Editor's Choice

Navigating disruption in manufacturing

March 2024 Editor's Choice IT in Manufacturing

Over the years, I’ve written several articles on IT in manufacturing. Reflecting on these as we start 2024, I realise that most revolve around applying technology to real-world challenges in plants and mines.

Many of the disruptive forces have affected all countries, but others are local in nature. Challenges such as COVID-19, the shift towards renewable energy, geopolitical conflict, skills shortages, digital transformation, and cybersecurity are global in nature and all highly disruptive.

In South Africa however, an additional layer of disruption strikes daily at the heart of manufacturing operations (and society at large). The ongoing rolling blackouts pose a threat to many companies, compounded by the continuous erosion of critical infrastructure like rail, water, ports and roads. The supply of natural gas to manufacturing centres is also about to run out in just two short years, and this situation might persist for years unless new import infrastructure is built and new local gas sources are brought online.

Many local mining and manufacturing businesses now find themselves almost ‘flying blind’, uncertain of the immediate future and unable to clearly discern the medium-term, three- to five-year horizon.

In this context, a manufacturing plant or mine in South Africa must operate under a new set of priorities. It is here that manufacturing IT must rise to the challenge, remaining an important enabler of digital resilience, and ultimately manufacturing resilience.

So, where to begin? The reliability of power and logistics, particularly relevant to South African operations, might be a good example.

Power disruptions can be mitigated in several ways. One approach is simply negotiating an assured power supply from the distributor, based on the strategic significance of the factory or mine to the ‘national interest’. However, this approach may not always be successful. Another strategy might be to reduce dependence on the grid by installing alternative energy generators. This could involve installing new capacity renewables (solar and wind), or perhaps by recycling of additional waste products into energy (for example, incineration with co-generation of power). These new capital projects will require IT support across all areas, from engineering and design to procurement, construction, commissioning and operations.

The short-term impact of a blackout could also be lessened by modifying the process itself. Every plant has a bottleneck, usually where the most capital is invested. Surrounding this, many parts of the process can usually be temporarily switched off without constraining the main production. Storage can be increased (with due apologies to Eli Goldratt, the author of ‘Essays on the Theory of Constraints’). Water heaters, cooling systems, waste and effluent treatment, and similar utilities often have built-in redundancy and surplus capacity, allowing them to be temporarily switched off to then catch up once power is restored. These secondary unit operations can act as energy ‘batteries’, in a manner of speaking. Identifying critical process operations and operating these in new ways to survive an extended blackout will require innovative process engineering. The resulting new operating protocols will likely require a reconfiguration of the control, automation and electrical systems. These changes will also affect everything related to measuring production performance. Dashboards and key performance indicators (KPIs) will need to be updated to account for the new configuration and operating procedures. Here, IT will play a crucial role in ensuring that the right data is available and accurately represented.

In addition to process modifications, logistics also play a crucial role in helping companies be more resilient to disruption. The erosion of infrastructure in South Africa has made the transportation of raw materials and finished goods increasingly challenging. Aside from simply ramping up inventory with an associated increase in working capital, IT can help optimise logistics by exploring advanced planning and scheduling systems, with more use of real-time data to make informed decisions. This could result in more agile rerouting of transportation based on current conditions, or adjusting production schedules to align with transportation availability.

Furthermore, the use of predictive analytics can help anticipate potential disruptions, and formulate contingency plans. Machine learning algorithms can analyse historical and real-time data to predict future trends and disruptions, allowing businesses to proactively adjust their operational strategies. In South Africa, the rolling blackouts have lasted for 14 years already; enough useful historical data should be available to more accuratel predict the impact of electricity failure on operations.

Aside from power and logistics challenges, there are other underlying risks to consider, such as new skills shortages. These shortages may arise from experienced personnel retiring, together with a lack of in-house training programmes to upskill newly recruited technicians or graduates. Regardless of the cause, the end result is the same: production and manufacturing resilience suffer.

IT can play a role in many ways to address the skills issue. For instance, it can connect junior technicians at the worksite with experienced professionals, using remote communication technologies. Using visual aids, a camera and suitable industrial mobile devices or wearables, an experienced engineer can guide a more junior counterpart through problem solving, whether in the office or on the plant or mine. Collaboration technologies have received a tremendous boost from the demands of remote working during COVID-19, and most companies have started to exploit new communication technology to mitigate the risk of skills shortages. Five short years ago, relying on a remote expert to troubleshoot a process plant as seen from the perspective of a technician on the plant wearing a camera might have raised eyebrows, but not now.

It’s also worth mentioning the emerging risks faced by the IT function itself. While the challenges in IT are not physical, like railways and ports, they still exist, and could pose a very real threat to business. Skills come to mind, and these are not just technical or programming skills. IT professionals need to become very adaptable, willing to research, understand and rapidly apply emerging technologies. Otherwise, business users will simply do it for themselves in their silos, leaving a complex mess of ad hoc applications, databases, spreadsheets and other documents that are in no way integrated or managed.

Moreover, in the IT space cybersecurity has emerged as a critical risk, now amplified by the prospect of AI tools that will make cyberattacks even more difficult to handle, damaging to people, companies, and society at large. The use of AI to counter AI cyberattacks is a reality that is believed to be imminent.

In this environment, fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation is vital. The pace of change is accelerating, and businesses must be prepared to pivot quickly in response to new challenges and opportunities. IT can support this by providing platforms for collaboration and knowledge sharing, and also tools for training and skill development.

In conclusion, the role of IT in manufacturing is more critical than ever in these turbulent times. By focusing on resilience and adaptability, IT can help businesses navigate the disruptions and emerge stronger on the other side. The journey may be challenging, but with the right approach, mindset and tools, it is one that South African manufacturing plants and mines are equipped to undertake.

About Gavin Halse

Gavin Halse.

Gavin Halse is a chemical process engineer who has been involved in the manufacturing sector since mid-1980. He founded a software business in 1999 which grew to develop specialised applications for mining, energy and process manufacturing in several countries. Gavin is most interested in the effective use of IT in industrial environments and now consults part time to manufacturing and software companies around the effective use of IT to achieve business results.

For more information contact Gavin Halse, Absolute Perspectives, +27 83 274 7180, gavin@gavinhalse.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/gavinhalse/

Share this article:
Share via emailShare via LinkedInPrint this page

Further reading:

The world’s greatest model railway
Horne Technologies Editor's Choice Motion Control & Drives
Located in Hamburg’s traditional warehouse district, Speicherstadt features the largest model railway in the world, and is one of the most exciting tourist attractions in Germany.

Loop signature 23: Tuning part 1.
Michael Brown Control Engineering Editor's Choice
This is the first of several articles dealing with the subject of tuning. I have found that many people think that optimisation consists solely of tuning. I would stress once again that tuning is the last thing one should do when optimising regulatory controls.

Plastics meets packaging for consistent and efficient process control
Beckhoff Automation Editor's Choice
PC- based and EtherCAT-based control and drive technology from Beckhoff represent a universal solution that transcends industry and application boundaries. This standardised and scalable automation platform offers numerous advantages. Industry experts delve into how machine builders and end users in the plastics and packaging industry can capitalise on these advantages.

Continuous corrosion resistance
ifm - South Africa Editor's Choice Sensors & Transducers
The polypropylene version of ifm’s LDL400 conductivity sensor is based on the proven LDL200 inductive conductivity sensor. Its material properties make it the ideal choice for applications in which metallic sensors tend to corrode.

Control architecture leads to faster, easier product development for refrigeration
Opto Africa Automation Editor's Choice IT in Manufacturing
What’s the secret to providing superior service and staying competitive in a changing market? You might learn something from ALTA Refrigeration’s experience. Over ten years, it transformed itself from a custom engineering services company into a scalable industrial equipment manufacturer, using an edge-oriented control architecture to manage a growing installed base.

Step into the visual factory
Turck Banner Southern Africa Editor's Choice Electrical Power & Protection
At Banner, the visual factory comprises three key applications for lighting and indication in industrial settings. These applications include the ability to help machines and workstations quickly communicate their status to people nearby, to use light to guide workers to perform certain tasks such as part picking, and to provide illumination for work areas and tasks.

Quality gearboxes for irrigation
SEW-Eurodrive Editor's Choice Motion Control & Drives
SEW-EURODRIVE is offering a complete gear solution for centre pivot irrigation systems as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) closer to South Africa’s farming sector.

AI in manufacturing: a process engineer’s perspective
Editor's Choice IT in Manufacturing
The expert will tell you what to do, the philosopher will tell you why to do it, and the engineer will get on and actually do it. As the hype around AI intensifies, the number of ‘experts’ is increasing exponentially. In contrast, the number of engineers who actually know how to implement AI technology remains small.

Loop signature 22: How cyclical disturbances affect a control loop
Michael Brown Control Engineering Editor's Choice
When tuning noisy loops, we recommend in our courses that one should eliminate the noise by editing it out, so the tuning will be done only on the true process response, free of any noise. The controller is controlling the process, and is not controlling the noise.

High-performance motion control for teabag packaging machine
Beckhoff Automation Editor's Choice
Teepak relies on PC-based control and drive technology from Beckhoff to set new benchmarks for speed and precision in its teabag packaging machines.