Welcome to Automation World’s Technology Matters. I’m David Greenfield and today I want to put the spotlight on several companies whose actions are helping show where the future of automation—and industry—are headed.

When you talk about any area of technology—especially one like automation where the scope has changed so dramatically over the past decade—it’s easy to get caught up in all the technological possibilities. But without actual, widespread industry adoption of these technologies, that’s really all they are—just possibilities.

In businesses that can be slower to accept new technologies—like the manufacturing and processing industries because of the impacts to their day-to-day operations—many new technologies often appear to be little more than wishful thinking in the minds of the technology suppliers for years and years as industry assesses their value and decides whether to adopt them.

That’s why I find it interesting that more and more end users are now openly speaking out about their use of automation. It shows that these long-discussed technologies are rapidly moving into real-world applications and shaping the nature of industrial operations.

For example, at the Aveva World event, more than 100 representatives from companies such as Shell, Saudi Aramco, Nestle, Pfizer, Rio Tinto, and Covestro spoke at the event.

And it was Pfizer’s presentation that really underscored the potential of automation technologies in a way we could all relate to—because it was these technologies that enabled the rapid development and deployment of the COVID vaccines that helped restore not just business operations, but our everyday lives.

Pfizer explained how, just prior to COVID, the company was involved in a global historian program to centralize and standardize data across the company’s sites. And it was having this data groundwork in place that enabled Pfizer to increase its initial target of 100 million vaccine doses to 3.2 billion doses in the span of one year.

The Aveva PI historian system helped Pfizer do this through its ability to standardize data from Pfizer’s production equipment located across the main vaccine development sites.

And Shell talked about its interest in digital twins for real-time operations visualization by its engineering and maintenance teams. As Shell investigated the technology, it led them to build a data foundation using 100 years of Shell production data. The goal of this is to enable employees to work in one software environment for consistency of data access, as well as allowing external parties to securely work with this data in the same system.

Like most companies, one of the biggest challenges to building this foundation at Shell was the existence of non-standard data models across the company due to the typical siloed operating procedures. That’s why Shell is using Aveva Data Hub to create asset data models that integrate industry standards and corporate standards. They’re using it to develop digital twin maintenance operations based on asset data, and to move from operational data siloes to company-wide data flows by shifting from document-centric reviews and approvals to data-centric methods that ensure the validity of data rather than assuming validity based on existing documents.

Now, another automation advance that’s beginning to take root after years and years of discussion is open automation, which makes it easier to integrate hardware and software from different suppliers. Universalautomation.org uses the IEC 61499 run time standard to provide the basis for an ecosystem of portable, interoperable, plug-and-produce technologies that it says breaks the proprietary system bonds between automation hardware and software.

At the recent Schneider Electric Innovation Summit, representatives from ExxonMobil, Wood, and Intel spoke about their support for UniversalAutomation.org.

David DeBari said ExxonMobil has been using the 61499 runtime for years and it’s proven to be very capable. In fact, he said it’s proven so capable that the company is doing a rip and replace for a new open process automation system—using 61499 as the logic—at one of its chemical plants with 2,000 instruments and hundreds of control loops.

Brad Bonette of Wood sees the real benefit of IEC 61499 as being that he doesn’t have to think about it. He said, it allows us to focus on high value add components, like increasing the level of intelligence applied to process control instead of having to rewrite it for every hardware platform the company uses. He said users shouldn’t have to think about the hardware platform when they buy a control application.

Likewise, Intel is using the 61499 standard to create a new generation of Distributed Control Nodes, which combine the capabilities of distributed control system I/O modules and controllers on a small scale; for example, to control a single process loop or connect a few devices to execute a small number of control function blocks. 

These are just a few of the companies openly discussing their adoption of advanced automation technologies that are pointing the way toward the future of industrial operations. Others I’ve seen in just the past few weeks include:

Dominion Energy sharing data about its green energy mix to help its utility customers meet their own sustainability goals and also develop a new revenue source for Dominion from this information sharing ability.

The city of Salem, Oregon’s water treatment facilities are protecting drinking water supplies by sharing data to predict when harmful algae blooms will occur, enabling them to take proactive measures to reduce or prevent them.

And engineers at Aker Carbon Capture are creating replicable designs for the company’s carbon capture units. This helps engineers at Akers’ sites in Norway and India collaborate to bring their carbon capture technology to market 50% faster than before.

So I hope you enjoyed this Technology Matters episode. You can find many, many more examples of end user applications of automation technology at automationworld.com.


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