable and highly sought after.”

It’s also important that we address industry’s knowledge retention issue. In the past, people stayed in the same job, with the same company for decades, and they knew the processes inside and out. The current generation does not stick around in one process area or even one company – they are mobile. Understanding some of these processes can take years, so how do we address that and transfer 10-20 years of knowledge to an incoming operator or engineer in less than 2 years. That’s why going autonomous and equipping human operators with these decision support systems is really not a matter of choice: you must do it.

Time’s up on getting on top of data integration

Data rationalization and integration is essential for digital transformation, and companies must not put off addressing it for a minute longer. In order to build autonomous operations and harness the power of AI and ML, your data has to be fit for purpose. New companies start out knowing they need to set up a common data lake, but older companies have such a range of data in different locations and consolidating it is very difficult. We have experienced customers realizing they have different systems from region to region or site to site including some that require custom connectors.. Add to that the speed at which we’re collecting data today, which means there’s often too much data. Companies must invest the time and resources to rationalize and integrate their data. It’s vital that they are choosing the right platform to structure it and allow collaboration. That will enable different vendors to interact with the data, and even when data is in different locations, it can be integrated seamlessly. Honestly, it’s a huge challenge, but it’s urgent.

A healthy digital culture calls for a new mindset

I prefer the term DigitalOps,to digital transformation. If you talk about transformation, people instantly think there’s a program with a start and end date, but that’s wrong. This is continuous, and the biggest issue is not with the technology, it’s with the change management of companies. We need to nurture a mindset around distinct goals, such as reducing CO2 emissions, fostering a culture of knowledge retention and driving holistic visibility. Equally, we must clearly communicate how this ever-evolving digital toolbox is going to help get us there, and why our people are mission critical. A fear factor can grow around digital, fertilized by the piles of jargon that surround it. It can become overwhelming and intimidating for those who think they won’t be part of it. We need to upskill our people, explain how their job is evolving, provide the training that will get them excited about the journey and make sure they know how important their knowledge is for our success.

A sustainable future calls for a new generation of brilliance

I’m passionate about this, for ABB and our customers. There can be a view among some young engineers, and other recent graduates, that they don’t want to work in industries such as mining or oil and gas or pulp and paper. Some have what I see as an outdated view of the modern environmental impact of these industries, because technology has already done so much to improve sustainability. More importantly,we need their brains to build a better future. Not only do we need them to innovate further and imagine new technologies, I say they should feel proud to contribute to that. This is a huge opportunity for them. We need energy, and paper products and – unless they don’t want to drive an EV or use a smartphone – we most definitely need mining. These things are not going away. It’s our job to educate young graduates that their expertise is going to help us make all of these industries more sustainable. They can achieve huge things by working with us.

My message is, ‘Come join the journey and be part of this exciting challenge.’ It’s working: I get young people talking about sustainability in their job interview and I tell them they can make a huge impact in a company such as ABB, and also our customers. It’s inspiring.

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