How tomorrow’s automation technology will transform workforce

The automation revolution is changing how technology is implemented and how workers are being trained. Companies need to rethink everything from the top-down to thrive in the future.

By Joe Bastone August 10, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Automated technologies are helping to recruit and train the next generation of industrial workers.
  • Many companies face a knowledge gap deficit that automation can help address and help younger workers grow.
  • Many organizations want a more efficient approach to control system engineering, but it needs to work well with their existing systems and infrastructure.

Smart control technologies are fulfilling a cross-industry need for more adaptable, future-proof industrial solutions by enabling more efficient, sustainable, and safer manufacturing. To combat the loss of employees to retirement – ultimately creating a severe industrial knowledge gap – automated technologies are helping to recruit and train the next generation of industrial workers. Explore how new automation technologies enhance workforce safety and performance through more adaptable and accessible system assets. Learn how industrial facilities can use new technology to automate workflows, gain greater awareness of operational risks, and have a more comprehensive view of process inefficiencies. Gain insight on long-term benefits of remote operations solutions such as streamlining communications through a dedicated server, allowing employees to connect to systems via a virtual private network, regardless of location.

For the past several decades, industrial organizations have been required to be agile and innovative, designing their systems and processes to be flexible and efficient to meet fast-changing demands. A growing number of companies have implemented automated systems that collect and distribute data. This helps internal and external stakeholders monitor and optimize productivity and safety.

Today, however, the automation revolution is raising interesting questions about how it is transforming the industrial workforce — and about what it might look like in the future.

Most of the industrial sector understands its workforce is changing due to demographic shifts, technological advancement and recent challenging times. Smart control technologies are ushering in new ways of working and enabling more efficient and sustainable manufacturing.

Finding effective operational solutions with advanced automation

Industrial operations of all sizes are embracing various forms of new technology as they strive to lower costs, help to increase production and reduce response times. In this environment, however, plant owners are looking for practical advice for applying advanced automation solutions in a way that’s beneficial to their operations and workers.

The management of a workforce consisting of employees, contractors and visitors is important for manufacturers. Dealing with the growing scale of operations; increasing safety, security and regulatory requirements; and optimizing safety and compliance while maintaining operational efficiency are all crucial challenges.

Global health concerns are forcing plant operating companies to consider new strategies for maintaining safe, reliable business continuity with reduced on-site staff.

Many plant owners and operators have been reluctant to apply remote enablement technologies, primarily because their operations were performed in a fixed control center at the industrial site. However, the current business climate has driven them to transform their plants and processes through the deployment of remote operations strategies.

Despite the advantages of automated operations, industrial organizations need a more efficient approach to control system engineering and implementation, yet one that can be adopted incrementally and used interchangeably with their existing systems and infrastructure.

Delivering technology for today’s manufacturing workers

The fourth industrial revolution is altering the way modern industrial plants are run. New technology, such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and machine learning, aims to make manufacturing safer, more efficient and faster. Real-time data collection and autonomous operations that can be remotely managed have companies reconsidering the future of their workforce.

The industrial sector is currently losing millions of employees to retirement. Seasoned workers are taking decades worth of expertise with them and companies must find ways to use automation to help bridge the resulting knowledge gaps. To stay competitive, they also need to leverage automation as a recruiting tool and target millennials, a tech-savvy generation who will be attracted to the capabilities of smart factories.

For every industrial firm, it is extremely important, when transitioning their workforce, to retain the knowledge of production processes from experienced personnel and use the know-how to build expertise in newer workers.

Smart manufacturing is realized when industrial workers utilize innovative automation software solutions that enable the gathering and analysis of data, rather than to traditional hardware. Software tools such as digital twins allow users to simulate equipment and processes without having to invest in hardware to validate a proof of concept. In addition, the added dimension of not requiring experts to be physically on-site to manage operations enhances flexibility and further safeguards worker health and safety.

Ensuring long-term business continuity

Modern industrial facilities are highly dependent on their workforce. As a result, they need to implement new technologies to enhance their operational efficiency and security through seamless communication of data, automated workflows, smooth transfer of domain knowledge and digitalization of operational processes.

Plant owners have a keen awareness of the need to comply with changing economic and regulatory requirements and confirm all employees are safe, well trained and remain up-to-date with the newest certifications.

Industrial sites embracing the latest digitization initiatives can do more with limited resources. They can create an environment that enables employees and contractors to perform tasks using proactive, supportive processes. At the same time, they can leverage their technology investments to help improve the productivity and efficiency of workers through accessible, intelligent data that fuels real-time decision-making.

An end-to-end workforce management solution can help bolster safety and productivity by automating policies, establishing proactive compliance processes and integrating training into the workflow.

The current breed of digitized workforce management solutions uses powerful embedded analytics to advance the context, awareness and analysis of key decisions—exactly at the time they must be made. Furthermore, they employ machine-learning algorithms to detect meaningful trends within vast quantities of data and make highly relevant recommendations.

As a case in point, industrial sites can use e-permitting solutions to gain instant visibility of permit to work status for permit controllers, emergency response teams and facility management. They provide a paperless means to raise, submit, review, approve, reject, print and close out permits through an electronic workflow. As such, it becomes much easier to visualize where all work in the facility is being performed to gain a full picture of the cumulative operational risk, improving communication and safety in the workplace.

Driving remote operations capabilities for manufacturing

Recently, automation technology suppliers have developed augmented remote operations solutions, which provide rapid, flexible and secure deployment of remote operations strategies for critical industrial facilities. The advent of prepackaged remote solutions streamlines the implementation, testing and certification of remote access points for monitoring and controlling process industry sites. In addition, these solutions can be tailored to meet specific operational needs and unique topology and information technology (IT) requirements.

With today’s remote operations solutions, users can employ the same human-machine interface (HMI) displays, configurations and menus as a normal console station. Pre-built virtual machines (VMs) can be downloaded and deployed in virtual infrastructure and configured on-site to meet a specific facility’s needs.

With this approach, a dedicated server is used to augment the plant distributed control system (DCS) and provide remote operations capabilities to authorized stakeholders. A single server can host multiple concurrent users of control room stations, enabling operational activities to be performed from a different area on-site, from another operations center, or even by employees working from home who connect to the system via a virtual private network (VPN) connection to the corporate IT network.

For instance, an augmented remote operations solution can be used by plant engineers and process experts to monitor production processes, provide operational support and rapidly troubleshoot problems whenever needed, wherever they are. A remote operating station, replicating the control room console HMI, allows temporary control of the plant during emergencies. The remote workstation can also be used for incident investigations and process hazard analysis (PHA).

Simplifying technology implementation, automation

Industrial firms are under bigger pressure to minimize automation project costs and risks by making technology implementation easier and less disruptive. They are seeking greater flexibility in control architecture design and deployment, thus allowing for a more optimal use of physical and computing control system assets.

Many organizations want a more efficient approach to control system engineering, yet one that can be adopted incrementally and used interchangeably with their existing systems and infrastructure.

By decoupling control software from hardware, new control engineering methodologies open a wide range of possibilities. This includes hosting control on server hardware in a data center, dynamic controller loading on-process and easier temporary implementations during expansion projects or plant turnarounds. Another important capability is control hardware can be enhanced or updated independently of the configuration.

In addition to increasing project speed and efficiency, the latest control engineering and implementation approaches enable plant engineers to decouple the assignment of input/output (I/O) modules and control strategies from specific controllers and thus focus on an entire group of controllers. This technique shifts I/O to the field and makes it fully accessible to any physical controller, taking individual controllers and distributing the load so they appear as one controller to eliminate complexity.

For example, as part of a unit expansion, plant management might have to bring on additional control capabilities. The new project approach enables them to easily reallocate control functionality and still access all the I/O installed in the field. They don’t have to rebuild control strategies or move I/O modules to different locations. Resources can be added to the existing infrastructure on an as-needed basis without concern for overloading the controllers.

Evolving industrial workforce and challenges ahead

Industrial organizations face critical transformational demands ranging from operational acceleration and evolving technologies to a dramatically changing workforce. State-of-the-art automation solutions offer real solutions to these challenges through new functionality that can result in a safe, efficient and future-proof plant.

Automation technology advancements provide industrial workers with a real-time, holistic view of plant processes to drive better sustainability, productivity, agility and profitability outcomes. These solutions also give a new generation of operators, engineers and technicians a greater sense of purpose and empowerment.

Joe Bastone, director, product marketing for Experion at Honeywell Process Solutions. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


Keywords: automation, skills gap, workforce development


How is your company preparing for the automation revolution?

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Joe Bastone, director, product marketing for Experion at Honeywell Process Solutions.