While there are still many questions about how business interruptions related to COVID-19 will impact the manufacturing industry, one thing is clear: the way we work has been forever changed.
Manufacturers are proving that they can run a plant efficiently with fewer people by incorporating existing technologies like remote access, digital twins, and virtual and augmented reality. These technologies have been viewed as a “nice to have” option for many manufacturing applications, but not necessarily a need—until now. Remote access, especially, has emerged as a must-have in the past few weeks.
As an example, Honeywell Process Solutions offers advanced automation and remote operation capabilities built specifically for upstream oil and gas, mining, and petrochemical processors. But when Honeywell was considering how to maintain business continuity for its own plastics manufacturing facility in Texas while abiding by social distancing policies, the company focused on how to reallocate its remote technology for widespread use. In order to work, however, the tools would have to be able to be deployed quickly and securely.
The roll out of remote operations technology to the Honeywell plant consisted of a software download, some configuration, and IT/OT collaboration around cybersecurity. “We found it was possible to assemble remote operations capabilities in a facility within a few hours,” said Jason Urso, CTO at Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS).
The test run at Honeywell’s own plant was successful—enabling fewer people in the control room with others working elsewhere. Realizing that manufacturers across industry segments are grappling with the same business continuity issues, HPS decided to make the technology available to all of its customers under the product name Experion Augmented Remote Operations.
The software is an extension of the HPS Experion control system, which, according to Urso has been built around open systems that has enabled it to work effectively in industries with geographically distributed assets, like an offshore oil platform. “Because we’ve embraced open systems technology standards, we were able to craft that offering into something simple and easily deployed across all industries,” Urso said. Of course, it does require a close look at network connectivity, and cybersecurity plays an important role. “That’s where most of our thinking needed to be applied; how to make this a simple deployment that could be managed by existing IT and OT staff while being extremely secure.”
Once installed—which Urso reiterated takes only a few hours—control engineers working remotely are able to view the process by looking at the same graphics and alarms that they normally see in the control center. The system can be configured so that credentials are required to view certain processes, or to allow the same control of the process as the operator in the plant, for example. “Forget about the physical boundary surrounding the plant, now the plant control room can be anywhere within the corporation with cybersecurity precautions in place,” said Urso.
While remote management of machines and process control has often been prohibited by IT for fear of a security breach, right now, requirements to reduce onsite staff to limit the spread of coronavirus has many manufacturers rushing to invest in this technology. And based on the success of such deployments, it could impact the workforce in the long term.
“We’ll find that these technologies not only solve the immediate issue in a pandemic crisis, but we’ll learn these techniques can be applied when we get back to normal in a way that allows us to be more efficient with a distributed workforce,” Urso said, noting these technologies enable access to knowledge wherever it may be.
The applications for remote operations extend beyond monitoring control systems. It can also be used to bring in video virtual support from an offsite expert or via virtual or augmented reality. Or it could pull in digital information to enhance a process. Machine builders, for example, are now conducting factory acceptance tests (FATs) of equipment via digital twins and virtual commissioning tools. Digital twins, too, can be used to replicate all physical assets to enable engineers to remotely work on plant projects in a cloud data center using a software representation of the physical equipment.
“By assembling a digital rendition of the plant within our project engineering database, it allows engineers to work from home and [still] move forward with capital projects,” Urso said. “It’s the same experience as if they were connecting to the physical equipment except it’s a simulation of the physical equipment. We don’t need people traveling all over the world and spending six months on a project when they can work on it from wherever they are.”
So, while the coronavirus has fundamentally changed how business is currently conducted, it may shed some light on new ways of working. “It’s opened our eyes to the possibilities available to us,” Urso said.