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COVID-19 Upscales Industries From Automation To Autonomy

For many businesses, the pandemic guidelines necessitate that most processes, such as maintenance, service, and general operations, be performed remotely or with minimal human intervention. A higher priority is now being placed on the ability to continue operating with minimal or no workers present.

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The unprecedented pandemic times are here to stay, and various industry sectors are facing challenges with determination and the power of technological innovations. As the healthcare system copes with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, the governments across India are cautious and working towards breaking the infection thread. Social distancing and other forms of COVID-19 countermeasures have compelled an immediate recognition for autonomous solutions that enable operations with minimum human intervention.   

In this unprecedented situation, the industry is struggling to keep operations going while maintaining safety. When companies strive for greater control through innovative manufacturing programs, they have many business goals in mind. The efficiency of operation, the safety of the process and human resources, profitability, and having backup plans for unpredictable crises are a few goals all organizations look for, but getting there is not easy. 

For many businesses, the pandemic guidelines necessitate that most processes, such as maintenance, service, and general operations, be performed remotely or with minimal human intervention. A higher priority is now being placed on the ability to continue operating with minimal or no workers present.  

Manufacturing plants are being revolutionized by innovations promoting a transition toward more autonomous activities and decision-making processes. For many years, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have been enabling innovations, but each of these technologies has been used separately, and thus, manufacturers have not been reaping the full synergistic benefits. Now the industry is working towards the convergence of IT, and OT and the dual power is generating newer, safer and more effective ways of manufacturing plant operations.

As a result and adoption of these technical innovations, we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of industrial autonomy where machines being deployed have the power of cognition, providing the manufacturing industry with the capabilities required to withstand the current crisis and thrive in the post-COVID future where safety will be one of the prime concerns. While automation performs a series of highly organized pre-programmed tasks which requires human supervision and interaction, with autonomous operations, plant assets and operations have learning and adaptive capabilities that enable responses with minimal human intervention, ensuring the process operates at its best. Understandably, industries are speeding up to move from Industrial Automation to Industrial Autonomy (IA2IA).

Enabling technologies like robotics, digital twins, and AI are promoting the transition toward more autonomous activities and decision-making processes to boost efficiency and worker safety. In addition, the need for operational resilience has never been more critical in today's business world, which industrial autonomy adroitly addresses. 

It is the world of rapid change in the industry, a crucial component of the fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0. It seems that the pandemic has, in a way triggered a perception of what constitutes best and safe practices or operations. As a result, businesses have begun to investigate, pilot, and expand industrial autonomy in their operations. Fortunately, much of the technology and data required for the transition to autonomous operations already exist.

As a starting point, all businesses are currently in some stage of automated operations. The industry anticipates that as the economic situation improves, this IA2IA shift will gain traction.

Autonomous operations are assets and operations that have human-like learning and adaptive capabilities, allowing them to react without operator intervention to situations within a secure bounded domain that are not pre-programmed or anticipated at the design phase. They are in charge of all functions, including safety-critical ones. In a fully autonomous operation (i.e., one that does not require human intervention), the cognitive system is responsible for all aspects of the operation, including safety.  This is an ideal state that may take time to achieve, but companies need to make strides in this direction.  

Process control and procedures, planning and scheduling, supply chain management, field operations, maintenance, and engineering would benefit from increased autonomy. It's challenging to leap right into autonomous operations. It will be a gradual shift. Hence, some customer-centric solution developers have created a maturity model to determine where businesses are now and where they need to be in the future. 

As the industry reaches a higher level of autonomy, we envision a transcendent phase called "Symbiotic Autonomy," which focuses on further integration across industries.

The autonomous operations of multi-collaborating ecosystems are brought together in Symbiotic Autonomy to look beyond an individual plant and achieve autonomous data and resource interaction between plants and companies. This strategy will produce multi-win results for a wider variety of stakeholders in an environment where companies are expected to consider their activities from the point of view of global sustainability. 

Understandably, automation is the trend that causes the most concern among workers, particularly as a threat to manufacturing jobs. However, the ability to perform work without requiring workers to be present in a hazardous environment provides significant safety benefits, primarily by keeping people out of harm's way. AI and dynamic, intuitive robots are transforming the way companies work in every industry, whereas human resources are being repurposed for more meaningful work in safer environments.

It is the right time to start the IA2IA journey and, in the future, make symbiotic autonomy a reality across the world.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Sajiv Nath

The author is MD - Yokogawa India and neighbouring countries Sajiv is the Chief Executive for Yokogawa, India, Middle East and Africa and Managing Director for Yokogawa, India and Neighbouring countries.

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