Manufacturers have long relied on advanced digital technologies that enable remote monitoring and assistance to protect workers in 4D — dull, dirty, dangerous and distant — environments. While no one expected this would one day include the effects of a healthcare crisis, it’s more important than ever today to remotely execute tasks that keep essential facilities operational while also protecting workers. Confronted with the harsh realities of fewer employees able to work in the traditional hands-on manner, companies have been forced to adopt newer, better and more productive methods — remote and virtual technology tools — and will never look back.
In the industrial manufacturing world, this has certainly proven true. Here, digital transformation has always been about automating manual tasks, enabling access to information, using analytics to drive decision-making and upskilling the workforce — all powerful tools to enable remote work.
Let’s look at some examples.
Replacing Manual Readings And Inspections With Sensors
A new generation of easy-to-install wireless sensors has made it inexcusable to continue sending employees into installations to gather production data or inspect equipment and potentially expose them to dangerous situations. This includes process variables such as levels or flow rates, as well as safety and equipment health variables — vibration, temperature, acoustic, etc. For example, manufacturers now have access to advanced wireless corrosion sensors, eliminating manual rounds with hand-held instruments. In addition to the initial immediate benefit, data from those sensors is continuously available to power more sophisticated analytics applications. And, if desired, the data can be securely monitored by outside experts in a connected service type model, allowing for complete outsourcing.
For example, Chevron added sensors to its heat exchangers to collect real-time data about the equipment’s health and predict future conditions. Chevron is also piloting the use of sensors to measure pipe corrosion and tank levels at its facilities.
“Digital Twin” Models Replace the Real Thing
The use of sophisticated digital models, or “digital twins,” enables virtual interactions that replace their physical counterparts. Sophisticated automation systems, including purpose-built hardware, used to be physically set up entirely for engineers to configure and customize. Manufacturers would then need to travel to perform configuration and tests to ensure the automation systems were set up properly. Now, those facility-specific configurations are hosted in the cloud; engineers from anywhere in the world perform programming and configuration; and engineers and manufacturers together test the system from wherever is convenient.
Furthermore, simulations (digital twins) of the actual process can be connected to the automation system, enabling operators to train on a completely virtual process. Even a facility’s physical layout can be modeled using a 3-D virtual reality simulation, eliminating travel to the facility for field procedure training. Customers who were initially hesitant about these new practices are now grateful projects can continue with their employees in the comfort and safety of their homes.
One leading pharmaceutical company is using cloud-hosted digital twin technology to fast-track the design, engineering, testing and validation of a facility expanding for COVID-19 drug production. Digital twins will also help the pharma industry predict the future of assets and provide better insights on product performance.
Another common use of the digital twin is reliability. Existing sensor data augmented with new equipment health sensors feed online models of equipment’s physical behavior. Those models provide early warning of failures and, using a principle called failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), can diagnose the root cause of impending failure, predict remaining useful life and prescribe repairs. Unplanned downtime is prevented, and routine maintenance is eliminated. And when a potential failure is detected, repair personnel go to the field prepared with the equipment, training and parts for the task at hand, limiting their time on-site.
Problem Solving Digitally Across Multiple Disciplines
The most immediate problems in a manufacturing facility require multiple disciplines to coordinate a response and determine implications for health, safety and the environment, impacts to production, availability of spare parts and skilled personnel, work permits and more. Fortunately, a new generation of digital collaboration tools, capitalizing on new sensor data and technologies like augmented reality (AR), have enabled collaboration to occur literally anywhere.
First, these applications alert maintenance personnel to equipment that needs attention and provides diagnostic displays with available information. Using mobile devices, field repair personnel then virtually access SMEs inside or outside the company to share what they are seeing and hearing, receive help via AR tools, access real-time data and documents, and collaborate with other disciplines. We may still need at least one human to accomplish the physical repair task, but that human is enabled in a way they’ve never been before. Our valve experts in Houston, for example, recently used remote assistance with AR technology to help a European power company evaluate and repair a valve issue, saving tens of thousands of dollars.
To get started on your digital transformation journey, start with your business consultant goal in mind. It’s not about the latest and greatest technology; it’s about looking at known problems and putting technology to work to focus on them. Enabling a remote workforce has become an immediate priority for many, but it’s not the only business challenge that digital transformation can tackle. Is it sustainability? Worker safety? Optimizing production to market demands? Knowledge drain from a retiring workforce? These are all problems digital transformation technology can help.
So, go ahead and put your data to work. It’s one thing to have a lot of data. It’s another to get the right data to the right people to make informed decisions — and the people aspect of digital transformation is often overlooked. Dedicate time and resources to engage and empower your workforce as new technologies and processes change longstanding practices. Once you’ve demonstrated success, think bigger and scale proven success across your facility or enterprise.
Recent events have certainly put these technologies to the test — but worker health and safety, and the digital transformation tools that help protect employees, have always been and always will be a top priority for manufacturers.