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Digital Transformation

Beyond the Buzzwords: Creating Results via Digital Transformation

April 2, 2021

Sometimes Transformations Begin in Small Ways

By Peter Zornio, CTO for Emerson Automation Solutions & Larry Cochrane, managing director and chief technology officer for Azure Global Energy Industry at Microsoft

Digital transformation is a buzzword we’re hearing often, particularly in the energy industry. It’s not surprising, when you consider how new technologies are helping energy companies monitor their systems in real time and collect, analyze and translate data into actionable insights. The promise of these capabilities–and the opportunity for companies to reach new levels of success–is legitimate. But contrary to the confusion surrounding digital transformation, sometimes transformations begin in small ways.

Leveraging the latest technology advances can have a game-changing impact on everyday operations. Advanced technologies can deliver actionable information on plant equipment, production processes and personnel health in real-time, anywhere in the world. By liberating data from the facility it comes from, profound new levels of collaboration and organizational speed are possible.

Manufacturing companies focused on equipment uptime, for example, must ensure their assets–from valves and pumps to heat exchangers–are working properly. Comprehensive sensor networks gather rich diagnostics information on plant equipment and deliver it securely to experts in a usable context. Depending on the employee’s role and urgency of information needed, lightweight edge analytics can provide immediate alerts requiring local action, while cloud-based tools can provide more robust analysis, including by third-party partners. Customers are using these IoT-enabled technologies to dynamically monitor the health of equipment in real-time from anywhere in the world, providing early insights to prevent unplanned downtime.

For example, in many industrial processes, steam supply is critical infrastructure, used to power many production processes. It consumes energy to create, so steam leaks are a problem, as is poor quality or insufficient steam. Through wireless acoustic sensors mounted on hundreds of steam traps throughout a plant, the digital ecosystem can “hear” steam escaping from traps, or traps that are clogged and affecting supply. Maintenance personnel can be immediately dispatched for a repair, enabling a savings of up to 10% in lost energy costs. This quickly adds up; it is just one of countless examples of ensuring equipment is ready to meet production demands.

The more we help our customers implement tools like these and other edge- or cloud-based applications, the more one key to success becomes clear: the tighter collaboration of Information IT and OT functions. Each bring their strengths to a business transformation strategy that crosses organizational silos.

However, as most of our customers would say: It’s easier said than done. Many studies cite organizational alignment as one of the greatest barriers to progress in digital transformation. In fact, in a recent study conducted by Emerson, nearly two-thirds of chief digital and technology officers said that “different perspectives on how to serve the business” was a top barrier to alignment of IT and OT.  Yet nearly 80% said IT/OT collaboration was critical for digital transformation success.

Both IT and OT are critical to safe, high-performing operations. As a function, IT controls broader information systems with business-level applications and maintains enterprise-computing environments. From offices to industrial settings such as power plants or offshore oil platforms, IT is concerned with functionality and security, focused on maintaining what they know works well to keep systems running smoothly. They are masters of standards and scaling technology.

Conversely, OT–the realm of engineering and operations staff charged with managing production technologies and systems–may be nimbler in seeking solutions that enable optimized operations and increased reliability. They understand the complex and dangerous processes their companies operate, and are also held accountable for the business performance their management demands. They are also ultimately responsible for the safety of their facilities and people, not to mention surrounding communities.

Historically, these two technology functions have been treated as individual entities within most companies. But today, the convergence of these once-separate technology architectures through the IIoT and other digital-transformation technologies can become a stumbling block for companies working to digitally transform their operations.

To ensure a successful digital transformation, our approach must change. As technology capabilities grow and become linked to everything we do, it is critical for technology experts to become integrated at every level of the company. Change management is required to enable this kind of functional shift–and successfully integrate digitally enabled work processes into day-to-day operations.

Leaders within the companies we serve find the best results when they establish cross-functional teams comprised of experts from IT and OT, with representation from corporate offices and plant facilities. This helps to create a common language as we pursue shared goals.

As a collective team, OT is able to work hand-in-hand with IT and communicate their goals, software needs, access requirements and more. When IT is able to understand the business and operational goals of OT, they are much more likely to put the most suitable technology infrastructure in place. This is a win-win for both departments–and a win for companies.

Collaboration between two traditionally disparate functions is rarely easy. However, it is something we are helping our clients achieve every day because we know it is critical to their performance. When done right, it leads to a successful digital transformation, and can help push a company into the next era of business success.