There has been considerable fervor over the past decade with respect to environmental sustainability in industrial operations. Humanity requires the output of industry in order to meet its basic needs, but industry must also produce in an environmentally responsible manner. The primary objective of industrial companies – to make profits – is often portrayed as being at odds with environmental stewardship. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, with the effective application of real-time controls and automation technologies, both objectives of industry – meeting human requirements and environmental sustainability can be effectively realized.
One way to think about these seemingly divergent objectives is to consider the operation of another complex asset set designed to do work – the automobile. Automobiles similarly produce work at the expense of environmental impact. Experience has demonstrated that by installing a control system in automobiles to monitor performance and to inform the operator when the maintenance and tune-ups are required has significantly reduced the environmental emissions from each car while simultaneously increasing the work the cars produce per unit of energy. That is – they are both cleaner and provide a better financial value proposition.
Industrial plants are complex assets that operate in a similar manner. Effectively utilizing automation and control technologies to monitor and control the efficiency and environmental impact of an industry, can serve to make the plants more productive while simultaneously reducing emissions. This means that operating a plant with the most effective automation and real-time control can actually help increase environmental sustainability while increasing profitability.
As the speed of industrial business has continually increased over the past decade, the dynamics of plant profitability and environmental risk have moved toward real-time dynamics. As this has happened, the effort associated with increasing the profitability of operations, and improving the environment have become much more challenging. Environmental risk can be thought of as a dynamic constraint on operational profitability that can be controlled enabling higher levels of profits. This is forcing automation and control and industrial companies to reconsider and expand where real-time controls must be applied. The traditional approach to real-time process control has been focused on improving operational efficiency. It must be expanded going forward to also include profitability and environmental integrity.
We have to be careful not to buy into some of the rhetoric in the marketplace today that may cause us to jump to the wrong conclusions. It is important to step back and analyze the truth of each situation and work toward improving industry – and the world.