• By Renee Bassett
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Nowadays, “virtual” tends to mean online—that is, experienced through a desktop computer or handheld device. We use it to describe an interaction that does not take place in an in-person physical environment, like a virtual conference or virtual classroom. But the other meaning of the word is as an antonym to “actual.” So when we say something is virtual, we are also saying that it is essentially not actual—that is, not “real.”

The industrial virtual environments that are emerging, however, are real—and are very useful—thanks to the Industry 4.0 technologies being applied. Getting comfortable with and even mastering these virtual worlds might be the latest essential skill for industrial automation, control, and instrumentation professionals.

Work life has changed in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and many things may never go back to how they were. A recent Bloomberg article notes how business travel, for example, has been “forever changed”; 84 percent of large-business executives from the U.S., Europe, and Asia say they plan to spend less on travel by cutting both internal and external in-person meetings.

Manufacturing companies cited by Bloomberg note that technology is enabling them to do remotely what they had not dreamed of before. French tire maker Michelin used a drone so its top manufacturing executives could virtually visit its Campo Grande plant in Brazil. “We start machines remotely, have used drones to visit factories, and train people from home,” said CEO Florent Menegaux.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc created online control rooms with interactive 3D simulations of oil platforms and plants to give engineers virtual access from home. Aptiv Plc, a former car parts unit of General Motors Co. based in Troy, Mich., used drones and Oculus augmented-reality headsets to show customers the manufacturing run rates of plants in Mexico, Hungary, and China.

In this issue of InTech, a closed-loop digital twin combined with programmable logic control and human-machine interface simulation enables off-site development and virtual commissioning. The wireless networking of Industrial Internet of Things sensors is eliminating walk-by machine monitoring, especially for far-flung equipment. And augmented reality has become “authentic reality” for Jaguar Land Rover and ThyssenKrupp.

As the CTO of Dell noted in a recent post about the shift to “visceral virtual experiences,” soon “a no-frills video call interrupted by deeply irritating Internet lags won’t cut the mustard. Hence, businesses should be actively investigating how they can build customer loyalty and affinity by providing a more sensory experience online.” Make the virtual world more real, he says. “In fact, in this on-demand (online-services driven) world, businesses should be looking to create end-to-end environments rather than discrete, transactional substitutes.”

I agree and contend that it will be the automation engineers who can best wrangle, as Dell puts it, “the emergence of immersive technologies, underpinned by a next-generation connective fabric, to more cogently, powerfully, and viscerally access virtual experiences.”

Dell asks, “In this remote-first working world, what follows Zoom and Microsoft Teams?”

The answer, in the industrial space, may be the digital engineer who has mastered virtual worlds.

What do you think? Talk to me via LinkedIn or ISA Connect.

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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.