Digital Transformation at the Long Tail of Automation

Nov. 19, 2018
Identifying gaps and misalignments in the flow of labor, material and information can help identify business outcomes that can be used to direct digital transformation projects.

Digital transformation (DX) initiatives at industrial clients promise significant business process, competitive and technology adoption advantages. Many of these initiatives are also hamstrung with limited buy-in or support as they make their way from proofs of concept to scale across a client’s enterprise.

Typically, DX initiatives are driven from the top down, given the business value justification required for what many clients are realizing is a multimillion-dollar spend. To many, this is counterintuitive to the ease and flexibility with which modern technology stacks can be deployed. I am certainly one proponent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) who feels that such costs and affiliated concerns are misplaced. However, through many experiences with customers lately, and hearing from industry peers, they aren’t denying the benefits all things new and Wi-Fi ready have to offer; in many instances, it’s simply that they’re looking for solutions that extend the capabilities of existing platforms or are easily bolted on. The implicit request then becomes: “Give me something that is easily managed and maintained by existing teams.”

Speaking from the operational technology (OT) realm, this request can be addressed by solutions in the long tail of automation. Such solutions would leverage cutting-edge sensors that today cost a fraction of what they would have when the first industrial automation project was deployed and are truly the bolt-on variety that customers can rapidly test and deploy. Focusing on sensors at the OT layers becomes critical because these are data sources for all higher-level systems delivering analytics for business decisions. This approach can help with the quick wins to gain momentum and funding for continued DX interventions.

Taking a step back and looking at the customer’s bigger picture, DX is a way for them to align the flow of labor, material and information. To this end, OT-centric interventions need to be coupled with IT solutions to provide a measurable ROI through increased business process integration of such solutions.

Let’s take the example of energy management. Energy is a required input for manufacturing. However, customers often report challenges with allocating this input as a variable cost. A DX intervention in such an instance would be built on OT solutions such as smarter meters coupled with real-time dashboards and further enhanced with IT solutions such as workflow automation, allowing real-time reporting to individual cost centers.

There are numerous mid- to low-complexity areas of improvement across a customer’s operating assets. I believe there is also a vast array of technologies that can be integrated to create low-cost and scalable solutions and help clients unlock business value.

The challenge then remains at the starting point. I am convinced that the long tail of automation provides the types of projects that are outstanding given perhaps the limited business value to a plant or asset. However, such projects, when aggregated and implemented across an enterprise, can have a significant impact on a manufacturer’s bottom line.

The call to action for customers and solution providers is to identify gaps and misalignments in the flow of labor, material and information. These gaps can help identify business outcomes that can be used to vector DX interventions. A great place to start is at the OT layer, where many systems are unconnected or operating on islands.

Chanakya Gupta is business development manager at Avid Solutions Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avid Solutions, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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