Transformation ain’t rocket science

Dec. 3, 2018
Identify a business case, then start small to scale fast.

By Keith Larson, Smart Industry editor in chief

Smart Industry's Keith Larson

With consultants and white papers citing the trillion-dollar returns to be had by applying the latest digital technologies to industry, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. And especially since the typical industrial operation has limited resources and is staffed to maintain operations—not reimagine them—deciding among the myriad possibilities to pursue can lead to paralysis and inaction.

But it doesn’t really have to be that hard.

“A large percentage of our customers have a vision for the digital organization they want to become, but don’t yet have a clear path forward,” said Lal Karsanbhai, president of Emerson Automation Solutions, during his keynote address at the Emerson Global Users Exchange in October. “There were also quite a few who were executing pilot projects without a clear vision or roadmap,” Karsanbhai said. “Despite all the confusing hype in the industry about the Industrial IoT and digital transformation, it’s actually pretty simple.”

Start with a measurable business case, such as an important metric or KPI the plant is not consistently hitting, Karsanbhai suggested. Emerson groups these metrics into four main areas: safety, reliability, production and emissions—which includes energy efficiency. Target the ones that matter most, make improvements, then scale investments step-bystep, based on value. “And make sure that the investments are in people as much as in infrastructure,” Karsanbhai added.

To bring this methodology to life, Karsanbhai described a practical roadmap for personnel safety, starting with an existing manual system, with periodic or ad hoc reporting. To add more real-time visibility, add monitoring of safety showers, fire extinguishers or a safety gate, so “at least you know something happened.” Next, add equipment monitoring to assets that can disrupt production or contribute to a personnel safety issue. Then pair wearable technology that enables location tracking together with intelligent camera systems “and you have a clear picture of where each person is throughout the facility, making mustering easier and improving response times in man-down situations,” Karsanbhai explained.

Emerson has packaged its capabilities assessment and stepwise implementation methodology into what it calls a Digital Transformation Roadmap. “It starts with a workshop, the output of which is a digital roadmap customized to your specific priorities,” Karsanbhai explained. “It includes work streams for OT/IT collaboration, technology selection, information architectures, execution plans and ROI calculations.”

It’s an approach that I think makes a tremendous amount of sense, and an offer that I think you’ll soon see echoed by other industrial automation companies. Automation systems, after all, are the original digital foundation of the industrial enterprise: leverage those suppliers’ domain expertise to assess your capabilities and chart a practical path forward.