• By Renee Bassett
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As they digitally transform, many plants are in the early stages of the journey from industrial automation to industrial autonomy,” says Kevin McMillen, president and CEO of Yokogawa Corporation of America. “The move to industrial autonomy has gained momentum due to the impact of COVID-19 and is at the forefront of efforts to improve worker productivity, quality, and safety.”

McMillen says the results of digital transformation will “range from a connected, empowered workforce to highly agile operations that can rapidly adapt and respond to market dynamics.” And he’s not alone.

In the AUTOMATION 2021 Special Report released this month, Automation.com’s Bill Lydon identifies the “digitalization dozen—12 trends manifesting the manufacturing digital revolution.” From edge computing to modular machine design to 5G wireless communications and more, these trends are shaping industrial systems in profound ways. “The changes being enabled by both new technologies from outside the realm of traditional automation solutions, as well as by proven tools and techniques expanded into new areas, will have impacts as transformational as the introduction of programmable logic controllers and distributed control systems a generation ago,” says Lydon. 

This second annual Automation & Control Trends Analysis ebook, produced by Automation.com and sponsored this year by Yokogawa, reveals a future leading to autonomous operations, such as those described in this month’s cover story (“Digital Twins Enable the Autonomous Paper Mill”). McMillen says that, according to Yokogawa’s global process industry survey, “64% of end users expect to establish autonomous operations over the next decade.” He also agrees that the time is right for accelerated adoption of other technologies, such as open architecture, artificial intelligence and machine learning, cloud computing, the Industrial Internet of Things, and robotics.

Digital transformation requires the low-cost implementation of change, such as the ability to make rapid, iterative, and data-driven innovations in plant operations. That might be best served by the quickly evolving “outcome-as-a-service” business model. “Although complete outsourcing of the operations and maintenance of an entire facility—such as process-plant-as-a-service—is further in the future,” McMillen says, “smaller-scale initiatives such as equipment-, process unit-, feedstock-, or catalyst-performance-as-a-service are emerging.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly helped the idea of industrial autonomy gain momentum as companies seek to improve worker productivity, quality, and safety, adds McMillen. “Outcomes will range from a connected, empowered workforce to highly agile operations that can rapidly adapt and respond to market dynamics. Plants that make these changes now will be ready for the next big disruption when it arises,” he says.

Sign up to receive the AUTOMATION 2021 Special Report by visiting Automation.com/Trends2021 and let me know which of the Digitalization Dozen your organization is tasking you to apply and why. I want to know where you are on the journey from industrial automation to industrial autonomy.

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About The Authors

Renee Bassett is chief editor for InTech magazine and Automation.com, and publications contributing editor for ISA. Bassett is an experienced writer, editor, and consultant for industrial automation, engineering, information technology, and infrastructure topics. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from Indiana University, Bloomington, and is based in Nashville.