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Future proofing today’s industry: navigating evolving workforce, technology and operations

Schneider Electric discusses how to future proof today’s industry in the face of evolving workforces, technology and operations. Industries today are under pressure from tighter regulations, increasing market speed and volatility, and the need to modernise ageing systems. In order to keep pace, our industrial environments must adapt to improve agility, attract new talent and provide employees with the insight they need to maintain productivity. While Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are becoming two of the most overused industrial automation buzzwords today, they serve as a positive reminder that we must advance.

Understanding the potential that the IIoT and automation technologies hold in helping businesses to move more quickly and avoid falling behind the competition, is a critical first step. Applying this potential in order to future-proof existing environments, is the second important step. In order to both understand and apply new technologies effectively, businesses within the industry market must consider the impact of operations, technology and people in the workplace and how these impact on success.

Tackling the pace of industrial change

Today, industrial operations must respond to market changes in real-time. Critical business variables have begun to fluctuate with more frequency and the price of electricity might change every 15 minutes. This is impacting the production value and costs of an operation. In order to overcome this, process designs need to be changed by improving agility. For automation systems to play a role in this, they must be designed from their inception to be extremely agile and flexible enough to process change quickly and easily. As these process changes are implemented, object-based industrial service-orientated architectures can help companies to adapt flexibly, future-proofing their operations while maintaining the operational integrity of their plants.

A technology evolution, not revolution

Using modern process automation systems also future-proofs the technology in use. The most effective automation systems embody a ‘continuously current’ approach, allowing plants to evolve to the latest state-of-the-art technology, while preserving existing hardware, software and applications. This approach supports the notion that teams must accommodate change by introducing new solutions alongside existing applications, rather than conducting a ‘rip and replace’ exercise. This ensures greater business control and drives the evolution towards a smart environment that is more efficient, safe and sustainable. While many see the IIoT as a revolution, in reality it is an evolution of technologies and functionalities developed by visionaries over a decade ago. Therefore, rather than scrambling to replace existing technology, taking a considered approach to update existing investments is essential.

Anticipating the workforce exodus

Added to these challenges, across all industries today there are fewer and fewer skilled operators inside the plant, as the older, expert workforce moves into retirement. This creates a challenge for both attracting and retaining talent. New recruits naturally seek employers with modern working practices and the latest technology. That means industrial organisations must empower them with the intelligence they need to be productive and the tools to make their experience richer, irrespective of where they are. By using industrial automation applications, businesses can provide simpler, easier to use, and deeper insight to make plants user-centric (not machine). Furthermore, enabling employees to work using a mobile device provides better connectivity, with instant access to their system and plant floor.

Once industry organisations have hired new talent, they face a second challenge. They must now ensure that the intellectual property and operational insight from the ‘grey market’ is available to inform a new generation of engineers. This requires the use of software to capture and embed IP into the system environment before employees retire. Organisations can then build on this by combining operator training simulators and contextualised virtual reality training to help new operators achieve certification levels quickly. In fact, by embedding lifetime training capabilities into the online environment (using performance feedback and prediction software), new operators can actually reach higher levels of performance than their predecessors.

Adopting the smart approach

Those who begin making adjustments to the way they operate now, will be much better equipped to deal with the IIoT. By phasing in new processes and tools to complement existing structures, industry businesses the world over can create smart environments that are well connected, optimised to process change and meet fluctuating market demand. Manufacturing in particular is undergoing significant technical change, so future-proofing systems to maintain momentum and remain competitive, has never been more critical.

Martin Walder, VP Industry, Schneider Electric

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