Major changes have come to the plant -- whether it's a factory, a power plant, or water works. A generational shift has arrived, and the plant is now smart, clean, and quiet.
Virtually every story I write about plant technology now includes revolutionary technology that is delivering high efficiencies, greater productivity, across-the-board optimization, greatly improved communication, and true automation. The technical progress at plants has been roaring for nearly a decade. That's after 10 years of stories where the only really new thing was the plant's front-office ERP system that didn't work right and cost more far than it was worth in savings.
When the technology shift happened, it caught the plant by surprise. Plants were silos, unconnected to the outside world or even the front office. I remember writing a story about energy efficiency in 2004. Plant managers didn't even think about energy efficiency. Optimization was a strange new word. Some of the younger Gen-X engineers were thinking maybe it would be better to take a laptop on plant rounds, rather than a clipboard. The Boomers laughed and said, "You can't balance a laptop on your knee."
Now the Millennial engineers have entered the plant, and they think the automation and control system should run like a video game. The Boomers can't argue; they're walking out the door in retirement. The Millennials think plant technology should at least equal the jazz of their personal devices. And they're getting their way.
Here's a short list of the technology that has revamped the plant:
- The Industrial Internet of Things
- Smart sensors and valve controls
- Cloud-based services
- Big data diagnostics and prognostics
- Simulated automation design
- Advanced robotics
- Safety and control on the same Ethernet wire
- Bring-your-own-smart-device for HMI -- iPhones and iPads
- Best-practice templates that can be deployed to multiple plants
This list just hits the highlights. You could add variable-speed motors, advances in hydraulics and pneumatics, ubiquitous Ethernet, wireless networks, predictive maintenance, and remote monitoring. To top it off, plants are beginning to incorporate alternative energy.
What's particularly impressive about the shiny new factory is that plants have been famous as technology laggards. It took 10 years for plants to implement ERP, another few years to get the ERP systems to work, and then another decade to get plant data connected to the ERP.
The generational changing of the guard almost showed up in the late 2000s. Baby Boomers were beginning to retire, and plant managers were desperately trying to replace the Boomers' knowledge with technology. There was simply no way the Boomers' experience could be passed down except through technology. There's a famous case where the last person who knew how to shut down a 24/7 process plant retired. When the company needed to turn off the plant for annual maintenance, it had to call in a vendor.
The automation industry dodged a bullet when the economy tanked in 2008 and 401(k)s were cut in value by 50%. The knowledgeable Boomer decided to postpone retirement. Now 401(k)s are whole again, and technology has caught up with the Boomers' knowledge. Where the Boomer used to walk around the plant to listen and smell for trouble, sensors are doing a more accurate job of detecting trouble -- and, in many cases, making adjustments to fix the trouble.
The next generation is in charge of the plant now, and there's a whole wealth of dazzling technology to deploy. Welcome to the future.