Digital Transformation Helps Ease Workforce Issues

As energy industries face a high number of retiring workers and a growing lack of interest among young people, embracing digital technologies can help ease the pain.

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Digital transformation is becoming a necessity for any processing operation to stay competitive. But as energy companies struggle to find the talent needed to operate plants or fields, the digital technologies available can be particularly helpful to narrow the skills gap.

The aging workforce that so many companies face is a challenge from a number of angles. One is the sheer number of those nearing retirement. “You have a bell curve in companies which is quite concentrated and quite high,” say Tobias Scheele, senior vice president of software for Schneider Electric. “Now, as this bell curve is reaching retirement age, there is a significant challenge in getting personnel on site qualified to operate these significant pieces of equipment.”

The problem is exacerbated by a younger generation that doesn’t perceive manufacturing as cool. “It’s not like working for one of these big fancy computer companies,” Scheele says, noting that oil and gas companies have the added challenge of not being perceived as environmentally friendly. “But if you look at the biggest investment being made in renewable energies, it’s from the big oil and gas companies. It’s still a challenge to get new talent on board.”

This obstacle of a retiring workforce combined with the difficulty of hiring new talent is not going away anytime soon. But there are several angles for manufacturers to take to help get around the workforce issues.

“There is not one magic bullet or magic technology area,” Scheele says. “It’s a complete journey. It’s a combination of several items—technologies, concepts, training, awareness, and automation as a part of it as well.”

Scheele recommends a range of considerations:

Further automate training. In continuous process industries, operators do not get much hands-on experience dealing with startups, shut downs or catastrophes. Making sure personnel are capable when these events do occur could require a complete rethinking of training, Scheele says. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies could provide full-blown training of how a startup or shut down needs to be performed—and be done from more convenient locations, including home, he says.

Safety is always objective No. 1, Scheele emphasizes. “Anything around training and operations, there is this boundary you’re not allowed to violate, which is safety. You need to make sure people are always being trained in operating in a safe envelope,” he says. “That’s what the whole training simulation is about—how to react in a real crisis, which you hopefully never want to happen. Fire, explosion, spill, toxic gas… You can train operators in a VR environment. You see how operators react, and get them trained on how to react better.”

Design assets that require minimum human intervention. To start, this concept should focus on very harsh environments, such as offshore oil rigs, environments with toxic chemicals present, or extremely remote locations, Scheele says. “From a design perspective, take into account that you don’t want to have any human intervention at all,” he says. “This goes to the point of how do I have my whole value chain digitized? Where do I want to have manual or automated valves? How do I design a whole plant so it can be operated remotely or without human intervention?”

This also goes back to Scheele’s first suggestion for VR training because when people do have to go to those locations, they will be even less familiar with the environment. “They’re not there on a day-to-day basis—maybe they go on rotating shifts and they haven’t been there for six months, but they still need to know where everything is,” he points out. “This could also help to attract a new set of operating personnel. It’s extremely high-tech and extremely appealing.”

Factor the supply chain into operating decisions. Ask questions such as: What type of raw materials do you have available to process? What is your output? Where is it going? What is the potential demand? Always taking into account the economic profit, Scheele says, but to take it to the next level, factor in the previous point of minimal human intervention. “If you know which raw material would require human intervention on site,” he says, “you can decide: Do I want to go that route or not?”

Look at upgrading existing assets. Decide where your priorities are—which sites are worth upgrading with the latest digital technologies and which should wait. The sites with the best instructions, procedures and methodologies in place to make these decisions will likely see the biggest benefit from digitalization, Scheele contends.

One of the first steps in making a digital transformation is to acknowledge that it will be challenging. “It can’t be just a side gig of a unit,” Scheele says. “There needs to be full awareness at the very top; it needs to be discussed and agreed upon at the board level.”

It also should not just be about addressing the aging workforce issue. It’s about making sure a company stays in operation and maintains competitive advantages in the marketplace.

As large integrated oil companies look at further automating operations, Scheele says, they should also keep in mind future technology advances—expect robotics to be advanced enough to handle remote operations, and drones on site for visual inspections, for example.

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