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What comes after digital transformation?

31 August 2023

WHILE DX remains an ongoing journey with no set end, technology capabilities are maturing and revealing what the next evolution of industrial enterprises will look like, says Andy Graham.

"The robots are coming!" and "Automation will take away your jobs!" – or so we are told. In fact, in some ways of course, both of these things have come true and will continue to play out. Robots are more numerous, more flexible, and more useful than they have ever been. Automation meanwhile – and particularly the digitally driven automation era we are in – is mechanising more and more task-based work than ever before, in turn helping raise the human’s input up the value chain.
So, after this era of digital transformation, what will industry look like? Is the vision of “lights-out” manufacturing the next stage?

The short answer is no. In fact, the digital transformation era is increasingly becoming defined by the changing relationship between humans and machines, and in particular, the idea of the connected worker. Far from technology removing humans, this era is about how technology enables humans and helps them to be far more productive. It’s about using a mixture of technologies and data to remove repetitive tasks and provide insight and information to improve and speed up decision making. All of this leaves humans free to do what humans (and particularly engineering and STEM professionals) do best – problem solve and make informed decisions.

Moreover, skills in industrial workforces the world over have never been more in demand. So, far from jobs being removed from industry, most developed economies need to do more to encourage young people into industry. With engineering offering some of the most fulfilling and well-paid jobs around, and technology improving the work lives of so many in industry, the future of the connected worker is bright.

Will the industrial workforce of the future be smaller? In all likelihood yes, the current trend, and arguably the one that has been in place since the first industrial revolution, will continue. Fewer, more qualified, more specialised, and better paid staff will be able to operate a more productive, safer, and efficient plant than ever before by removing repetitive tasks and leaving more time for value-adding activities.

The industrial enterprise of the future

But the idea of “lights out” manufacturing (where humans are not needed at all, so there’s no need to switch on the lights) is not the next industrial era. And of course, with digital transformation (DX) being a somewhat circular and ongoing process, it’s far too soon for many to be wondering what the next era will look like. Having said that, those companies more advanced in their DX journey give us some insight into the future, and as of yet, there is no sign that humans will be surplus to requirements – far from it.

What is becoming apparent is how the connected worker is perhaps starting to blur the lines between human and machine, as the human gains so much data and information about machines and processes that they can almost “see”, “feel” and “sense” what their plants, lines, factories and supply chains need to work at their most efficient and productive.

Let’s consider the factory of the future – though it should be noted that the same example transposes to many other industrial settings. The factory of future is of course connected, but goes one step further to include a digital shop floor. Technologies that we already see today like artificial intelligence and machine learning will reach maturity and learn to include many more contextualised external factors. Production facilities will be able to react based on customer habits and buyer demands with data streaming and in and out all the way until a product is delivered.

Real-time data management

We are already seeing robust supply chains implemented so production can continue no matter what happens to global supply chains. While this is often primarily concerned with base materials it will likely expand to assets themselves. Today, operators are using real-time data management to solve maintenance issues before they develop into downtime events, and in the future these decisions will likely be made by the assets themselves, putting into action a proposed maintenance plan, ordering spare parts and notifying the right operators in plenty of time.

This goes far beyond predictive maintenance and moves into the realm of preventative maintenance. In fact, most of the operators who work in and around the facility won’t even be aware of issues, maintenance teams will move among machines in planned downtime, never needing to diagnose or wait for parts. Those in charge of maintenance will act as the gatekeepers, overseeing the decision process of the asset, but everyone else be blissfully unaware of issues, and unplanned downtime will be a thing of the past.

Add to this the rise of digital twins and virtual, mixed, and augmented realities (xR) and we can imagine a manufacturing environment that exists concurrently in real life and the digital world. One where changes made in the digital world could be applied in real-time in the real world. And where proposed changes in the real world can be modelled in the digital one first. One that enables operators thousands of miles away to be fully immersed in a live digital reproduction of the site to direct local staff in maintenance or product changeovers, or any number of other tasks and processes. Through wearable technologies and digital twins, it’s perfectly possible to imagine those connected workers who can “see”, “feel”, and “sense” the industrial environment whether they are in it, or many miles away.

It will be hard to notice exactly when the DX era gives way to its successor, and it won’t be anytime soon. But in isolation, various elements of the example above are starting to be used by companies at the cutting edge. What’s missing, and will take some time to become a reality, is the joining up all of these immature technologies into single systems – single manufacturing organisms, if you like.

For now, DX is all about bringing the connectivity to operations so that data can pass freely among systems and offer insights to operators – it’s not (yet) about AI, Digital Twins and xR providing a seamless, real time experience of the real and digital environments. In a practical sense, the connected worker is about putting the right technology tools into the hands of human operators and managers, and providing new insight and data to the right people at the right time on the right device. It’s not hard to see how this will become a platform for continuous improvement, and how that platform will allow the development of AI, Digital Twins, and xR, to usher in the next era.

Low hanging fruit

And if the next era sounds daunting to you, don’t worry. Most companies are at the start of the digital transformation journey and there is much low-hanging fruit to improve productivity, reduce downtime and increase efficiency that can be applied without changing a whole lot about your plant. If you are worried that your company doesn’t have the skills to even start your digital transformation journey, then don’t worry about that, either.

SolutionsPT is a true digital transformation partner and we work with companies at any stage in their DX journey, whether they are just starting out and are looking at what some of the latest MES or SCADA software might have to offer, or whether they are looking at how Mixed Reality glasses can be paired with Edge Computing to bring both real-time machine data and digital user manuals to an operator while leaving their hands free to use a spanner or HMI; we’re ready to help. And of course, with exclusive access to AVEVA’s cutting edge software, alongside a world-class range of hardware and cyber security offerings, we’re tooled-up too.

Andy Graham is solutions manager at SolutionsPT