OCTOBER 2010: PepsiAmericas, Pfizer, Conoco Phillips, Huntsman, Valero Energy, Sweener Refineries and a clique of other global companies have deployed a fleet of ‘grey collar’ employees who practically remote-control the companies’ business. Stephanie Neil (in DeepDive: Enterprise Mobility – Let’s Get to Work) describes the grey collar crew as the unison of the blue and the white collared, brought together by mobility. It comprises executives on the road, engineers in the field and operators on the factory floor. They collect data on a constant basis as they go about their daily work, and feed it into the system.
The real-time information they generate has the power to control everything from logistics and marketing right down to production. That does not mean every employee has to give instructions to the various systems in the company, although they could do so in extraordinary situations. On a regular day, they would simply have to update the system with information collected on-the-go. The information is promptly analysed and several dependent decisions are automatically taken and executed—how long should each machine work, how much of the produce should be packed, where should the inventory be, at what time should the delivery trucks go and more. The reports are also available to executives at various levels for further planning and decision-making. That is automation today, not merely a set of machines turning out products at a furious speed!
Industrial automation has come a long way from the days of mere mechanisation—when machines were controlled entirely by workers on the factory floor. Then came automation—when machines could work without human intervention, controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other embedded systems, and integrated using software systems. Even that is changing today, and we could call the emerging age as that of autonomy. Or, shall we call it Industrial Automation v2?
First of all, v2 is no longer confined to the factory floor. It has pervaded the entire enterprise, right from product engineering and manufacturing to testing, logistics, marketing and even customer care. Everything is being automated.