People-Centric Digitalization

Technology is everywhere; pervasive and inescapable.  Intended to make lives and work easier, less boring, and safer, while simultaneously accelerating the ways we interact with one another and doing business.  But as with the introduction of anything “new”, there is a level of anxiety that is felt by the people the technology will touch.  It’s a difficult balance.  And if the balance is not achieved, the people will be resistant.

In the process industry, fewer people are required to produce ever more product.  It’s not that there are fewer employees on the shop floor.  Rather, the increases in efficiencies and capacity of the production equipment – combined with the automation of many processes and operations – is resulting in greater production per person.  In a word, “productivity”.

This trend of companies continually seeking ways to increase productivity will not abate anytime soon, if ever.  It is the way it has always been and the way it will continue to be.  And the companies that lag behind and do not increase their productivity, will soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

In a world that is moving faster and faster, we need to ensure the operators have timely, accurate, and complete information so that they can optimize their productivity and the productivity of their equipment in a manner that keeps them safe.

Therefore, a successful day is one where “everyone goes home as they came in.”

For your consideration; a properly designed and deployed People-Centric Digitalization strategy can be key to achieving and maintaining a competitive advantage.  The combination of technical data along with user input can offer new insights to how the plant is operating and simplify the operators work by giving them reliable information when they need it to keep the plant operating optimally and also support the operators in avoiding human error and improve overall safety.

But what is. “People-Centric Digitalization”?

According to the People Centric Project, they believe that; ’People Centric’ companies, schools, organizations choose to be a catalyst in the lives of the people within their organization and in the lives of the people their organization serves, empowering them to become the best they can be in life and in business.”

And according to Gartner’s IT Glossary; Digitalization is the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

If we combine these two definitions, we get an understanding that people come first.  They are the most important assets that a company has and that without them, there is no company.  And it is the company’s responsibility to create a rewarding and safe work environment, to ensure they are properly outfitted to do their work, and to build their skillsets.  The company enables the employee to become the very best version of themselves.

But the introduction of digital technologies converts analogue information into an electronic (or digital) form and is implemented strategically so that the business operates at a level that drives value to all the stakeholders in the value-chain; employees, customers, shareholders, even vendors.

There are challenges, of course.

As with nearly every “new way”, the biggest challenge will be for the users (in this case, the equipment operators at the plant) to accept the new way of doing things.  People don’t like change.  They especially don’t like change when they feel it is being thrust upon them and they have no say in the process, or the decision – they have no ownership.

Therefore, it is critically important that those who will be most affected by the change are introduced to the vision of the future early – why is a change being considered, what life will look like afterwards, and how it will specifically benefit them – and that they know that they are respected and their input is valuable.

After the initial buy-in of the idea is achieved to a level of where forward progress can begin, we can turn our attention to the how, then the what.

Organizationally, the first task that needs to be completed is to determine what success looks like, what are the pain points, and what is the future state.   Then a requirements analysis needs to be performed to create a roadmap for reaching the future state including; what digitalization efforts will be made and what digitization efforts (information that needs to be migrated from analogue to digital) are required as a precursor to the digitalization.

Then, using design and systems thinking, a technical roadmap needs to be created that supports the achievement of the future state.

What are the data sources?  Throughout the plant, sensors are already collecting data.  What needs to be determined is; whether the sensors are collecting the right data and that they are collecting it correctly; are there additional sensors required to fill gaps in information; where is the data being stored and in what format; the integration with other systems and tools.

As we are designing the system and its deployment, we also need to consider the user experience including; the adaptability of the system to meet the needs of the user and the business (which might vary from plant to plant and from equipment to equipment); what devices (such as mobile devices) will be necessary for the user to access the data and use the system; and the user interface (the system must be intuitive to use and in the vocabulary of the user).  For a successful deployment to be achieved, the user must be involved here to overcome the fear of change and the resistance that is a result of this fear – after all, they will struggle against its use if they believe it’s not theirs.

Although a roadmap to global corporate standards needs to be the output, it is unlikely that each plant will be a clone of each of the others.  Therefore, how the systems will be deployed at each plant need to be adaptable for local standards and circumstances.  Consultant expertise in the process industry and the systems will be necessary for an optimal outcome.

Before going live, on-site workshops will be performed to walk each operator that will use the system through a “day in the life”.  This is an opportunity for the users to identify any gaps that might exist from their real-life, first-person experiences.  It will also serve to achieve the buy-in necessary to overcome any remaining fear and resistance.

Having standardized and harmonized data – a “single source for truth” – that is accurate, complete, tamper-proof and available in real-time; will increase safety for the operator and facilitate the optimal operation of the plant.

In addition, it will make inter-shift communication more efficient and complete and it will make the shift handover smoother with there being far less risk of information not being shared.  Eliminating the need for employees to manually seek, sort, and report will also greatly reduce non-value-add activities allowing the operator to focus more on running the equipment than searching for information and interpreting that information.

The bottom-line:

A People-Centric Digitalization strategy will help your company – at the plant, and on the shop floor – remain competitive by freeing employees from rote tasks and allowing them to be more safe, productive, and innovative.

Properly designed solutions and systems that include hardware and software – but most critically, employee engagement and buy-in – will prepare them, and your company, to face the challenges of tomorrow, today.

By Andreas Eschbach

Andreas Eschbach is passionate about digitizing the chemical and pharmaceutical production worldwide. Focused on the success of production employees, plant managers and operational excellence enthusiasts.

Founder and CEO of a German-American company.
Eschbach provides software solutions for customers in the process industry world wide to improve their operational excellence.




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