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Tackling digital complexity in process automation

09 August 2018

Ed Harrington, director of The Open Group Open Process Automation Forum, looks at how organisations in the process automation sector are turning to digital transformation and open standards in order to use data to improve operations and help ensure zero downtime

Operations Technology (OT) used by the critical infrastructure and process industries (oil & gas, pharmaceutical, mining, pulp & paper, food & beverage, etc.) is often otherwise known as Process Automation. These industries shape our everyday lives. If you take a look at a cross section of the those industries, one thing that you’ll notice they all have in common is that they are ‘always on’.

Looking beyond their more-cumbersome legacy systems, organisations in these industries want to take advantage of data; to improve operations while ensuring zero downtime occurs – from reducing costs, to improving workforce efficiency. To do this, many are turning to digital transformation and open standards.

Digital disparity

Every business faces its own challenges, whether that’s how data and insights can be turned into action, or how to configure unified interfaces. These challenges and actions will also vary depending on the industry – whether that’s the mining industry, for example, or a broader sector such as oil and gas. While there are disparities between industries, there are more commonalities than you might think – for example, there is the desire for interoperability, configurability and the capability to integrate best-in-class technologies and software. Understanding this common ground – and utilising these concepts – is key if digital transformation is to be achieved.

Many organisations using Process Automation encounter inconsistencies between systems within individual facilities, which means they lag behind when compared to other sectors. They also see the advances taking place in Information Technology (IT) and ask why the same can’t apply to OT. This is caused by outdated technologies, along with proprietary software and hardware from different vendors being used in conjunction with each other. As it stands, factors such as languages, safety and security concerns are also preventing automation and control engineers from being able to pass data freely between systems within one organisation. This digital complexity needs to be tackled.

If data is exchanged with no barriers, business processes are streamlined

If data is exchanged with no barriers, business processes are streamlined – in the long-term this interoperability is cost-effective. Enabling digital transformation allows a holistic view of systems and, in turn, employees can do their jobs seamlessly and efficiently. Organisations could unlock huge cost savings as well as efficiency in the workforce. To accomplish this, they need to embrace technological change, otherwise they’ll be left behind.

While organisations often can’t take advantage of advances in digital technology due to the lack of interoperability between OT systems, open standards promise a way forward.

Open standards

In a world where industries need to be ‘on’ 24/7, there needs to be a symbiotic approach to digital and legacy system. Organisations can’t shut down to rip and replace from the old to the new; they need to work harmoniously to achieve digital transformation. Open standards are a way of achieving this. They also provide the opportunity for improvements in operational efficiency, safety advances, process flexibility, reduced costs and speed to market. 

Organisations need to consider and balance throughput, uptime, safety, security and costs. Any new system will need to match or beat current capabilities, providing additional benefits that may not have previously existed. If an open system approach is used, these initiatives can be done at a low cost, with very little disruption.
In order to achieve improved efficiency and increased production outcomes, companies need to harness the best of both IT and OT to transform the capabilities of automation and control.

Thinking about the future, many organisations within the critical infrastructure and process industries will turn to Open standards to help them achieve their goals. Long-term, this will future proof their business.

Key Points

  • The desire for interoperability, configurability and the capability to integrate best-in-class technologies is common across industry sectors
  • There are often inconsistencies between systems within individual facilities, causing organisations using process automation to lag behind
  • Many companies within the critical infrastructure and process industries will turn to open standards to help them achieve their goals

 
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