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ARC 2021: Industry Leaders Share Digital Transformation Journeys

The Annual ARC Industry Forum celebrated its 25th year and for the first time hosted the forum online. “Accelerating Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID World” was held in February 2021. “We have held this forum in Orlando, Florida, for the past 24 years. We are excited to bring this one right to you wherever you are,” said Andy Chatha, president of ARC Advisory Group. ARC plans to host all future forums in hybrid form, he says.

The forum boasted 2,500 attendees, 400 companies, 200 speakers and panelists, and 75 corporate and media sponsors. Many of ARC Forum’s impressive lineup of speakers championed the phrase “IT-OT fusion” as they described the ongoing process of uniting information technology and operational technology into a single force operating for the good of the business. Individual speakers shared how they are using new technologies and processes to transform their business and manufacturing operations in the digitalization age, which has been accelerated by the pandemic.

ExxonMobil: Value of digital tech

“While our digital transformation started long before 2020, the challenges of last year had a few significant impacts on that journey,” said Nick Clausi, vice president of engineering for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “It accelerated the rate at which we were deploying digital technology, and it revealed value in digital tech that we didn’t recognize.”

Clausi noted that ahead of the pandemic, ExxonMobil had begun testing some tools for remote support but was hesitant because it believed remote support may not be as effective. However, the pandemic showed employees that they could do a lot more work remotely than they had previously thought, and the time efficiency allowed them to better leverage technical resources.

Like most organizations, ExxonMobil limited the number of people at its sites during the pandemic, necessitating the increased application of robotic inspection techniques that were under development. “Our Baton Rouge facility is home to the world’s largest IPA unit, which is a key ingredient in hand sanitizers,” Clausi said. “We were able to leverage our remote connectivity tools with our advanced dynamic matrix control capability to rapidly and remotely update control applications. We did that in sync with physical modifications we were making to the unit. We rapidly expanded the production capability of that IPA unit.”

ADNOC CTO Alan Nelson said, “Digital and AI are not about replacing people, but about enhancing what people can deliver.”

Clausi also recognized potential opportunities in autonomous operations moving forward. Operators are tasked with running fairly complex processes safely and efficiently around the clock. They need to synthesize large quantities of data and manipulate potentially hundreds of variables to optimize an outcome, making this a rich area to use digital technology. ExxonMobil is working on intelligent self-optimizing plants. “The goal here is to take advantage of cognitive learning and adaptive capabilities based on AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning to automate, reduce human error, and make better decisions,” Clausi said.

“We tend to simultaneously overestimate the risk and underestimate the value of our digital technologies and transformation,” Clausi said. “And that’s a really important lesson for all of us to keep in mind as we pursue some of the more challenging digital technologies and applications.”

ADNOC: Enhancing what people do

Alan Nelson, chief technology officer of Abu Dabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), spoke about how ADNOC is applying technology to frame the opportunity and challenge of the pandemic and the call for increased digitalization. Nelson emphasized that “digital and AI are not about replacing people but about enhancing what people can deliver.”

“There are multiple opportunities to harness the power of digital and AI across the entire oil and gas value chain,” Nelson said. He listed nine active projects and introduced Panorama, which he called “the gateway to ADNOC’s digital transformation. It represents the single source of accurate and timely information across our value chain,” he said. “It visualizes and streamlines our entire operations and our critical business information on a single 50-meter video wall in one secure facility. It puts big data at the fingertips of our sharpest minds.”

ADNOC has made advances in predictive maintenance with centralized predictive analytics and diagnostics, which applies AI algorithms to predict critical equipment anomalies ahead of time, as well as with a smart expert system to deliver automated predictive maintenance advisories. The company also applied Panorama as part of its COVID-19 response. Its predictive AI models could predict, track, and model COVID-19 infections and recovery progress and simulate scenarios to practice health and safety measures.

—By Melissa Landon

Automation Salaries in a Global Pandemic: A Snapshot

Are you paying your automation employees enough? How did your salary change during the past year of economic turmoil from a global pandemic? Answers to those questions are reflected in the 28-page Automation.com 2020 Industrial Automation Salary Survey of engineering, business, and technical professionals in manufacturing and industry.

Worldwide 2020 gross salary for automation professionals. Source: Automation.com Annual Salary Survey

Overall, the survey indicates a slight increase in global salaries over 2019 levels. A survey emailed to our global audience in November resulted in almost 2,000 responses, with 60 percent of respondents from the U.S. Nearly 64 percent of respondents indicated they received or expected to receive an increase in total compensation in 2020 over 2019. However, nearly half (47 percent) of those expecting an increase anticipated it to be less than 4 percent.

About 22 percent of all respondents made $59,999 or less; 25 percent made $60,000 to $99,999; and 41 percent of respondents made between $100,000 and $174,999. Just over 10 percent of respondents reported making $175,000 or more in 2019.

By many measures, 2020 was a year of disruption, uncertainty, and change. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals, local and national economies, individual businesses, and global supply chains continue even now. So this year’s survey asked a few open-ended questions about automation professionals’ experiences during this pandemic.

Reports are that most industrial companies are weathering the pandemic storm well. Plenty of answers to our survey indicated either a lack of change in workplace situation or just a positive regard for companies’ efforts to maintain normalcy for employees. For example, one respondent noted, “I believe my company has handled the pandemic about as well as we could.” Others report seeing negative effects of the pandemic; one respondent simply said, “The pandemic has made in-person work very difficult.”

Whatever your personal experience of working through the pandemic, it seems other automation professionals experienced similar things. For some, working remotely was a necessity in 2020; for others, it was just more of the same. Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents indicated they had the ability to do their job remotely, while 25 percent said they did not. More than one-quarter (26.8 percent) said they were working remotely at the time they took the survey.

The full 28-page salary survey results report includes figures that break out salary data by factors that influence salary, such as job function or years of experience. It also reports salary trends both globally and only for U.S. respondents.

—By Melissa Landon

Automotive Plants Lead in Robot Density

Robot density in the automotive vs. general industries 2019 Source: International Federation of Robotics
According to the latest stats from the World Robotics report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), robot density—the number of installed units per 10,000 employees—worldwide in general industry is still relatively low, at only 139 units. The robot density in U.S. automotive plants, however, hit a new record of 1,287 installed units per 10,000 employees. The U.S. auto industry ranks seventh worldwide, with a density similar to Germany (1,311 units) and Japan (1,248 units). China is in 12th place with 938 units.

In all surveyed countries, the potential for robot installations overall is high as digital transformations take place, and some are investing. In the U.S., yearly orders of robots from nonautomotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders for the first time in 2019. Food and consumer goods plants ordered 60 percent more robots, for example, while plastics and rubber plants saw a 62 percent increase. Year-over-year orders for robots by U.S. life sciences companies increased by 72 percent.

“Automation is the key not only to post-pandemic recovery, but to post-pandemic growth and progress,” says Milton Guerry, president of IFR. After the 2008 financial crisis, companies like General Motors, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, and Tesla invested extensively in robotics and automation, he says. As a result, thousands of new jobs were created in the automotive industry. Now is the time for other industries to learn from that lesson, he says.

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