As long as people have existed, we’ve needed to harness energy to live: fire to warm ourselves and cook food, gas to generate clean electricity. Energy is a traditional industry with roots that stretch as far back as human history. Yet even in this conservative industry, the latest technologies can make a huge impact.
Organizations that embrace digital transformation can see measurable benefits in critical industry focus areas: safety, reliability, production, emissions and overall performance. But there is always the underlying question: How do you get started?
The good news? The optimal digital strategy is different from company to company, meaning there is no single right path. The bad news? Digital transformation does not have one consistent playbook. This can be confusing for businesses trying to capitalize on the promise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). A recent Emerson survey of industry leaders responsible for digital transformation initiatives found that 90 percent felt that a clear and actionable roadmap was critical for success, yet only 20 percent of respondents said they had a vision and roadmap.
Even as companies work to find their way in the new digital transformation landscape, a few definitive trends are emerging:
1. Software will remain the backbone of making data actionable. It has long been an industry staple, but advanced software solutions are making it possible for companies to safely test new approaches to optimize productivity and efficiency without any risk to operations. Take power generation, for instance – a critical industry with no margin for error. Through “digital twin” technology, power companies can simulate a live plant that allows them to test proposed changes without impacting the actual operations. Software advances like digital twin have the potential to help the industry find game-changing improvements.
2. Cybersecurity is non-negotiable, but its implementation depends on its environment. Not everything needs to go to the cloud. There are many opportunities for remote monitoring of systems and other data analytics in the cloud, but knowing which applications are best suited for on-premise (or edge computing) versus the cloud will be key for businesses. Different cybersecurity protections are required for each, and understanding what makes the most sense will help guide many digital implementation programs. Secure remote monitoring has created a new business model that brings significant performance and financial benefits, through predictive analytics that detect maintenance problems in oil fields, refineries and chemical plants before they occur – leading to millions of dollars saved annually.
3. A clear business case and scalability are the name of the game. Sweeping initiatives won’t work; companies need solutions that account for where they are and where they want to go. Digital transformation programs must have a clear business case. Implementing technology and hoping for a return will not deliver the significant impact that’s possible.
4. Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) need to be on the same side of the table. IT and OT can too often speak different languages even as they develop and implement programs for the same company. Successful transformation will happen only when IT and OT come together with an integrated approach to technologies and work together to implement and optimize. We are seeing movement in this direction, as some companies are organizing integrated teams to drive digital transformation and encourage the collaboration of these complementary skillsets.
5. Technology should empower – not replace – the workforce of the future. The rise of automation is bringing with it trepidation that robots will eliminate manufacturing jobs. Done well, the influx of automation will instead evolve current manufacturing jobs. Yes, automation may replace repetitive tasks-related jobs, but it will also require new data analytics and interpretation skills that rely on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge. Technology and automation are complementary job creators.
Empowering the future workforce comes down to meeting and supporting people where they are. This includes upskilling the current workforce, making the industrial sectors attractive to students planning their careers, and instilling a passion for math and science with young learners beginning their educational journey.
Digital transformation has the potential to change the energy industry for the better—and give companies that embrace it competitive advantage.
Lal Karsanbhai is executive president of Emerson’s Automation Solutions business.