The IIoT needs you and me

Oct. 14, 2020
To realize its potential, IIoT solutions must address the role of the connected industrial worker in this brave new world.

For processors, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) represents a game-changing innovation that will drive automation in all aspects of production processes, connecting all sorts of devices with old and new control systems, based on the cloud, big data and artificial intelligence (AI).

The IIoT continues to evolve, with countless solutions touting end-to-end process automation. However, one of the most important elements of IIoT — the human element — has taken a back burner in this hype cycle. To realize its potential, IIoT solutions must address the role of the connected industrial worker in this brave new world.

While there are countless articles on the how IIoT brings together myriad devices connected by communications technologies that yield systems that monitor, collect, exchange, analyze and deliver meaningful new insights like never before, there are not so many that focus on the connected people or teams that are expected to do something meaningful with their valuable new insights. “People-focused” IIoT brings back the balance of power between people, processes and technology, and ultimately will enable industrial enterprises to unleash their true potential to optimize plant operations, improve productivity, enhance efficiency and ensure worker safety.

Refocusing on the human element of IIoT

At the center of the IIoT is the human being who is charged with making use of the applications and services enabled by the devices and their unprecedented integration provided in the IIoT. The human element is an important one within an IIoT infrastructure because ultimately it holds the final decision on how the system will learn how to react to processing anomalies. For instance, what if there was a situation reached that could not handle a particular condition? It could indicate a dangerous state. In such circumstances, a “people-focused” IIoT can ultimately provide the solution and perhaps identify a meaningful trend that might point to an out-of-spec production directive.

In any processing operation, it is also important not to overlook the vital role of communications. Today, we think of this more as people-to-people, among or between teams. This is because industrial processes are largely controlled by human operators, who have final oversight and responsibility for a safe operation. As emerging automation systems come online with the ability to crunch vast amounts of IIoT data, decision-making will become shared between the human and machine, thus taking the communication between operators and the machine to a new level. Yet again, communication is vital, and the roles and responsibilities of the automation technology and the human operator must be well-defined. 

Covestro, a producer of a variety of polyurethane- and polycarbonate-based raw materials, saw the benefits of IIoT along with the importance of the human aspect.  It also saw the clear advantage of providing a digital solution for collecting production data and performing shift handovers across more than 80 plants worldwide and empowered employees at production facilities. Digitizing communication and documentation in production helped to make all relevant information immediately available during shift changeovers, promoting efficiency and safety for everyone involved.

Now comes the time where chemical processors need to instrument the people tasked with using and managing machinery in the overall process. A safe and effective plant needs to be able to rely on a workforce equipped with contextual information about the physical processes taking place. Plant Process Management (PPM) helps to do that and embraces the “you and me” with IIoT, the missing link that supports smart manufacturing.

PPM describes a system that enables processors to manage, monitor and optimize their operations around work activities and production assets. Applicable to any type of plant regardless of the amount of IIoT instrumentation, AI, machine learning or predictive maintenance, PPM ensures knowledge can be ingested and analyzed from any human contact point in a process.

People-focused during a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that even the best, most finely tuned processes must be able to change overnight. As many have learned, keeping production on track while accommodating workers and systems to new procedures, and even new products, is a daunting challenge. With experienced staff affected, many saw the importance of online access to documentation on procedures. Also, challenges in the smooth transfer of operational information during shift handover due to COVID-19 — which is critical in continuously operating facilities — made it very difficult for operations teams and management to maintain confidence in hitting targets while ensuring safety. Plants with PPM capabilities, however, coped well with this crisis.

With COVID-19 still a concern, consistent capture of team-to-team communication has become a must-have capability, especially as irregular work patterns have been emerging for individuals due to isolation and social distancing measures. As many operations have learned recently, having an electronic knowledge base describing issues and their resolution based on this communication is an essential investment in maintaining an operation resilient in times of crisis. 

Beyond COVID-19, an investment in PPM capabilities will also serve the organization’s IIoT strategy — think AI applications that “learn” from historical observations by experienced operations staff (again, the human element). For example, an AI-enabled app could advise an operator of an emerging problem and provide suggested actions from the historical knowledge base or quickly help a replacement operator respond to a critical issue. In this way, PPM offers a low-risk, high-impact investment.

Bridging the gap

Investments in new IT and automation technology often have limited impact on the shop floor. People are left out of the solution, and there are gaps with what is delivered, compared to what is needed on the shop floor.

Digitization initiatives like IIoT are often non-collaborative, forcing a particular processing model and way of working upon the operation from the top-down.  The gaps in coverage this causes lead to a situation in which operations “works around” the new digital “solution.” The result is often a digital solution of the lowest order:  email, spreadsheet or custom application. 

For IT, collaborative technologies on the shop floor are often not a priority in many organizations. This is unfortunate, because the new generation of processing professionals expects to have apps to address their needs for information discovery and collaboration.

Indeed, millennials have already started changing the landscape. Their ability to transform organizations' slower processes into faster, more effective ones will help chemical processing and supply chains transform. In a war for talent, processing organizations will need to up their game on the information technology their workforce uses to work and collaborate.

This represents an opportunity for processors, since a “people-focused” IIoT will improve operations through the real-time access to information and more tightly connected supply chains. Millennials report that in addition to going digital, trust, transparency and teamwork are important aspects of their work experience. In fact, with the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of human communication cannot be overlooked. If we look beyond the pandemic, there will still be a great need for seamless connection between human intelligence and machine data collected through integrated legacy systems and IIoT.

Understanding the needs of essential workers and grappling with an environment where people are not able to meet for weeks and have reduced face time with their senior managers and experts means transparency and clarity when communicating will become a must. 

In a recent survey of more than 300 chemical processors, the noted analyst firm 451 Research looked at the knowledge gap between different roles in production operations.  As shown in the accompanying chart, the gap in knowledge regarding critical plant operations — between management and operators — is most glaring.  Will the processing industries simply carry forward this state of affairs into the future?

Solutions for the new digital age

Any investment in digitization for processing operations must address how a company’s workforce and automation infrastructures work together. Successful digitization projects make a difference on the shop floor by reflecting the needs and experience of the workforce. Plant digitization initiatives must include the support of all stakeholders, which also means the plant floor workers doing the everyday tasks. Make them the companions on your digitization journey.

Communication is key to making everyone on the processing team is invested in achieving the same goals. Successful strategies depend on the people who implement them, adoption of technology and thoughtful alignment and integration of the people who need to run it — whether it is a bottom-up, top-down, decentralized or centralized approach. All things must be considered. Processors need to start thinking about how they will bridge the knowledge gap as older workers are replaced by their younger counterparts. A “people-focused” IIoT with PPM capabilities will help chemical processors get ready for the next crisis, as well as address today’s great crew change.

Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach, which helps production teams stay safe and work smarter through better information sharing and collaboration. Holding a degree in computer science, he draws his practical experience from leading a variety of international software consulting, and implementation projects for leading chemical manufacturing companies, focusing on production, continuous improvement, EHS, and maintenance. His company is a provider of manufacturing solutions and headquartered in southern Germany with offices in Boston, Massachusetts.