Software Enables Decarbonization, Not Hardware

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How can we make our operations more efficient?

It’s a question I get asked a lot by industry leaders. As the process automation board member of German industrial association ZVEI, I’m able to speak with organizations directly – learn what’s needed to optimize their operations for the future. Generally, many of them asking what’s needed to combat climate change; and the answer is no longer hardware.

Today, 40% of global carbon emissions are produced by the process industries, but we are finally beginning to see big pushes towards sustainable business practices. There are two primary factors towards curbing global emissions: digitalization, which is driven by electrification.

We know that 70% of carbon dioxide emissions can be removed through technology that exist today. A quarter of that comes from driving digitalization to increase efficiency in processes by eliminating waste and optimizing operations to increase profits. And then about a third of that emission removal can be found in decarbonizing – going electric in your operations, which is the most efficient form of energy. The remaining half or so comes from decarbonizing the supply chain.

When organizations take a leadership approach, we encourage others to follow suit. To be carbon neutral by any specific timeline, is a target we must work towards on a global level. Business-focused thinking and striving for a reduced impact on the climate go hand in hand.

But there remains this common view that being sustainable impacts business and profits. To the contrary, it’s only when businesses begin to transform that they will see success over the next couple of decades.

Decarbonization through software-centric operations

A transformation is underway. Looking at just central Europe, many of the chemical companies are running at a maximum of 50 – 70% of production potential because of plant operation costs and resources.

When I recently spoke to a head of operations at one chemical company, they were initially tasked with producing as much as possible with as little resources and human power as needed. Those C-suite agendas have changed.

Now operators are being asked what time of day it is the cheapest to produce and what kind of energy is used and where it comes from. This is data that was previously not considered. Tiny steps are being taken towards efficiency by, for example, shifting production schedules because energy is less costly and more available at a certain time.

Operators also must consider the aging and obsolete infrastructure many of these legacy operations have, as well as their retiring workforce. Younger generations, when they enter the plant, have little familiarity with the older components and instruments, and then a balance must be sought to train older employees up to newer processes. This represents a moment of “opportunity versus capability,” and one of the answers involves partnering with a company who is laser-eyed focus on digital transformation in OT operations.

Training goes a long way. Tasks that don’t require a worker behind it need to be automized so those employees can focus on more value-add activities.

Another company I spoke with achieved a very successful digital transformation, reducing their energy costs in half. Said company achieved their sustainability and employee goals – and their economic success over the next few decades – by implementing electrification and then incorporating digitalization.

Software-centric plants have the benefit of utilizing open process automation to its maximum potential, segmenting their operations to gather data, analyze and optimize, and remain adaptable the latest technology.

In this path towards net zero, data is required and therefore an open infrastructure is required. A modular approach is optimal. Understanding every bit of the plant process and separating it into more manageable functions, i.e., segmentation.

It’s quite a journey that industries are on, but one with clear actions to reach the destination. Modular operations. Open infrastructures. The work we’re doing with organizations like Universal Automation, an organization of vendors implementing the IEC 61499 standard, is critical. The hardware parts no longer tell the story.

Monetizing data and optimizing along the way

Software solutions exist today that enable plant operators to wake up in the morning, open their laptop, and see how their company is running.

For all this to occur, not only will IT and OT have to converge, but the whole organization must be speaking the same language. Inspiration and vision come from the top down. Schneider not only talk about IT-OT convergence and pushing operations into the cloud, but we guide customers along the way. We work with people on every layer of the organization, from the sensors on the shop floor to virtualization in any control center.

End of the day, that data gleaned from digitalization helps curb emissions and move companies towards net zero. Earlier I mentioned how we can work globally towards these goals. Part of that is sharing the data companies gather from their optimized processes. Customers have an ability to monetize their data by sharing it with third parties, vendors, and partners. Data such as temperature during certain processes, vibration monitoring, flow-through data, etc.

Now companies, when they resell equipment to vendors, can monetize the data share – something that might be worth to a vendor trying to improve their hardware. This is where solutions like EcoStruxure Automation Expert can play a critical role in the next couple of years.

What excites me is the fact that the energy and chemical industries are transforming in a way that will change the course of sustainability for the next few decades. It frees room for creativity. New means of energy thrive. Reclaimed grease from, say, a fast-food restaurant becomes a source for generating alternative fuels. This and other potential sources will make us rethink what is possible. Digital transformation enables us to question our current ways of generating power.

We’ve had this technology for a while. We’ve all had digital strategy journeys that we’ve considered but shied from investing in. But decades ago, we weren’t seeing the repercussions of climate change the way we have with the recent climate disasters that have impacted thousands and, at times, led to the loss of life. Nature is starting to show us who is in control.

Our truths must be reconsidered. And electrification and digitalization offer an opportunity to change our mindset and tell a new story.

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