Julian Annison, digital transformation director at Emerson believes that the main drivers of digital transformation – such as achieving improved energy and emissions management, enhancing safety and increasing operational reliability – will remain much the same within the process and manufacturing industries. “There always needed to be a business purpose behind digitalisation and that is still the case,” he said. “What is changing, however, is that organisations are now expected to achieve these business improvements while also having to meet tough environmental sustainability and decarbonisation targets – both in the short term and up to 2050.”
Annison went on to point out that the increasing pressure and expectation from stakeholders has created a step-change in the way digital transformation is being perceived and is accelerating the need to not only implement the latest digital technologies but also to adapt work practices. “Whereas digital transformation was once merely regarded as a desirable objective, with organisations perhaps willing to trial small pilot projects, it is now often viewed as being fundamental to survival, with the need for much broader implementation acknowledged,” he said.
According to Annison, meeting environmental sustainability targets in the short term, up to 2030, is a challenge that can be tackled by implementing digital technologies that are already available. “Many plants have been designed to run with the minimum viable automation, so introducing digital solutions designed to improve safety and reliability, optimise production and meet sustainability targets is quickly achievable. However, meeting environmental sustainability targets up to 2040 or even 2050 will require a significant increase in the rate of digital transformation and a complete change in mindset on how digital technology should be used.”
Offering an example, he pointed to electrification and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) projects which have a vital role to play in reducing emissions, and which require new levels of inter-company collaboration and technological interoperability to manage process and operational data. Another important way to help meet longer-term environmental sustainability targets is through the use of new assets that are no longer just built to run, but are instead autonomous-ready, with digital technologies and the concept of digital transformation built in from the very outset. This will then enable them to evolve and adapt to meet changing regulatory requirements over the coming decades.
“In recent years, many organisations have equipped their plants with digital technologies that enable them to create and collect vital data in areas such as equipment health and emissions,” continued Annison. “However, data is only beneficial when meaningful outcomes can be generated from it. Data management is therefore a fundamental requirement and the next step on the digital transformation journey of many companies is to put in place technologies that enable data to be collected from multiple sources, visualised and analysed, to create actionable insights.”
Ushering in a new era of data management capabilities, Annison believes that the latest software platforms unify people, data and systems to drive improved operational performance and plant efficiency through automated workflows, advanced analytics and enhanced decision support. “These platforms provide a single location to manage, protect, and easily integrate OT data with IT tools and cloud applications, enabling organisations to seamlessly connect people, processes and data. In this collaborative environment, operational data from disparate sources can be securely and efficiently collected, contextualised, and transformed into actionable information that can be delivered to all decision-makers via personalised content and dashboards.
“Organisations can also improve their business outcomes by moving from predictive to prescriptive maintenance practices,” continued Annison. “A variety of technologies can be used to provide predictive maintenance by monitoring the condition of plant assets and issuing an alert when there is an issue. However, this still requires manual intervention to carry out the recommended corrective action, which can sometimes lead to a break in the chain. The latest intelligent digital technologies can go a step further by enabling prescriptive maintenance. Because these technologies are capable of understanding problems and knowing what is causing them, they can not only identify and flag up issues but also automatically take actions to resolve them. This then creates a ‘closed loop’ application that can form part of an autonomous-ready plant.”