In these times of fast-changing automation, more and more companies are talking about “going digital.” Converting to digital data is not new, but thanks to new, enabling technologies, today’s digital culture has evolved into something far beyond what could have been imagined not too many years ago. “Going digital” is no longer just a reference to switching from analog to digital technology or going paperless in the office. And, it can mean different things to different companies, depending on where they are in the digital transition. At the recent ARC Forum, “Industry in Transition: Realizing the Digital Enterprise” (February 6–9, Orlando, Fla.), one definition, given by Marty Edwards from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) in his keynote address, is that digital means “connected.” While being connected is certainly at the core of digitalization, the transition seems to mean something much more holistic to most, and encompasses the Industrial Internet of Things, big data, smart machines, cloud computing, streaming analytics, augmented reality and more.
Applications in the CPI
Digitalization brings a host of possibilities to the industrial community. One concept offered by several companies is that of “digital twins,” where simulation software and actual data can be used to create a digital shadow, or virtual twin, of a running process. The “twin” can be used in various ways, for example to optimize a process or for predictive maintenance.
Another exciting area with applications in industry is augmented reality. Photos, videos and more can be used to create a three-dimensional reconstruction of a physical plant. This reconstruction can then be used for a variety of applications, such as for planning maintenance changes and for training purposes.
Data analytics, such as realtime analyses of incoming data, also called streaming analytics, is another benefit of digitalization.
In addition to offering data about production and operability, digitalization can be used in business models by tying the business side to production. Within the chemical process industries (CPI), one example of the move toward digitalization is a recent announcement by Evonik Industries (Essen, Germany). The company has formed a new subsidiary called Evonik Digital GmbH to be headed by a chief digital officer (CDO). In Evonik’s press release, Christian Kullmann, deputy chairman of the Executive Board is quoted as saying, “Digitalization offers more than new technologies. It also creates new opportunities for collaboration and production, and gives rise to new business models and marketing options.”
With all of the excitement around going digital, one has to keep in mind the increasing importance of cybersecurity. At the ARC Forum, DHS’s Edwards suggested that depending on your specific process, it may make sense to keep some functions away from being digitized, such as a shut-down function. He suggested that one “big red button” in the facility may need to be kept “unplugged” for human engineering to decide when to push it.
Sound engineering principles are, and will remain a fundamental need in all CPI facilities regardless of how far along they are on the road to digitalization. ■