The new autonomy
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, automation had already disrupted industries to such a great extent that operators could automate even complex processes. The pandemic has further accelerated the pace of the disruption. Organizations are now transforming operations not just for the reality we face today, but for the next normal as well.
Advances in automated technology, some of them fast-tracked during the pandemic, are pushing industries that have long been reliant on human resources for operational tasks to evolve, from those that face few, if any, hazards, such as recycling and retail, to others that operate complex facilities, such as the oil and gas, and chemical industries.
The need to develop robust supply chains, embrace digital-first customer journeys and ease margin pressure in industries prone to boom-and-bust cycles have made industrial automation a must. While that technology has so far been an effective solution for businesses seeking to moderate market volatility and reduce costs, automation still requires human oversight and intervention. But another breakthrough is emerging on the horizon: industrial autonomy.
Based on technology like machine cognition, cloud and edge computing, and smart sensing, industrial autonomy goes beyond automation. In this system, plant assets have human-like learning and adaptive capabilities that allow them to take control of the entire operation. That does not just enhance safety measures—it also frees up operators to tackle higher level optimization tasks.
The pandemic has presented the world with perhaps its greatest challenge in a century. For manufacturers, the disruption nearly overnight changed the very definition of safe operations.
New social distancing orders highlighted the human-oriented systems many companies have in place. That has forced even those with low levels of automation to embrace the technology to meet safety standards. With these public health directives likely to stick even after the pandemic passes, the future of work will accelerate automation in a broader range of industries, according to Kweilin Ellingrud, Rahul Gupta, and Julian Salguero from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, especially as focus shifts to preparing for the next crisis.
“Manufacturing companies are reconfiguring their supply chains and their production lines. Service organizations are adapting to emphasize digital-first customer journeys and contactless operations,” they wrote, adding that “39 to 58 percent of the worldwide work activities in operationally intensive sectors could be automated using currently demonstrated technologies.”
But one of the greatest threats to business continuity in the future lies in plain sight: Human error remains the most common cause of industrial accidents. As workforces age, more workers are set to retire, leading to shortages in skilled labour and making these errors more likely to occur. In oil and gas, for instance, 43 percent of industry personnel are 45 or older.
That is one reason many companies, especially those faced with complex, remote and otherwise hazardous ecosystems, are already moving toward unmanned operations.
Take ANYmal, for example. The “world’s first autonomous offshore robot,” according to developer ANYbotics, can operate autonomously in challenging terrain, thanks to the advanced mobility its four-legged build provides. It was first trailed in the North Sea in 2018 . Or Flyability’s Elios indoor drones. The Intuitive Indoor Inspection Elios drones can be used safely inside cities, buildings and around people, reducing the chances of collision and injury risks.
These innovations underscore a growing trend. In Yokogawa’s recent survey “The Outlook for the Shift to Industrial Autonomy survey of decision-makers in the process industries”, 64 percent of respondents revealed that they expect operations to become fully autonomous by 2030.
This impending shift is where Yokogawa’s Industrial Automation to Industrial Autonomy (IA2IA) approach comes into play. The approach supports businesses on their journey from automated technology, which still relies on human intervention, toward fully autonomous operations.
From 2015-2025, the World Economic Forum forecasts a cumulative 13 percent decrease in industrial injuries and accidents, entirely due to automation. The IA2IA approach offers even greater support. It enables responses to complex situations, without human interaction, within a secure domain. This reduces costs, keeps people away from dangerous sites, improves management of distributed assets, and lowers the risk of environmental harm.
In other words, autonomization benefits people the planet, and companies—a holistic system that supports efforts toward achieving sustainability and yields multi-win outcomes for stakeholders.
The rise of self-driving vehicles and delivery drones, greater investment in robotics, the implementation of autonomous operations in high-risk industries like oil and gas or chemicals: over the past several years, industry and commercial sectors have been moving toward the autonomous systems that will help businesses safeguard themselves against disruption and boost operational efficiency.
The journey from automation to autonomy, however, is unfolding gradually. Autonomy in field operations, for instance, might begin with a system guiding operators through tasks. In time, those operations can be converted to fully autonomous systems, reducing the human burden and freeing up workers to engage in other value-added tasks. The technology can even expand to help manage safety, optimize margins, and manage supply chains in the future.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, “Falling component prices, improvements in vision, gripping and mobility technologies, combined with advances in artificial intelligence, are leading to a growing market for collaborative robots that work alongside humans… A higher variety of tasks, work in multi-disciplinary teams, de-centralised management structures, and worker autonomy in task and process planning and decision-making are all attributes of the job profiles that will result from a focus on effective human-cyber-physical systems.”
As these systems evolve, they will begin to reach what Yokogawa calls symbiotic autonomy—the final stage of the growth to autonomy that begins with semi-automated processes. At this level, separate fully autonomous plants can independently share data and resources to optimize the ecosystem. That means, for example, that the energy, water, and material residue from one company can be used as a resource for another – a full circle exchange benefiting both the environment and the bottom line.
Yokogawa is already helping businesses aim for this end goal with OpreX. This comprehensive brand for Yokogawa’s industrial automation and control business offers solutions and products across five core categories—transformation, control, measurement, execution, and lifecycle. OpreX helps companies take the leap toward autonomy, optimizing everything from business management to operations.
Imagine a future pandemic. Instead of gradually adapting to new public health guidelines or stumbling over disruptions to the supply chain, industrial autonomy enables organizations to respond dynamically to changes in demand, customize their products, ensure quality, and optimise processes in real time. All the while the technology helps to yield healthier outcomes for the Earth.
This is not a far-off future. While the transition from industrial automation to industrial autonomy will not happen overnight, major players in the process industries agree: the benefits of industrial autonomy are clear – we need it sooner rather than later.
A clear roadmap in IA2IA, and a proven track record, Yokogawa is helping companies address the changes they need to make to adopt industrial autonomy, enhance the customer and employee experience, and fulfil their corporate purpose.