IT in Manufacturing

Digitalisation for a connected future

January 2023 IT in Manufacturing

Charles Blackbeard.

Digitalisation helps build safe, smart and sustainable operations for the future. We build locally and support globally to increase knowledge. We also have the ‘tribal knowledge’ of operators who have been around processes and equipment for decades. Now we have a new generation coming in, so digitalising that knowledge is vital to pass on the baton. We have global resources and expertise we can access for remote support for our South African or African operations and services.

The ABB Energy Industries Division covers oil and gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, power and water customers with a digital portfolio for sub-Saharan Africa. The four main focus areas are: people, process, technology, and infrastructure.

A key theme globally is increasingly sophisticated automation and the move towards reduced operator intervention. In terms of processes, it is a cultural change within operating companies. It has also been a cultural change within ABB to come up with more agile workflows by means of digitalisation, moving away from paper-based operator rounds or maintenance activities, and digitalising that.

Another key theme is the culture of DevOps, a new concept predominantly in the IT space. From technology testing we are now moving into a more ‘fail-fast’ type of culture, deploying solutions at small scale and then scaling up for continuous improvement in processes and technology.

Technology is evolving from an automation layer to more of an enterprise-wide deployment encompassing IT, operational, and engineering data. This can be integrated in an automated fashion and contextualised by applying advanced applications on top of that data. It allows us to play into some of these gains around process and efficiency improvements in terms of how these facilities are operated and run.

We have advanced applications around AI in terms of our asset performance management and energy management solutions. We have technology that has been around for decades for advanced process control, where enterprise insight is now being brought to bear to close that loop in process control and really drive efficiencies.

The trend is towards more predictive and prescriptive strategies for our customers when deploying these advanced applications. In terms of infrastructure, industry in general has been slow to adopt cloud technology. This presents an opportunity for ABB in terms of cloud engineering and big data to provide better business insights to our end users.

Looking at the advent of edge technology, we are now gathering and integrating data from the operational level and combining it with IT and engineering data, allowing for vastly improved insights when deploying these advanced applications. However, that data must also be brought to the cloud in a safe, secure and automated manner.

A strong cybersecurity strategy is essential so that this data can be securely integrated and contextualised from the operational technology layer. This is our particular strength, especially when partnering with the likes of Microsoft and IBM on some of their cyber solutions to extract and secure the relevant data from the operational technology layer.

Furthermore, ABB has evolved its customer approach to diversify revenue and enable new business models. For instance, this allows customers to move more towards software as a service (SaaS) or platform as a service (PaaS) to reduce these large capital investments and take advantage of cloud infrastructure to evolve business models towards operational expenditure as opposed to large capital investments, which is what we are seeing today.

There is a big emphasis right now on security by both governments and companies looking to enforce stricter cyber practices. We are having many discussions, combined with education and awareness raising, about building the necessary infrastructure to enable that.

We are seeing that in every single country, to deploy the latest and greatest cyber technology, we are having to upgrade basic infrastructure. This, combined with the slow uptake of cloud solutions, means that transferring this to the operational technology level is a significant challenge.

The key is integrated digital solutions. In terms of total return on investment, companies can now really look to optimise processes and run operations more efficiently. With the further integration of various digital solutions, clients are enabled to move towards autonomous operations now and in the future. This will allow for unmanned operations in remote locations, for example. That obviously brings a lot of benefits in cost, people safety and carbon footprint reduction.

Eventually, down the road, although we are not yet seeing it on a significant scale, is the adoption of robotics for inspection and process operation support. In time, robotics, automation and data will drive this overall digital transformation.


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