The use of automation in industrial industries has been expanding for quite some time, but the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath could significantly speed up innovation and adoption.
For the last several decades, manufacturing and engineering companies have been required to be agile and innovative, and design their systems and processes to be flexible and efficient to meet fast changing market demands. More and more, they are developing connected systems that collect and distribute data, helping their internal and external customers monitor and optimise productivity and safety.
And now with the world dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, the question is, “how can automation help us recover faster and keep our workers safer?”
Industrial Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) has become a buzz word to describe applications such as self-driving vehicles, wearable devices, and smart home technology. Today, IoT has made its way into industrial applications, using sensor, GPS, Bluetooth and wireless technology to monitor and predict maintenance issues on production lines, automate processes such as cleaning and mechanical repair, track inventory and waste levels, and monitor human activity in business facilities.
Forward thinking companies that are in the business of production, maintenance and transportation of physical goods will be looking to the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT) to expand their capabilities, create efficiencies and cultivate game-changing business models.
By now, most of the industrialised world understands that the future workforce is changing due to demographics, technology advancement, and now, pandemic considerations.
The ‘old way’ of doing things is unsustainable and the digitalisation of our economy requires education and workforce training that prepares us for what’s ahead. Smart technologies will open doors to new ideas and ways of working, enabling more efficient and sustainable manufacturing and safer delivery of products, maintenance, and systems. Fear of pandemics will bring supply chains closer to home, changing the focus from cheap labor to the development of technology.
In the oil and gas industry, maintenance is critical to keeping organisations up and running. Companies spend countless hours and dollars on preventative maintenance. Many of these companies view maintenance activities as high-risk and low-value and are looking for ways to keep their assets running longer while reducing risky maintenance procedures.
Industrial automation and the development of IIoT has opened the doors for condition-based maintenance, in which the system enables real-time monitoring and assessment of the actual conditions of an asset.
This ‘smart’ system does several things such as notifying production and maintenance personnel when maintenance needs to be performed, indicating a reduction in performance or an impending failure, performing visual inspections, providing performance data, and more. A condition-based maintenance strategy allows for a more proactive approach to maintenance activities, helping facilities optimise maintenance cycles and reduce asset failures. While this type of equipment is expensive to develop and install, in the long-term it can reduce the cost of asset failures, improve asset reliability, and minimise unscheduled downtime and maintenance.
Improved worker safety
Automation and technology has drastically improved worker safety. According to the US Bureau of Labor, worker injury rates have been dropping for years. The advancement of IIoT will continue to help improve these statistics.
The use of sensors and software to monitor potential failures can reduce catastrophic accidents. Using robots to perform work in unsafe environments can reduce or even eliminate exposure to high risk activities such as confined space entry, chemical and particulate inhalation, extreme temperatures, or other physical hazards. The safety benefits of industrial automation are plentiful.
There has been criticism that the acceleration of automation has resulted in job loss, which is not undeserved. We can’t forget about the pain that many people have felt, and will continue to feel, as the job market evolves.
As IIoT takes hold, new jobs will be created to analyse performance data and manage systems and workers can be retrained and find upward mobility by moving from physical labour to software/data and systems management.
Shifting the workforce away from hazardous and grueling operating conditions might also increase employee retention, enabling companies to better leverage their investment in employee development. Total job displacement doesn’t have to happen. This transition won’t be easy, nor will it be well received by everyone, but this is what comes with a dynamic and evolving economy.
The burdens and benefits of the future way of working must be distributed thoughtfully and fairly as possible. Rather than denying the future of automation, we must prepare for this future, focusing our resources on retraining of the workforce, enablement of technology, the development of more sustainable products, processes, and systems, and shared prosperity.
Kerry Siggins is the CEO of StoneAge, a leading manufacturer of high-pressure waterjetting tools and automated equipment, based in Colorado, US. She is also the Vice-President of the WaterJet Technology Association (WJTA) and a founding member of the Global Industrial Cleaning Coalition (GICC). She is an author and speaker. To learn more, visit her website at www.kerrysiggins.com.