By Jim Montague, Control executive editor
Even if they’re desperately needed, big changes can still be very hard to pull off. This is doubly true for
epic projects like implementing digitalization in manufacturing processes because they affect so many people, devices and systems, and because they typically represent a huge shift for all these entities from the ways they typically worked for years and decades.
One company facing these challenges head on is Air Liquide, which is embracing digitalization on several levels to help it compete more effectively, and work more closely and efficiently with its customers. The $25-billion air-separation firm is the global leader in small-molecule gases and related technologies, and it serves users ranging from hospitals and home healthcare patients to semiconductor fabs and oil refineries.
“We need a step change in operations excellence, and we need it to evolve and get to the next level,” said Arnold “Marty” Martin, director, process control technology, Center of Technical Expertise (CTE), Air Liquide. “We’re really a utility to our customers, so we absolutely have to be there for them. When we sneeze, our customers get a cold.”
Martin presented “Air Liquide goes digital to transform customer intimacy” at Smart Industry 2018.
NEOS leads to SIO
To prepare for the step change it needed, Martin reported that Air Liquide recently developed its year-old NEOS (Greek for “new”) program, which calls for the company to achieve €1.2 billion in efficiency gains by 2020. The program will draw its staff, customers and all other stakeholder closer together; support operation in all its different economic environments; and enable further innovations in its core businesses.
“We have to change because our customers and competition are changing, too,” explained Martin. “We’re an old company, and we need to do more to show our customers that we’re there for them and can give them they options they need. We can’t stay No. 1 by sitting still and resting on our laurels. We must keep leading the pack, so we’re investing a lot of money and people on this big transformation, and the numbers coming back so far look very good.”
A key component of NEOS is the company’s Smart Innovative Operations (SIO) initiative for managing its many plants, systems, equipment, valves and other assets, as well as interacting with customers for greater reliability and cost effectiveness. Martin reported that SIO aims to help Air Liquide achieve 99.99% reliability by predicting and dealing with problems before they occur.
“This isn’t about gathering more data,” stressed Martin. “We’ve got tons of data. This is about what we do with that data.”
The company will take its many data sources, and add analytical capabilities. These include software for enterprise information management, business intelligence, enterprise performance management, data warehousing and governance, and risk and compliance. This will be followed by giving users easier access to the results for better collaboration, and carrying out services and best practices.
Remote monitoring key
Martin explained that operational excellence for SIO at Air Liquide includes:
• Connectivity that can leverage expertise
• Proactivity with early detection and case management
• Digitalization with secure access to data
• Sustainability for continuous improvement
“This means a foundational shift, and moving to control systems that operate our plants with a lot more remote monitoring,” said Martin. “Eventually, human intervention in processes will be treated as an incident to be investigated. Over time, we’ll have partially or minimally attended plants, which will also have centralized monitoring of operations with evolving roles and responsibilities. “This will be possible with the IIoT and as other new technologies become available. However, we’ll need a true roadmap—not just what’s the latest programmable logic controller to adopt—so we can make sure we’re ready for these next-generation challenges. We see the five levers that will enable this transformation as: plant automation, data management, data analytics, operations digitalization and asset management.”
People must change, too
Of course, along with all these technical advances on the way to operational excellence, Martin added that Air Liquide’s personnel will have to upgrade their understanding, habits and skills, too. “Operators have got to evolve or they’ll be eaten alive,” said Martin. “IIoT is just four letters if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it or how your plant could use it.” To begin this more difficult transition, Martin reported that Air Liquide has outlined several primary tasks:
• Knowledge capture, because veteran operators won’t be available indefinitely, and virtual operator assistance, advanced process control (APC) and multivariable process control (MVPC) tools will be needed to help guide less-experienced replacements.
• Cultural issues, because complex, new software requires training. Personnel and their needs must be understood because the best technical solutions will come unglued without them.
• Company accountability and agility, because new business environments require keeping pace with technology. IIoT can make data available, but users must learn to turn it into usable information that can make a difference in operations. “We have to train people before we can begin to hold them to a higher standard,” added Martin.