Plants don’t need more data. That may sound like a bold statement considering the process industries have placed great emphasis over the last few years on deriving more information from their plant assets with the aim of ensuring smoother and safer production.
There’s an important distinction, though, between deriving more information and deriving the right information. And to effectively meet the challenges that the next few decades will bring, plants need more of the latter.
That’s because technology truly carries as much potential to create bottlenecks for today’s operators as it does to provide valuable and actionable data. Indeed, data overload, combined with the increasing shortage of skilled workers, the growing number of regulations and environmental issues, and pressing safety and security concerns, creates a perfect storm for the automation industry.
All of this has led to the current unenviable situation: fewer skilled people must respond faster, handle more-complex processes, make bigger decisions, and face greater consequences across global enterprises. To create a safer, more efficient and reliable plant, it’s therefore more critical than ever for manufacturers to begin managing the data overload and turning information into real actionable knowledge.
To that end, six key technology trends (Figure 1) will greatly influence how plants cope with the challenges of today and how they’ll operate by the end of the next decade:
1. ubiquitous use of sensors;
2. wireless as an enabling technology;
3. development of applications that turn data into knowledge;
4. convergence of information technology (IT) and process control;
5. unification of automation layers; and
6. data management beyond plant boundaries.
All these trends are well underway and will continue to undergo dramatic changes in the next few years as companies attempt to navigate tricky markets defined by unpredictable demands.
Turning data into knowledge starts with the ability to collect the right data across the plant and enterprise. In this regard, advancements in sensor technology will play a critical role in shaping the plants of the future. As sensors become smaller, more rugged and more reliable, they can pave the way for some truly exciting capabilities to mine for more-meaningful process data.
Some specific areas to watch include:
• microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS). For decades, the concept of using “smart dust” to monitor variables was considered more science fiction than reality. Today, however, industry is truly on the cusp of being able to take advantage of this technology, which could be directly inserted into process liquids to derive unprecedented detail about unit functionality.
• wearable sensors. At many plants wearable sensors already play a valuable role in tracking individuals. Taking this technology a step further by adding fire- and gas-detection capabilities will enable supervisors to know if workers are potentially in danger. For example, is the mobile operator in an environment where hydrogen sulfide content is rising or where oxygen or nitrogen content is changing?
• flying sensors. This safety-enhancing technology is becoming a reality today. If a facility experiences a problem, operators can dispatch a remote-controlled flying device to visually inspect the affected area. These devices can include sensors that, e.g., can detect gas leaks.