Q&A Rockwell Automation: Why intelligent automation matters
As intelligent automation (IA) continues to evolve, more industries and enterprises are recognising the benefits the technology can bring, from efficiency and consistency to speed and safety, and are moving towards mass deployment of IA across their operations. And the pandemic has demonstrated the urgency for businesses to embrace IA even more widely.
So, what exactly can intelligent automation offer your business, especially in light of the pandemic? What benefits does it bring? How is the technology evolving? And how in particular can it improve operations and business succes within the manufacturing, supply chain, hospitality, healthcare and oil and gas industries?
What benefits does Intelligent Automation bring to a business?
Intelligent automation (IA) is the combined use of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and process automation in an enterprise’s operations. When put in place, IA creates far smarter processes by propelling machines to learn and adapt to processes without human input. Most significantly, IA can effectively span the entire automation journey, so entire processes can be automated from start to finish.
IA offers a wealth of benefits to organisations investing in it, particularly in terms of time and money saved, and we are seeing it becoming a more popular investment as a result. The combined technologies work together to reduce the level of direct human-to-machine interactions in a process and increase the overall speed of operations, resulting in a consistent output rate and improved efficiency levels across an organisation.
When implemented effectively, IA processes become more ‘intelligent’ over time. This eliminates many obstacles in any operations process, as bottlenecks can be accurately detected and alerted. Thanks to the power of self-learning agents learning to recognise, diagnose and respond to potential bottlenecks, future errors have the potential to be eliminated ahead of time, albeit within a routine or more complex process.
Constant data analysis is another element of IA that helps to ensure compliance to regulations at all times. Efficiency can reach new highs by constantly regulating product output to avoid setbacks and, most importantly, a higher and more consistent product quality is achieved.
Are you seeing more businesses embrace IA, and will such a take-up of the technology accelerate in light of the pandemic?
I’ve observed a significant trend in changing mindsets over the past few years, a movement from the ‘Proof of Concept’ mindset to mass implementation of the technology today. Companies are now developing other processes, or designing and creating their own process, to move towards mass deployment of IA across their operations. We are seeing companies change from previously asking ‘What can this technology bring?’ to all their processes now being designed and implemented through machine learning and AI outputs.
Industry processes were dramatically impacted by COVID-19 and, in my opinion, this crisis has demonstrated an urgent need for IA to be more widely implemented across industries. While adjusting to new health and safety regulations to protect their workers from COVID-19, many organisations are finding less room than ever for error in their operations, from supply chain to manufacturing to healthcare.
We have already seen that COVID-19 has accelerated momentum towards new ways of working, automation and digitalisation. By integrating more IA and adjusting how human workers need to engage with these applications, organisations can create both a safer work environment and an equally more efficient workflow, something that has become vital in these turbulent times.
Of course, IA is not simply the deployment of digital tools for organisations, it also involves a new way of thinking for firms, in terms of how their staff engage with technology. With the right training in place at the local level, machine-learning and AI can enable more safe, secure remote operations. While adhering to new health and safety requirements, many companies now find themselves needing to implement more remotely controlled operations, but it’s important that such organisations prioritise sufficient staff training to achieve this. Not only does this obtain the best value from their investment, but it also creates a more skilled workforce poised to work in a seamless manner with new technology.
Amid a global pandemic, where onsite access or travel is not always possible, I also see IA as a vital tool in crisis management. For example, as part of our strategic alliance with PTC, we offered the Vuforia Chalk augmented reality software free of charge through August 2020. This software is a component of our FactoryTalk Innovation Suite and enables customers to drive efficiency and productivity, while complying with orders to work remotely during this difficult time. Here at Rockwell Automation, we have even employed this AR technology ourselves when COVID-19 travel restrictions propelled us towards remote maintenance guidance.
The truth is that intelligent AI is constantly evolving, and the tools are moving faster than ever during these times. Overall, I certainly think it has become a top priority, and even necessary, for many enterprises looking to continue production in the most responsible environment possible and maintain better business continuity.
What are the current trends in Intelligent Automation?
Artificial intelligence (AI) has long been a trending topic when it comes to intelligent automation, and I believe this’s set to continue more than ever in 2021. With its ability to detect production anomalies and alert workers so they can investigate such issues, AI is becoming increasingly popular and more readily available across a broad range of industries.
In my opinion, one of the most exciting advantages that AI brings is this ability to alert operators to any unexpected or unusual changes in the process. This means that workers can get ahead of potentially very damaging errors that could affect product quality, output quantity, production timeline, and more. In this sense, artificial intelligence extends human capabilities. This is why Rockwell Automation has focused on building a large portfolio of AI technology products, like FactoryTalk Analytics, and these are improving industrial production at a rapid pace.
Aside from AI, we are seeing demand growing in many industries for augmented reality (AR) and like with AI, I expect to see this trend continue. Aside from the manufacturing possibilities it offers, AR is a valuable technology for employers in offering immersive experiences that can assist employee training. Employers can facilitate better and faster training, particularly training that encompasses how to engage with new AI-led machinery. Many industrial players are using industrial AR to improve workforce productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction with real-time, step-by-step work instructions.
Finally, how can IA help the hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing, supply chain, and oil/gas industries to navigate the global changes and challenges that are here to stay as a result of COVID-19?
Every industry has found itself under severe strain as a result of COVID-19. In particular, the manufacturing, supply chain, hospitality, and healthcare industries continue to face new levels of pressure amid the pandemic, particularly in terms of maintaining consistent production and meeting demand. As enterprises across these industries are responding to unforeseen urgency in their operations, I believe intelligent automation has extensive potential to ease certain operational pressures when it comes to the challenges that are here to stay.
Manufacturing Industry I think that IA offers unlimited potential to the manufacturing industry. At Rockwell Automation, we call this ‘The Connected Enterprise’, which converges plant-level and enterprise networks, and securely connects people, processes, and technologies. In my opinion, greater digitisation can help to reduce downtime across an enterprise and improve profitability. Take, for example, Digital Twin Technology, which can be used to optimise machine designs or test production changes before you implement them. Smart manufacturing such as this reduces bottlenecks, enables demand-based decisions, and improves maintenance. The more manufacturers invest in readily available data and digitised processes, the more they can revolutionise their business.
Supply Chain Industry With that in mind, having a connected, intelligent supply chain is a key differentiator that provides value and we have found it has helped our customers to solve unique manufacturing challenges, especially in the face of the pandemic. What makes logistics efficient is transparency and traceability, something we need now more than ever. Intelligent automation in the supply chain industry allows an organisation to achieve this ideal, and therefore anticipate and manage multiple types of risk in the supply chain all at once. With the combination of AI, machine learning, and process automation, you can pinpoint a problem in the supply chain in minutes rather than hours or days.
Hospitality Industry In hospitality, we have seen that IA is already changing the way hoteliers work. Process automation continues to evolve the booking process for guests, especially as consumers rely more and more on virtual agents to aid them through the booking experience, while machine learning works to predict future price movements and recommend optimised prices. Aside from streamlining these types of daily processes, investing in these technologies is a cost-cutting technique in the long run. As a heavily impacted industry looking to recover from COVID-19, cost-saving technologies will be key to enhancing revenues once more.
Healthcare Industry Within healthcare, key industry players have been racing to introduce an effective vaccine into the global market over the last year. Of course, we can never expect overnight success when dealing with something as complex as vaccine development, but we can certainly remove some of the constraints and bottlenecks that may hamper its progress. In this case, implementing AI to automate data analysis and improve visualisation of what is happening at each stage of development can address many potential inefficiencies. IA has been helping not only to accelerate the progress of vaccine development, but also to streamline operations for maximum production capacity.
Oil and Gas Industry This industry is facing increased pressure to improve efficiencies across all streams to remain competitive in the COVID-19 climate. Faced with over-capacity, impacting oil prices and companies cutting costs to ensure they stay afloat, I am seeing many operators driving for process efficiency and cost efficiency during these trying times. Due to the nature of its work, which is based around remote assets, the oil and gas industry has already become a leader in remote connectivity. However, many companies are increasingly implementing remote connectivity and augmented reality to enhance on-site productivity, reduce costs and improve safety. Maintenance teams can use remote connectivity and monitoring to respond to problems faster, eliminating the need to physically go to the asset. This is a significant benefit that IA can offer this industry, to boost operational reliability in such turbulent times.
GfK and VMware: Innovating together on hybrid cloud
GfK has been the global leader in data and analytics for more than 85 years, supplying its clients with optimised decision inputs.
In its capacity as a strategic and technical partner, VMware has been walking GfK along its digital transformation path for over a decade.
“We are a demanding and singularly dynamic customer, which is why a close partnership with VMware is integral to the success of everyone involved,” said Joerg Hesselink, Global Head of Infrastructure, GfK IT Services.
Four years ago, the Nuremberg-based researcher expanded its on-premises infrastructure by introducing VMware vRealize Automation. In doing so, it laid a solid foundation, resulting in a self-service hybrid-cloud environment.
By expanding on the basis of VMware Cloud on AWS and VMware Cloud Foundation with vRealize Cloud Management, GfK has given itself a secure infrastructure and reliable operations by efficiently operating processes, policies, people and tools in both private and public cloud environments.
One important step for GfK involved migrating from multiple cloud providers to just a single one. The team chose VMware.
“VMware is the market leader for on-premises virtualisation and hybrid-cloud solutions, so it was only logical to tackle the next project for the future together,” says Hesselink.
Migration to the VMware-based environment was integrated into existing hardware simply and smoothly in April 2020. Going forward, GfK’s new hybrid cloud model will establish a harmonised core system complete with VMware Cloud on AWS, VMware Cloud Foundation with vRealize Cloud Management and a volume rising from an initial 500 VMs to a total of 4,000 VMs.
“We are modernising, protecting and scaling our applications with the world’s leading hybrid cloud solution: VMware Cloud on AWS, following VMware on Google Cloud Platform,” adds Hesselink.
The hybrid cloud-based infrastructure also empowers GfK to respond to new and future projects with astonishing agility: Resources can now be shifted quickly and easily from the private to the public cloud – without modifying the nature of interaction with the environment.
The gfknewron project is a good example – the company’s latest AI-powered product is based exclusively on public cloud technology. The consistency guaranteed by VMware Cloud on AWS eases the burden on both regular staff and the IT team. Better still, since the teams are already familiar with the VMware environment, the learning curve for upskilling is short.
One very important factor for the GfK was that VMware Cloud on AWS constituted an investment in future-proof technology that will stay relevant.
“The new cloud-based infrastructure comprising VMware Cloud on AWS and VMware Cloud Foundation forges a successful link between on-premises and cloud-based solutions,” says Hesselink. “That in turn enables GfK to efficiently develop its own modern applications and solutions.
“In market research, everything is data-driven. So, we need the best technological basis to efficiently process large volumes of data and consistently distill them into logical insights that genuinely benefit the client.
“We transform data and information into actionable knowledge that serves as a sustainable driver of business growth. VMware Cloud on AWS is an investment in a platform that helps us be well prepared for whatever the future may hold.”