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Data remains the cornerstone for an efficient and sustainable future for industry

Although the world is recovering from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck in early 2020 it has changed forever the way that we live and work. At Automation Fair 2022, taking place in Chicago, Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation highlighted how it has affected the customers that they work with. “When the pandemic struck, we were working with a large food company that at that time was focused on line extensions,” he says. “They were providing us direction in terms of how we could help them primarily centred around cybersecurity, and they were interested in driving productivity. That was the heart of what Rockwell is known for providing.

“But the pandemic, everything changed overnight. To start with, this company had to change who they were selling to. They were originally sold in bulk to the hospitality industry but had to change their whole model to sell to retail because we started shopping in grocery stores because going out to restaurants did not seem to be the thing to do in the spring of 2020. The line extensions increased in number and scale because they were providing a larger number of SKUs (stock keeping units) to meet different purchasing points.”

Manufacturing and industrial companies around the world are increasingly adopting digital technologies to meet their business goals. Everybody is on a journey, but achieving that successfully requires industry-focused ingenuity. “We are optimising production and productivity and that is the heart of what Rockwell has always provided,” Moret explains

More landing points for data

Another issue that was thrust front and centre by the pandemic was cybersecurity because there were so many people working at home. This presented a far greater attack surface through the firewall that had traditionally protected the four walls of an organisation. “Companies were still trying to focus on efficiency and productivity, but it was complicated because of labour shortages,” Moret adds. “The need to project virtually was more important than ever before. Rockwell was right there in our operations, as well as answering the calls for help from critical industries across the world, making masks, and medicines.

“What I was happy about was our ability to adapt the technology to be able to solve these problems quickly and I think we were a little bit surprised at how quickly we could act when we needed to. We found that whether it was the engineers who needed to continue to develop products, sales making sure that they were on the front lines with our customers, or administration, we were able to keep the lights on.

“The things that we have learned to do over the last couple of years are to take our solutions and combine them for outcomes focused on industry. We have added capabilities and found new ways to win, to be able to play an earlier or meaningful role in the company’s overall digital transformation. I was talking to somebody this morning and remarked that our ability to generate data from the factory floor was always a part of digital transformation, but it was well under the radar and late in the process. But the capabilities we have added provide more landing spots for that data as it is created with our information solutions. We are now a much earlier part of this process.”

Driven by data

Integrated control systems facilitate smart manufacturing for industrial automation solutions. Rockwell’s Integrated Architecture system enables manufacturers to deploy an industrial control system individually at a machine- or line-level to solve specific needs. It can then be scaled across multiple lines or plants to achieve enterprise-wide business objectives. “With our integrated architecture we can connect data from that last mile device, whether it be a variable speed drives and servo controllers through a programmable control system and then pass certain data up to higher level information management system,” Moret continues. “To that, we have added what is required nowadays with the ability to exchange data between software applications which has been done for a long time, but as it comes down to the plant floor, that becomes an important skill for Rockwell as well.

“This is not something that is brand new, we have been doing this successfully for a very long time, and it remains important. But the opportunity to differentiate broadens the scope of the integrated architecture with data exchange and software applications. There is a greater recognition of the amount of third-party data and destinations on the plant floor and bringing all that together again, simply in a way that can only be done by a company that understands where the data comes from, and what you are trying to do with it.”

The business value of simplification

This data and the plethora of it available brings Moret on to a fundamental criterion for successful digital transformation and that is a simplification. “One of the key things that we can offer is a simplification,” he continues. “Because I do believe simplification is going to sort out the winners and the losers in this business over the next ten years. It is a simplification of the technology and the business models because when you look at why automation has not traditionally grown faster is the risk. Plant managers are still haunted by the memories of projects that have gone bad in the past. Intellectually he or she knows that they or could get more throughput with better insight into the operations, but they are typically not starting with a clean sheet of paper.

“The technology is going to be complex, but by putting the tools over the top of that for the user experience we can simplify the way humans can use them. We cannot forget that humans are still very much a part of the equation and interact with the system.”

Keeping people engaged in the project

Automation has been a driver for industry for many years, but it has often been treated with mistrust by the workforce who view it as a threat to their jobs. Many applications in manufacturing cannot be achieved solely through manual processes. “People are still very much a part of the equation, but you cannot make a competitive automobile at scale, speed, and quality without a lot of robots in the mix,” Moret says. “You cannot make four billion doses of vaccine without automating the front end as well as the back end packaging.

“People are always going to be part of the mix. We empower workers with basic training, tools, and support. We try to give these workers superpowers and artificial intelligence is a big part of that. To talk about expanding human possibility may seem strange for an automation company to talk about, but people are at the very centre of our strategy and are absolutely on that critical path to success.”

Working towards a sustainable future

Sustainability is a challenge that is not going away for the industry. As the world moves closer to net zero deadlines the pressure will increase for everyone. Moret is adamant that meeting sustainability obligations are core to everything that the company does.

“I listen to my kids talk about it as the central point on who they want to work for somebody that is engaged in sustainability,” Moret adds. “We have always been involved with this with the efficiency that we provide operations, helping manufacturing companies use less water, air, gas, electricity, and steam. But with software, we have expanded what we can do by providing visibility as well as the ability to balance energy usage and avoid rate hikes and peaks. We are also doing a lot of work with the energy suppliers, helping the fossil fuel companies with their energy transition, and every one of them is now squarely focused on being a part of the energy transition. We believe that digital is the key lever for addressing sustainability issues.”

CTS The industrialisation of IT
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