How Technology Helps Support the New World of Work

Oct. 11, 2016
Achieving a true transformation of operations will require technology to support new ways of thinking about jobs, the way people do them, and the information they need to do it.

The digitization of processes and systems, inherent in concepts like Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), is enabling the greater collection and analysis of data, potentially allowing companies to make better decisions faster. But more companies are beginning to realize that the growing speed at which business and technology are changing is necessitating not just new ways of thinking about technology, but about the nature of work itself.

At Wonderware Live 2016, Tim Sowell, Schneider Electric Fellow and Vice President of System Strategy, said, “Businesses need strategies to transform the enterprise; to transform data to information to knowledge to wisdom. Most businesses have lots of data, but not a lot of wisdom—and the two need to be proportional.”

According to Sowell, the key to this transition means thinking differently about how people should work in continuously adapting environments and how technology should support them and enable them to do so effectively.

The biggest factor in this change is recognizing that people should be viewed as rotational, Sowell said. Running a company is no longer about “attracting people and keeping them. You have to assume they’ll rotate and your systems need to support that,” he said. “So you need to embed the knowledge necessary to do the job into system, and then augment it with humans” and their decision-making capabilities.

Key to this is recognizing the difference in training requirements for Baby Boomers/Gen Xers and Millennials—also known as digital immigrants and digital natives, respectively. For starters, digital natives multitask naturally. “They start work on something, move to something else, and then come back,” said Sowell. “Your systems need to be able to support that,” rather than a linear way of working.

It was once thought that the average tenure of a Millennial in a given position would be 2.4 years by 2020, but he’s seeing even that low figure coming down. “So you can’t design plants based on experience and process knowledge gained over time as we have in the past. You have to be able to rotate staff often and not lose productivity. That requires a fundamental shift in design.”

And though it has been increasingly popular the past several years to say it’s impossible to develop a five-year plan for a company due to the rate of business and technology change, Sree Hameed, Schneider Electric’s Software Marketing Manager for North America, contends that smart companies are focusing on 10- and 20-year plans.

“That may seem like a long way off, but when you think about corporate inertia and how long it takes to change things, this is the right way to look at it—especially with automation technology life spans of at least 10 years,” said Hameed. “You have to think about whether your automation decisions will enable agility and adaptation moving forward or create inertia.”

And that's not the only shift necessary, according to Sowell. “You need to free up the mind of the operator to adapt to change by automating as much as possible to transform processes and policies in a way that shifts more sophisticated business rules closer to the edge of execution for real-time response,” added Sowell.

“The way people work requires information from HMIs, MESs and Historians,” said Sowell. “So you need to capture all this information in a system to enable employees to do their jobs instead of designing these systems separately.” He noted that the evolution of Wonderware System Platform into InTouch Omni, which was announced at Wonderware Live 2016, reflects how Schneider Electric is adapting its products to address the markets’ business requirements.

The bottom line is that industrial businesses are not asking technology companies about “mobile, Big Data or IoT,” said Sowell. “They look at products, markets and the operations they’ll need to run to deliver their products to market.”

The digital manufacturing vision of Industry 4.0 and IoT that can help companies deliver on their plans needs a platform strategy, said Sowell. And that strategy shouldn’t care whose controllers or sensors are used in your machines or plant floor systems. It has to let you connect plant floor systems to the corporate level, interoperate across automation devices and manual operations, record streams of Big Data, visualize factory operations, contextualize business processes for plant level users, orchestrate production processes and, finally, standardize and scale these processes across the enterprise while supporting continual evolution.

As daunting as it may sound, Sowell contends that it shouldn’t be viewed as “a big project, but a journey made one step at a time. Start with the right business processes that will get the right results before focusing on the right technology architecture. By doing that, we have a chance to transform the way we work.”

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