It seems that not all that long ago, terms like “smart” sensors and wireless communication were making headlines in industrial technology. Those technologies have now become part of the foundation for what, in recent years, has been a rapid growth of advances that include the concepts of data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, digital twins, virtual reality, robotics and much more. While some early-adopter industrial facilities are broadly implementing these technologies, many others — perhaps most others — are grappling with how to navigate the complex web of available technologies and best utilize the reams of data that have become available.
One of the comments that I have often heard is that while much process data can now be readily collected, plant personnel don’t have the resources to sift through and use it. Detailed analyses of data can undoubtedly help plant operations, such as in streamlining maintenance and optimizing processes. A recent report by Lloyd’s Register (www.lr.org: “Oil and Gas: Achieving operational excellence in uncertain times”), based on a survey of 100 asset managers in the oil-and-gas industry, states that although predictive maintenance can lead to cost savings of 10–40%, only 18% of companies are using this approach. The report cites a reluctance to implement advanced maintenance strategies due to “perceived difficulties,” namely the investments needed in both the technologies and in skilled professionals.
Our two-part cover story (pp. 32–44) explains how data analytics is becoming easier for engineers to implement, without the need for data analyst experts. The articles offer examples of how data analytics has been successfully applied in the chemical process industries (CPI).
While robots have been around for quite some time, current robotic technologies have become much more sophisticated and are finding new applications. In the CPI, robots are helping, but not replacing workers, to carry out both monotonous and dangerous tasks. This month’s Newsfront (pp. 16–19) explores some of the latest applications where robots are being used to increase efficiency and safety.
There is, however, concern among many that robots will take away jobs. The effect of automation on the workplace, and in a broader sense on society, is the subject of an interim report issued last month by a task force from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; www.mit.edu). The report, “The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions,” offers insight on several complex issues, including the growth of higher- and lower-skill jobs, but a loss of middle-skill jobs. The report states that “Technological advances did deliver productivity growth over the last four decades, but productivity growth did not translate into shared prosperity.” The impact that automation has on our workforce depends not just on the technology, but on policies and more. “Technology is a human product,” said David Mindell, co-chair of the task force, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “We shape technological change through our choices of investments, incentives, cultural values, and political objectives.” The task force plans to continue its work and issue a final report next year with the goal of bringing a holistic perspective on technology and the labor market.
Dorothy Lozowski, Editorial Director