The Roles of Autonomous Operations and Device Data within Digital Transformation

By Dick Hill

ARC Report Abstract


Most industrial process plants and sites around the world are already well automated using a variety of well-proven digital technologies.  These include smart instrumentation; distributed control systems; human machine interfaces; and advanced control, optimization, and other advanced applications.  But as the digital transformation of industry progresses, ARC Advisory Group believes that new opportunities have emerged for many plants and other industrial facilities to further increase their levels of automation.  In selected cases, this could include remote and/or near- or fully autonomous operations.

Increased levels of autonomous (unmanned) operations offer numerous potential benefits.  These can include reducing costs, enhancing productivity by freeing up human workers to perform higher value work, and increasing human safety by minimizing the need for workers to have to travel to and work in remote and potentially hazardous environments. Obviously, increased levels of autonomy could also help maintain critical production during pandemics such as we’re now experiencing.  As we learned at a session on autonomous operations at the recent ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida,  leading industrial companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, have begun to move in this direction for selected operations. 

However, we also learned that:

  • Implementing autonomous operations in existing brownfield facilities (where the assets and operations were originally designed for human interaction) would be very challenging
  • Even with fully or semi-autonomous operations, scheduled maintenance campaigns will still require significant human intervention
  • New, more proactive maintenance approaches can help greenfield and brownfield facilities alike optimize asset performance
  • In all cases,  assessing the current situation and aligning existing technology with new application roll-out plans can be complex, but must be done before investment begins 

Existing Plants Designed for Human Interaction

As industry moves toward higher levels of automation, it is important to keep the human factor in mind.  Device DataWhile it may be possible to run certain processes autonomously or with minimal human interaction, transitioning from current brownfield operations will require careful thought as well as appropriate technology.

Applying Autonomous Technology to Plants

In his presentation at ARC’s recent Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida, Peter Kwaspen, Facilities & Equipment Technology Lead of Shell described his company’s path for new technology adoption.  Specifically, he described the journey as it relates to running facilities autonomously.  Mr. Kwaspen confirmed that autonomous operations would be extremely difficult to achieve in existing brownfield operations where the assets and the operations were initially designed for human interaction.  He compared this effort to one of the famous Escher stairway prints that shows a fantastical, impossible construct.


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Keywords: Autonomous Operations, Remote Operations, Proactive Maintenance, Condition-based Maintenance, Digital Transformation, Shell, Yokogawa, ARC Advisory Group.

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