Digital transformation that is revolutionizing the process industries

Oct. 19, 2022
Digital transformation is not just about software and systems. It is also about people. A people-centered approach to digital transformation will help process manufacturers maximize the benefits of Industry 4.0 — and get ready for Industry 5.0.

Industry 4.0 is on everyone’s mind these days. Driven by rapid growth in automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the Industry 4.0 model promises to enhance productivity, improve information flows and facilitate better decision-making driven by real-time data. And yet, many process manufacturers have been slower to embrace the digital transformation necessary to achieve these benefits.

Why? There are a number of barriers for process manufacturers.

  • Long investment cycles: A process manufacturing plant may run for 60 years or more, with many legacy systems and processes in place.
  • Risk aversion: Process manufacturers are naturally risk- and change-adverse due to regulatory pressures and the high hazards of many processes.
  • High variability: Plant processes and systems tend to be highly individual, depending on the specific product being produced, the local regulatory environment and legacy equipment and facilities.

As a result, many process manufacturing plants still rely on spreadsheets, word processing documents and oral transfer of information during shift handovers. Digitization strategies and software systems designed for general business or more standardized industries, such as the automotive industry, tend to have low levels of acceptance and success in process manufacturing because they do not meet the needs of the people on the front lines. And because change comes with heavy risks in process manufacturing, people are naturally reluctant to implement systems that are not proven or fully customized for their needs.

But process manufacturers stand to benefit from digital transformation in many ways if they can overcome the barriers. What is needed is a thoughtful approach to digitization that reduces risk, enables customization and localization, and fully meets the needs of the people doing the work 24/7. 

A people-centered approach to digital transformation

How can process manufacturers gain the benefits of Industry 4.0 while mitigating the risks? By recognizing the great role of people in the process manufacturing industry. That means moving beyond Industry 4.0 to “Industry 5.0” — an approach to digitization that puts people back at the center of the picture.

Industry 5.0 is focused on how people and machines work together to take advantage of the unique strengths of each.

  • Machines (algorithms) are good at data storage, calculation, automation and combing through large data sets to search for patterns.
  • People are needed for tasks involving insight, judgment and nuanced decision-making.

An Industry 5.0 approach enables manufacturers in the process industry to take advantage of the benefits of digitization while avoiding the pitfalls. A people-centered digitization strategy draws on the insights and experiences of people working in the industry to create systems that are tailored to the specific needs of workers and managers. When adding a human-centric component to a digitalization strategy, adoption is easier and faster because it has the end-users in mind.

Algorithms can surface information and patterns that are difficult for humans to detect on their own, but ultimately, they can only follow their programming. That means algorithms are not well-positioned to respond to changing conditions and unanticipated shocks — such as the COVID-19 pandemic, unforeseen raw material shortages or regulatory changes. People are needed to respond to these challenges and align algorithmic activities with strategic priorities. By combining the strengths of both people and machines, we can make process manufacturing organizations safer, smarter and more resilient. 

Digital transformation for process industries

Process manufacturers need a digital transformation strategy built around their unique needs and priorities.

The shift change represents one of the biggest opportunities for digital transformation for process manufacturers. Having shift handover software designed specifically for process manufacturers can help. Maintaining the daily knowledge from operators is key to optimizing plants with more efficiency and automation. The 24/7 production environment of process manufacturing requires tight alignment between shifts. Everyone needs to understand emerging problems, changing instructions and evolving priorities to ensure plant safety, product quality and continuity of activities. The shift handover is also where communication is most likely to fail. In fact, one oil and gas company recorded that 40% of its plant incidents occurred during a changeover in shifts.

Currently, many process manufacturers still rely on spreadsheets and stand-up meetings for shift handover. Important information is often overlooked or forgotten in these largely manual systems. A general manufacturing execution system (MES) can help, but the information is not always accessible and understandable for the front-line people who need it most.

Process manufacturing personnel need a people-centered approach to digital transformation that:

  • Connects people to other people across shifts, departments and areas of responsibility.
  • Provides secure, anytime/anywhere access to real-time information, including sensor data, IIoT devices and field notes from operators and inspectors.
  • Makes sure everyone has actionable information at the right time so they can do their jobs well.

Critically for process manufacturers, customization is needed for people at each plant. That ensures improved user acceptance and optimal support for local requirements — including adaptations for local regulations, specific processes and more. At the same time, companies can harmonize information transfer across locations and regions. It provides overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) real-time analysis for even the most complex plant operations that connects all people in various departments to critical system data that can increase manufacturing productivity.

By focusing on the needs of people, organizations reduce handover-related problems that can lead to lost batches, poor quality control or reportable safety incidents. Shift handover also provides information transparency for better decision-making. Everyone has access to historical data as well as real-time information to drive process improvements and make better strategic decisions. 

Bringing Industry 5.0 to process industries

Having shift handover software built on decades of experience and insights into the unique needs of process manufacturers helps implement digitization strategies for Industry 4.0 and the move into Industry 5.0 by connecting people, machines and systems.

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 and has an office in Boston, Massachusetts.


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