The Future of Workflow Is Automated Knowledge

June 3, 2009
In the not-too-distant future, workflow structures may carry the knowledge that typically lives in the brains of long-time plant operations staff. 

Mike Brooks, venture executive at Chevron Technology Ventures Investments, the venture capital arm of energy company Chevron, in San Ramon, Calif., has become a visionary proponent of workflow as the future backbone of plant management. Brooks believes that future plants will take the knowledge of experienced staff such as operators, planners and engineers, and embed it into an information technology (IT) structure to run the plant.

“Most of the knowledge we can’t afford to lose is built into the heads of the people who work here,” says Brooks. “It develops over years through learning and through the apprenticeship or stewardship they receive from the older guys. It’s embodied in the way they work.”

Putting plant best practices into workflow can provide a clear path to fast resolution of problems that otherwise cause production interruptions or plant shutdowns. “If an outside operator hears a pump making a noise that he hasn’t heard before that indicates impending failure, how do you decide what to do?” asks Brooks. “Operations usually wants to keep things going to complete the order. Maintenance wants to shut it down to minimize the damage. This is clearly a work process that runs between departments, and right now, we do not have an institutionalized way to manage this. We don’t have an automated way to do it.”

Brooks is convinced that workflow processes on the plant level can resolve this. “We developed work processes we can document and institutionalize,” says Brooks. “Whenever possible, we need to automate the work processes. If we can do this, we can increase the competence level of everyone, and work on a higher level just like we did when we implemented distributed control systems.”

While workflow is new to the plant, Brooks believes that there is a major opportunity for companies that get it right. “It’s the next big thing to happen—a software framework for creating and executing the work processes for collaboration between people and applications,” says Brooks. “There’s an opportunity for a visionary company to succeed in solving a large problem. If it gets solved, there’s money to be made.”

Related Feature - Workflow Automation Is Ready To Change Plant Operations
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