February 2020

Special Focus: Digital Transformation

Five key innovation concepts to impact frontline engineers in 2020

Gas processing, liquefaction, oil refining, bulk petrochemicals and chemicals plants represent a large population of frontline engineers and technical managers. Their professional lives will become increasingly impacted by the growing adoption of disruptive digital technologies and digital platforms.

McIntee, A., KBC, a Yokogawa Company; Finnan, K., Yokogawa Corp. of America

Gas processing, liquefaction, oil refining, bulk petrochemicals and chemicals plants represent a large population of frontline engineers and technical managers. Their professional lives will become increasingly impacted by the growing adoption of disruptive digital technologies and digital platforms.

Why focus on frontline engineers? Frontline engineers and managers represent a large cohort of people who are, and will continue to be, impacted the most by Industry 4.0 shifts and trends. They constitute a large proportion of the overall labor pool, and, in many countries, they are big influencers of competitiveness of domestic manufacturing.

As shown in FIG. 1, senior management has the biggest ability to orchestrate major changes in these plants; however, the implications of such changes are felt the most by operators through the actions of frontline engineers and managers. It is crucial that the 12 key areas for effective operations are given appropriate consideration and are matured accordingly.

FIG. 1. Senior management has the biggest ability to orchestrate major changes in plants; however, the implications of such changes are felt the most by operators through the actions of frontline engineers and managers.
FIG. 1. Senior management has the biggest ability to orchestrate major changes in plants; however, the implications of such changes are felt the most by operators through the actions of frontline engineers and managers.

How can plant management get a head start on advancing these 12 key areas? The Gartner Hype Cycle (FIG. 2) is an interesting and simple source of insight for graphically representing the maturity, adoption and social application of new technologies. However, it is not helpful for assuring frontline engineers of what their workplace will look like in the future. It is also not helpful for future decision-makers who are trying to allocate resources to build, buy or make purchase decisions around materials, equipment, hardware, software and services. These decision makers—whether human or machine—are doing their best to make optimal decisions with the best, albeit imperfect, information at their disposal. The hype curve adds more noise and cloudiness into this fast-paced decision space—one that is only getting faster.

FIG. 2. The Gartner Hype Cycle.
FIG. 2. The Gartner Hype Cycle.

It is called a “hype” cycle for a reason; many innovations driving huge expectations exist on the up-slope, with only a few making it through to the trough of disillusionment and out the other end for mainstream adoption. To help cut through the noise, frontline engineers and managers can apply five key innovation concepts. These will be essential to understand and adopt, and will provide personnel a head start on delivering effective operations. The following are five key innovation concepts for engineers to understand and take into 2020:

  1. Outcome orientation. The sheer speed of innovation means that there will undoubtedly be other tools and technologies that will become superior to others in one way or another. Companies will not be able to sit on the fence and wait for them to come; business must continue. Companies must put in place their best technologies and then plan for high levels of obsolescence. A large determinant of the future value of individual tools and technologies will become how compatible they are within a wider ecosystem/technology stack, along with the cumulative benefits of this integrated ecosystem/technology stack. A strong risk exists in applying technology for the sake of technology, especially with the pressure to deliver something with one of the latest buzzwords—Industry 4.0, IIoT, cloud, edge, big data, analytics, etc. Engineers and frontline managers must work backwards from business goals and constraints, defining the approach and technologies to deliver outcomes, rather than starting with new technologies and looking for places to apply them. Being focused on outcomes and values as principal concerns will ensure that companies do not fall into the “inputs” trap. Examples of valuable outcomes include efficient delivery of value, discovery and capture of new value, sustainment of value achieved and competitive advantage.
  2. Understand how solutions or decisions are made—black-box thinking (e.g., educated guesswork) is not the future. If leaders have defined their personal identities around knowing all the answers and being the experts in the field based on experience rather than data, they are going to find themselves increasingly marginalized (unintentionally) by the younger generation of engineers. This is because much of the information accumulated through extended years of experience will become better supported by data and information available on the web; essentially, it will become commoditized. What might have defined these individuals and their leadership styles—perhaps technical leadership through experiential learning on the plant—will be challenged. While requirements will always be needed to understand how solutions or decisions are made by management, instinct and experience will become less acceptable. Engineers will require the ability to see, tune and customize the inner workings of the tools they use. The value of experience in managing abnormal situations and knowing what “good” looks like will continue to be treasured, but how “good” is achieved will require broader input, especially given the new technologies that now exist and their rapid pace of change. A realization is needed that major efforts are happening across the industry to codify implicit knowledge to make it transferable. Embracing this—rather than fighting it—by being open-minded and developing transferable skills for lateral moves will be key to ensuring that these leaders will continue to be a part of the future.
  3. Decisions made with expanded support from a scalable digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual digital copy of a device, system, human or process that accurately mimics actual performance in real time. A digital twin is executable and can be manipulated, allowing a better future to be developed. It consumes data from connected sensors to tell a story—past, present and future—about an asset throughout its lifecycle. Desired outcomes of digital twins include asset and supply chain optimization, advanced production and analytical chemistry, automation and control integrity assurance, human capability assurance, instrumentation productivity, and holistic enterprise insight and plant design.

    Virtual digital copies of a device, system, human or process means that multiple different digital twins cover various aspects of the asset lifecycle and value chain. Most of them serve distinctly different purposes and run off of siloed/limited data sources and at fit-for-purpose computing speeds. While individual point solution digital twins exist today, a future digital nirvana has one multi-purpose digital twin. It is unrealistic to achieve a future state in one step. More likely, it will be achieved by the connectivity of valuable, high-performing, individual elements. However, over time, these digital twins will become increasingly holistic and connected for multipurpose/dimensional deployment and will run off increasingly ubiquitous data sources. In this future world, no single vendor will have the best of everything; therefore, vendor agnosticism and high switch-in/switch-out capabilities in the enlarged digital twin “platform” will be key.
  1. Holistic real-time actions through accessorizing. Digital twin insights streamed in real time to wearable accessories on frontline staff will better equip operators to make more holistic decisions. Sensory augmentation overlay of information on top of what is already observed and perceived by the operator will deliver additional measured information for operators to act on. Furthermore, inferred information derived through the application of complex physics- and chemistry-based algorithms to measured data will mean that new insights will become available for parts of the asset where traditional measurements are not feasible or viable. The outcome is an increase in instrumentation and equipment productivity. Enhanced data readily available in the field will help minimize breakdowns, enable preventative maintenance and reduce operating costs. The prediction of field device health and knowing the process interface conditions allow frontline operators to make better calls on shutdowns or failures. Within the field, key operator actions are captured, controlled and manipulated in real time through monitoring and control of work processes. This will minimize the learning curve for new operators, support change management and enable vastly improved scenario validation through operator training simulation and an ISA106-compliant modular procedure automation solution. This will help ensure that field employees have the information they need to safely understand the bottom-line impact of their day-to-day choices.
  2. Expert uses for less-expert users through new user interfaces. Through native integration with new, commonly accepted visualization tools and user interfaces, complex technologies and associated capabilities will be made readily usable and accessible by less-expert users. In many instances, the myriad technologies that are “running” behind the scenes will no longer be apparent to the user. The respective individual technology user interfaces will no longer exist. Instead, these technologies will interface to commonly accepted visualization and/or spreadsheet tools with embedded workflow capabilities. Users will be unaware of what is happening in the background. In turn, this will lower the barrier to entry of some engineering roles and enable some engineering tasks to be undertaken more efficiently in other parts of the organization. This will bring new meaning to making the complex simple. Data connectivity will enable more efficient use of software and technology—potentially within a central global hub—to ensure that the interfaces display the data for users to digest and arrive at the solution quickly. The outcome of this connectivity explosion is the increased efficiency of the day-to-day progress of the troubleshooting or optimization of the facility. Data connectivity ensures that this transformation happens faster, as if the technology experts were onsite. This is especially true for smaller enterprises where facilities are in distant locations and technology experts are not available in enough quantities or needed all the time. Working with a digital
    twin and data connectivity allows the less-expert users to concentrate on business outcomes.

Operational excellence is the desired outcome, and technological developments will continue to cause disruption to the job specifications of frontline engineers. While operational leaders across the refining and petrochemicals industries still believe in the engineer’s core skills (FIG. 3), they know that adaptation in line with key innovation concepts is the best way of achieving this operational excellence. Digital transformation combines a focus on operational excellence with operational efficiency, safety, quality and reliability. Whatever the ambitious targets the energy and chemical industry has, frontline engineers and managers are critical to delivering sustained value. Adaptation is an imperative and will be the least disruptive for their personnel and businesses. HP

FIG. 3. Survey respondents rated the importance of skills over the next 5 yr in achieving operational excellence. Source: KBC and IQPC survey of 100 operations leaders across the refining  and petrochemicals industry (2018).
FIG. 3. Survey respondents rated the importance of skills over the next 5 yr in achieving operational excellence. Source: KBC and IQPC survey of 100 operations leaders across the refining and petrochemicals industry (2018).

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