How Covid-19 boosted digital transformation for industrial enterprises

How Covid-19 boosted digital transformation for industrial enterprises

Digital technologies adopted during the pandemic will help firms move towards connected workplaces 

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Over the past 12 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how organisations across the industrial sector operate, forcing them to quickly adapt to a radically different business environment to stay competitive. However, at the same time, it has also empowered businesses to accelerate their digital transformation projects, many of which had already been embarked on before the pandemic. 

By leveraging digital technology as an enabler for the shift in their operations, these organisations were able to create a solid foundation on which to build and deploy strategies for the new business environment. The projects that were already approved or in construction mode have continued to progress, but with the caveat that the cost of project execution was materially reduced. For engineering, procurement and construction companies, driving efficiencies to reduce the execution cost of lump sum turnkey contracts has become central to their digital transformation efforts. 

Petrochemical product manufacturer SCG Chemicals, for example, used virtualised operating and engineering information from its assets to create a 3D virtual plant and ensure safe and reliable operations. It was able to integrate multiple data sources with rich analytics to predict issues and prescribe remedial actions. It also used artificial intelligence-infused mobile operator solutions to increase efficiency and reduce errors. 

Meanwhile, gas and oil company Petronas has replaced its legacy tools with digital technologies to expedite decision-making processes and allow it to leverage common information across multiple sites, while also eliminating value leaks from inconsistent data. This has decreased crude oil evaluation time, optimised fuel and electricity consumption at each refinery site, and increased margins across the supply and distribution network. 

Many of the experiences and lessons learned over the past year have already started to define what the future of the industrial enterprise could be. Demand and supply will continue to be volatile, so companies will need to remain operationally resilient and agile. They will have to set up information and processes across the procurement, planning scheduling, production and distribution value chain to enable informed decision-making and allow them to rapidly respond to shifts in demand and supply to mitigate the impact to the bottom line. 

Sustainability will also be an increasing focus. Demand patterns have already shifted to clean energy, natural resource conservation and health centre consumption. Meanwhile, capital projects will focus on building assets that are designed for sustainable operations. Product mixes will shift to addressing the new demand patterns, supply chain and production will be targeted towards delivering these products. Indeed, we are already seeing operations being proactively managed to minimise any environmental impact. 

In addition, organisations will increasingly move from automated to autonomous operations as workforce capacity is rationalised to market conditions. They will need to embed higher levels of intelligence into their operating assets and operational applications to smoothly adapt to new requirements while consistently meeting operational goals, quality, safety and complying with regulatory norms. 

Currently, employees with a high level of expertise supervise the complex assets that power mission-critical operations to ensure safety. However, as operations become autonomous, assets will likely be supervised remotely. This means that companies will increasingly build availability, reliability and safety into their assets with the help of more pervasive sensors, data aggregation, predictive analytics and prescriptive guidance to pre-empt failures and take the right remedial actions to restore safe operation with minimal disruption. 

The rise of automation will also change the role humans play. As the next generation starts to resume its responsibilities, expertise based on years of experience will gradually be replaced by a new digital skill set. Designers, engineers, operators and managers will be equipped with the information, analysis, automation and guidance they need to enable them to execute tasks efficiently and safely – both individually and as part of a digitally connected team. Consequently, the human role will become less about handling the transactional and procedural aspects of work, and more about using digital tools to gain deep insights and offer additional capabilities. This will create a new framework for learning and development, with companies focusing on upskilling people with competencies that will be relevant in the new digitally connected workplace.  

The outcomes of digital transformation initiatives that have been accelerated over the past year have underscored the critical role of technology in the industrial sector. Not only is it an enabler for the future industrial enterprise, but it also allows them to break down information and process silos with a common digital thread across the asset lifecycle and the operational value chain. We are now entering a new era where major industrial operations are creating experiences as intuitive and compelling as consumer technology – and that can only be a good thing. 

Ravi Gopinath is chief cloud officer and chief product officer at AVEVA 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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