Among the many life adjustments COVID-19 has caused at several industrial organizations, social distancing and contactless interactions have become part of the new Standard Operating Procedure in a Pandemic. As such, two subjects that already had much interest in the manufacturing world prior to the COVID-19 crisis—remote operations and the autonomous plant—have gained even more traction over the past year.
According to a recent study by LNS Research, approximately 50% of industrial transformation leaders have an autonomous plant initiative formalized, and an estimated 41% of these leaders are accelerating their autonomous plant efforts because of the pandemic. Moreover, LNS Research reports that more than half of the study’s respondents indicate they will have remote operations centers in place within the next one to two years, showing an upward swing in this trend.
Certainly, among the top concerns of manufacturers driving some of this trend toward autonomy and remote operations are keeping workers safe while not disrupting the supply chain and sustaining operations.
While interest in achieving autonomy is growing, doing so is not without its hurdles and challenges. “Our recent research on autonomy revealed serious concerns that have to be dealt with,” said Joe Perino, research analyst at LNS Research.
“The biggest concern, interestingly enough, isn’t the technology itself, but rather concerns over lack of skills and trust in autonomous technologies and systems,” Perino explained. In addition, industrial organizations have much concern over business risk and regulatory compliance when it comes to autonomous operations. The bottom line is that industrial transformation leaders appear to be more concerned about the business issues at hand than about autonomy and technology overall.
Perino appreciates the concerns over risk and compliance, and believes that operational excellence is key to successful autonomy. In response, he poses these important questions: “If one cannot be operationally excellent, then how will autonomy improve one’s situation? Why autonomize, let alone automate, an inefficient, sub-optimal process?”
One area of focus that can help make the move toward autonomy and remote operations more successful is team alignment. LNS Research’s study shows that industrial transformation leaders do a much better job of aligning their core autonomous teams, consisting typically of engineering, information technology (IT), and operational technology (OT) functions. “And, those leading in industrial transformation typically have management in place that does a better job of supporting and funding autonomous initiatives,” Perino pointed out.
Furthermore, autonomy suggests that multiple systems need to work together, leveraging what Perino terms the concept of “systems of systems.” Systems of systems are where a collection of dedicated, independent systems pool their resources and capabilities together (i.e., interoperate) to create a new, more complex system that offers more functionality and performance than simply the constituent systems’ sum. According to Perino, LNS Research expects the autonomous plant to be architected as a system of systems. This will be a key consideration in designing the autonomous plant.
Though the trend toward both autonomy and remote operations continues to grow in popularity, it’s important to note that not all companies or industries will achieve their goals to the same degree or at the same rate. Industrial organizations need to develop and implement their own initiatives that align with their trust levels and risk management. As often is the case, change management can be the biggest obstacle to introducing anything new or different.
Perhaps one of the most interesting results of LNS Research’s study on autonomy and remote operations is the optimism among industrial company leaders that things will be returning to the “old normal”—the time before COVID-19 was a household word worldwide. A substantial 42% said they believed things would return to pre-pandemic conditions. “Unfortunately, LNS Research doesn’t agree with that,” Perino said. “We believe the new normal still has not stabilized as the pandemic continues.”