Industrial Automation is set to become commoditised, but why aren’t we there yet?
It is brown field systems and limited funding that is slowing up the pace of everything internet. Sure it’s easy enough to setup a new single system and push information to the cloud, create informative reports using great tools like Microsoft BI and maybe create push notifications to smart devices using cool technology right out of the box. If the data is good enough and local, then you are on your way, today, without delay. The trouble is, the data isn’t local, it isn’t all the same and so very often its unreliable and needs sanitising before it is public ready.
So why do we have these challenges in the first place when technology exists to solve all these problems? Today, we even have new technologies to compliment older more mature technologies all capable of producing the same net outcome. We have been able to do this for years. So if we had to select one reason and one reason only and lay all the blame on that one reason, it would be funding. Yes, it’s all about money, not technology.
To consider this further and place the issue into context lets analyse medium sized organisations that manage remote assets. By default, often medium sized organisations are bench marked against larger organisations. The larger organisations are usually large because of population density i.e. economies of scale. They have deeper pockets, yet the regulatory compliance requirements are the same for all. Also, no matter where we live, we the customer have the same expectations for our infrastructure provider of water, power, gas and transport. If we travel to remote places on a holiday or stay at a beach resort, we expect the same level of service wherever we are. We are not concerned about how it all happens behind the scenes, but someone is.
With reduced population density and reduced capital funding, regional asset managers and providers of community infrastructure have to be frugal in how to maintain their assets, upgrading when strictly necessary and rarely for the sake of standardisation. True, many city centres are also under pressure to reduce operational costs and manage capital investment with greater ROI but maybe the overall approach is evidenced by their projects, their investment focus and the execution strategies actually used by each organisation to manage their critical assets.
Getting smart about being automated begins by considering all of the logistical issues surrounding human resources even before technology can be leveraged and adapted so it can play its part. On the technology front, smaller organisations can rarely afford to standardise all of their technologies and boldly state “one vendor is our standard!” It can take a decade to reach some form of consolidation of technology and then only to be confronted with another amalgamation, an end of product notice or some other event, and then it all starts again.
Perhaps one of the key issues to managing remote assets is the cost of labour used to manually gather information about asset performance. Without interrogating the quality and timeliness of human measurement, technology just does it better every time. As long as humans set it up in the first place correctly, the repeatability and timeliness of automated information management wins hands down.
How does an organisation get to where it “should be” in terms centralised information management of all disparate assets? Oh, and where is “should be”? Each organisation needs to answer the location of “should be” for themselves, however, perhaps the “should be” cross road is somewhere on the technology road when the skilled staff and knowledge workers no longer spend time doing routine data entry and data management, and they re-invest their time on improving processes and asset performance or creating better strategies for operational excellence. Somewhere in the journey from here to where we “should be”, breakeven will occur in terms of short term operational cost savings. But the greater value lies in systematically managing the assets with better information in real time.
Assume for a moment that small to medium sized organisations are remote and have outlying areas with limited infrastructure. The cost to maintain and upgrade assets in remote areas is exacerbated by travel distances, safety due to travel, lone workers, transportation costs, the cost to treat these risks and the challenge of limited locally based skilled vendors. Everything costs more to get people out there. Also, the longer you leave it with the same configuration, the longer the bleeding will linger on. More and more knowledge workers need to be capable of working remote without it having an impact on the overall outcome.
Doing something to get to where an organisation “should be” starts with an ideal, a concept of centralised management and standardised data. Even though the assets will be different, the information can be normalised so that assets can be managed in a uniform way. To think for a moment that standard equipment will ever be the norm, is shallow thinking as technology churn is only increasing in today’s modern era. This is despite our technologies getting better and becoming more reliable. But why? It’s not a question of reliability, it’s more a question of functionality and being able to drive down overall costs by having additional functionality only offered with the new kit. This may all seem general and pie in the sky, but ask yourself how much of your personal technology is older than 3 years? Was the old stuff still functional when you upgraded? Yes and yes is the reason humans who manage industry will follow suite. This seems like a contradiction is building in this story, and it is. On one hand we want to standardise, which takes years to implement and years to get the full benefit, but by the time we arrive there it is time to replace it all again. The argument is that we should standardise so we get some efficiencies in the workforce that maintains the assets, but on the other hand we should be planning for new technology to be adopted more often. Asset managers do not have the luxury to propose one brand and one product as the sole strategy to reduce their operational costs. There has to be something more than this luxury strategy.
Most organisations have skilled workers who have intimate knowledge about how assets are maintained. Other organisations also share the very same knowledge. Some benefits exist in sharing the knowledge between organisations for activities that require highly experienced people with skill levels beyond general mechanical support. To coordinate such an ambition of knowledge sharing and reducing the requirement for so many people being “on standby” just in case, requires baselining tools and the right technology. Centralised information or a variation of it, empowers the organisation to be matter of fact about how the assets perform today, yesterday and every second of the day. This means organisations can adjust their focus based on the empirical decisions instead of an opinion shared by the person who historically serviced the gear on site. On the basis that historical information is now canonised and we have smart operators at the helm, predictive analytics driven by smart machines (artificial intelligence) produce the icing on the cake. Knowing when an asset is likely to fail is now possible and can save lots of money, but it all starts with good Asset data. Good asset data leads to Prescribed Maintenance, the final frontier of getting organised before a failure is about to occur.
For Mareeba Shire Council a long term and considered strategy was developed to gather and normalise plant data from across the geographically disparate region. Beginning with a centralised data repository, treatment plant, pump station, dam and other asset data were systematically normalised and gathered for centralised archiving. The method of automating data collection in many cases has replaced human meter reading. In other cases, it removed the latency of managing spreadsheets and importing data with varying degrees of accuracy. Arriving at such a point is like hitting base camp. It takes discipline and effort to prepare for and arrive at base camp. You don’t need to take lots of equipment, but you do need the right equipment. At base camp even though the view is still magnificent, there is still an effectual struggle to get to the top. One thing is for certain, there is no getting to the top, without getting to base camp first.
For a decade and a half, Parasyn has been helping astute customers get to base camp. As more and more technology becomes available to support enterprise information system solutions, the discipline and effort required to transform brownfield systems to operational effectiveness will not change. What is becoming clearer is that knowledge sharing will change how assets will be managed across organisations. As this knowledge of asset intelligence and operational experience is shared, it will be without the penalty of collectively having to pay for it over and over again.