Are you prepared to work in an autonomous plant?

March 7, 2013
Mike Bacidore says information-driven manufacturing requires powerful analytical tools.

The ARC Forum is an annual gathering of industrial intelligence to take stock of where we’ve been and cast an eye toward where we’re headed. The 17th annual event in Orlando, Florida, this past February was loaded with insights.

More than 600 individuals from 22 countries attended, and one of the topics that kept surfacing was the industrial Internet of things, which GE estimates can add $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Its core components include intelligent, low-cost sensors; intelligent machines capable of local control; Internet access or remote communications infrastructure; a public or private application platform or cloud; big data analytics; intelligent services; and robust security, which will be a mega challenge, explained Andy Chatha, president and CEO of ARC Advisory Group (, in his keynote address.

“For information-driven manufacturing, the challenge has been that you haven't had good tools to analyze the data,” explained Chatha. “We now have very powerful analytical tools to help analyze data.”

With so many different data platforms — enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), manufacturing operations management (MOM), and asset, application, and product lifecycle management (ALM/PLM) — information-driven companies embrace key technologies throughout the enterprise and make decisions based on data from all sources, put information and analysis tools at employees' fingertips, collaborate internally and externally with partners, seek opportunities to transform business processes, and properly fund technology pilot projects, said Chatha.

Mike Bacidore has been an integral part of the Putman Media editorial team since 2007, when he was managing editor of Control Design magazine. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at 630-467-1300 ext. 444 or [email protected] or check out his .
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As plant systems become more autonomous, devices, machinery, and plant equipment will become more intelligent and connected, and mobile devices will become the preferred user interface, predicted Chatha. Supervisory application will move to some form of cloud, remote asset and operations monitoring will grow rapidly, and 3D simulation and visualization will become the norm, so robust cybersecurity monitoring will be essential, he warned.

“Having data at the right time in the right way involves risk management,” said Patricia Sparrell, manager, automation, optimization and global support, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering ( “IT wants security, and controls engineers want availability. It's not a trade-off. It has to be both. IT and controls have to work together.”

Asset and product lifecycle solutions will become integrated, and analytics models will constantly monitor plant operations to improve performance and predict potential failures.

Are we ready for this autonomous plant? GE thinks we are. Over the past two years, it has recruited more than 250 engineers to work at its San Francisco software center, where a billion-dollar investment is in the works to create its part of the industrial Internet, connecting the digital intelligence of machines. GE thinks industry is as ready for shared intelligence as consumer markets were, and GE is one of the companies that can bring a sizable amount of machinery together.

“We talk about the power of 1%,” explained Jody Markopoulos, president and CEO, GE Intelligent Platforms ( “It's about driving 1% of productivity, using a control platform to drive information to make assets smarter and make processes work better. It's taking the combination of deep-domain knowledge with the power of the Internet and the analytics from physics and statistics, and then unleashing it in a plant. It’s what that can do. We're harnessing that technology across the verticals, investing in new places to increase our knowledge in the software space.”

The engineering community must be inspired to come together and take risks, said Markopoulos. “You couple that with the power of controls and software to reduce that risk,” she explained. “Think about what they worry about, what they need, and how they need to perform. When the original controls were put into your plant, you expected them to last 20 to 30 years. In the future, how do you harness the value of that chip? For the people who operate the equipment, you have lots of capability to unlock. Technology, because of the Internet revolution, provides a brand new world for the control platform and for the operator in all sorts of applications. How do you make that step?”

I think we’re about to find out.

Check out Mike's blog, Plant Ambassador, for weekly updates and insights into the world of maintenance and reliability.