‘The future of automation is to increase the value generated in a plant’--Alex Johnson, System Architect, Next Generation Systems, Schneider Electric
Reliability and efficiency are said to be inversely proportional. How does digital transformation change this equation?
To maintain reliability today, people typically do scheduled maintenance, preventive maintenance or predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance isn’t so common and it is hard to implement. It is easy to do scheduled maintenance or wait till it breaks! But with new data analytics and new sensors, it should be possible to do accurate predictive measurements. There are companies in Silicon Valley that have built software to listen to rotating equipment and build a model on that sound and give very accurate interpretation on the state of the machine. That’s a big difference. Efficiency is decreased when the equipment is not available. With predictive maintenance one can maximise the time the equipment is running and minimise the impact by efficiently scheduling the repairs to minimise downtime, thereby raising efficiency.
What is the future of automation?
The future of automation is to increase the value generated in a plant – that’s the real future of automation. In terms of how sensors work, who cares? People don’t buy automation equipment because they love it; they buy it to make money from their plant. Basically, people do not want to pay for any equipment and want to get as much out of the plant as they can. With that in mind, what I think will happen is, the cost of equipment will go down as new technologies become available, and applications and other approaches would be used to generate more value out of that equipment. That’s the future of automation. If you want to know what microprocessors will be used, what operating systems will be used or what technology, I will say it does not matter. What matters is the cost of the equipment goes down and that of the value delivered goes up. That is the future of automation. Everything else is details.
Do you think people look into details more than they should?
Oh yes. People want to buy technology because they perceive that technology is good. My point is that is not the reason to buy. The reason you spend on the plant is to make money. You should look at the purchases you are making, are they going to help you make money or not? If they do, great; if they don’t, then don’t buy it! If it turns out that using an abacus is going to run the accounting department is better than buying a computer, then buy an abacus – I do not think that is the case, by the way! But the point is technology choice does not necessarily translate into more profits. It is easy to buy technology and make yourself less profitable.
So how do enterprises decide which technology works?
They need to study that. That’s exactly where they need to spend their time. My message to them would be look at what makes you profitable not at the technology. Determine where your problem is. Determine what it will be like once the problem is solved. Then choose the right tools and the right technology to make that happen. Don’t worry about the technology to start with. Someone came today and asked about artificial intelligence. Now AI is a tool. What problem you are trying to solve? Do not ask me what AI can do to your business. That is not relevant. Tell me the problem you want to solve. Then look at the solution and what you want the solution to do for you and then we will go and find the technology to make it happen. Don’t look at the technology first, understand the problem first. Once you understand the problem, finding the solution is easy.
So against this backdrop, what would the ultimate dream plant look like?
I like the idea of a self-driving car and I would love to have a self-driving plant.
Do you see that happening?
I don’t know why it couldn’t. If a car can be taught to drive on the streets of Mumbai, then running a refinery is easy. There is a lot less data to process, and it is a lot more stable than the traffic situation, so yes, we can do it. The question then becomes, is it economical for a vendor to develop a self-driving plant?
With the costs tied to today’s technology probably not. How many refineries do we have in the world – 500? That may not justify the investment. The market for self-driving cars is millions of units per year. But if AI tech tools get better to support that market, then maybe we can afford to adapt them to our businesses – refining, chemical production, power generation, food production, pharmaceuticals, and more. That would be my idea of the future state – self-driving process plants.
You have been interacting with a lot of companies in India and internationally. Is cyber security given adequate attention?
No company in the world takes it seriously enough, in my opinion. There are many companies that take it seriously. But seriously enough? I am not convinced. There are a lot of holes in security systems. It is like running a race with a bear, where you have to run faster than the others the bear is chasing to survive. You try to make your more plant secure than the others so the bad guys attack those with lesser security.
I doubt that companies can ever be as aggressive as they need to be about cyber security because for them it is a cost; it lowers profits in the short-term. It’s like insurance. For the bad guys though the situation is different. There is a lot of value in disrupting companies and so they are motivated to use the latest and the best technologies. The guy who is defending himself has weaker position because of the demand for profitability. Therefore, the model most people have taken is build layers of defence and try to be more secure than the one next door.
Talking about this Industry 4.0, IIoT, Blockchain, Big Data – how do you see these trends?
As I said, tell me the problem you want solved, and then we talk about technology. I don’t care about all this stuff. Well, I do, but only when we get to the point about the tools to use.
Are you so blunt when you talk to your customers?
Oh yes – the only reason we are here is to solve client problems. So let’s talk about those problems and not about technology. Technology will get talked about, but that should not be the first thing we talk about. The first thing we should talk about is what’s causing you pain today. To me the only reason to talk to any vendor of customer is what can make things better. That’s how I can help.