From the Editor's desk: Emerson unveils its digital nexus at Nashville Exchange

November 2019 News

Lal Karsanbhai, executive president Emerson Automation Solutions, launched this year’s American User Group Exchange with an announcement that positioned Industry 4.0 front and centre in the company’s formidable portfolio of industrial automation solutions. During his opening keynote, I, along with 2700 other delegates gathered at Nashville’s Opryland Resort and Conference Centre, heard the news of Emerson’s recently formed Digital Transformation business, spearheaded by the group’s Stuart Harris who led Emerson’s own internal digital transformation programme.

The rationale behind the new $650 million division is to extend the reach of Operational Certainty, Emerson’s pragmatic approach to lead plant owners to maximum operational efficiency achieved over the lifespan of their facilities. As Karsanbhai explained, the new Digital Transformation business is focused on guiding customers towards a strategy that will elevate them to a top 25% performance ranking in their particular industry. Harris expanded on this during a subsequent media briefing where he outlined how automation alone is no longer enough to bring about a step change in operational efficiency. What’s required in addition is a refinement of organisational thinking and workflow, underpinned by the digital technologies of the fourth industrial age. Harris described it as the vision to provide customers with an opportunity to achieve top quartile operating performance that extends beyond pure process control to include reliability, safety and energy efficiency.

The new offering is perfectly timed given that many companies are presently struggling to scale their digital pilot projects into enterprise-wide benefits. In essence, what Emerson has done is leverage its Plantweb Digital Ecosystem through an advanced portfolio of predictive diagnostics and analytical solutions, plus the addition of some state-of-the-art project management functionality. Combine this with expertise in Operational Certainty consulting and the new business unit is ideally placed to help customers establish a clear vision for digital transformation. The end-game is a performance-enhancement strategy executed and managed holistically across the enterprise through a user-friendly suite of integrated digital transformation solutions.

Operational analytics to the fore

Chief technology officer Peter Zornio set the tone for the technical part of the address by identifying operational analytics as a cornerstone of any digital transformation strategy. “Operational analytics focuses on the single greatest source of value that exists for any industrial manufacturer – the production itself,” he stressed.

Emerson splits its portfolio of analytical tools into two categories: those that are principles driven and those that are data driven. The first are rules-based algorithms driven by the physics that make things work, for example, the performance of a heat exchanger. The second leverage the ideas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in more sophisticated applications like pattern recognition. When combined, these tools provide the potential to advance overall plant reliability and efficiency to levels that were simply unattainable before.

While the ideas seem simple, Zornio pointed out that there is much confusion in industry about which type of model to apply where. Very few companies have the expertise and resources to scale their digital transformation beyond a pilot project, since scalable benefits accrue only when the right analytical methods are applied to the business problem under consideration. At the lower end of production, principles-driven solutions are often deployed to improve the reliability and performance of assets like valves and pumps, while the processing unit and plant levels are more the domain of data-driven algorithms like AI and ML.

My takeaway from Nashville is that digital transformation has transcended the hype of the past to become a hero of the future. The smoke and mirrors have faded to reveal real companies – Celanese and 3M for instance – achieving measurable business benefits based on enterprise-wide decision support provided through the techniques of pervasive sensing and knowledge-driven analytical data processing. It doesn’t happen by accident though; it requires clearly defined business outcomes, a scalable implementation strategy, an investment in people, and perhaps most importantly, the insight of a trusted advisor. This then is the niche of Emerson’s new Digital Transformation division, and the reason Karsanbhai predicts it will grow into a $1 billion operation in the not too distant future.

Steven Meyer

Editor: SA Instrumentation & Control


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