AVEVA World Summit focuses on digitalization, in all its forms

Nov 7, 2017 | Hot Topics

Q: What does it take to become a digital business?

A1: It’s easy-peasy if you’re a newish company, with a digitally savvy workforce. Make some apps, roll them out to people who are used to doing everything on a tiny screen. Collect lots of data, quickly parse it to find the important bits, create a dashboard, start moving things around and making decisions.

A2: It’s much harder if you’re a 100-year old engineering firm, serving a conservative customer base or a shipyard with workers whose fingers are too scarred from years of metal working to use a tablet (I hadn’t thought of that last obstacle; my gala dinner partner told me about it – thanks!). Or an oil major, trying to eke out a bit more production in an environment that’s financially unforgiving. But you need to move forward, and digitalization seems to be an answer, so: How do you start? Where? What are pitfalls others can help you avoid? Is a digital twin necessary — and what benefits can be gained by creating one? After all, change is painful so, bottom-line, is it worth it?

Anywhere. Oh so many. Yup. Savings of millions of dollars — but revenue opportunities, too. And, probably, but the journey is still ongoing.

Those were just some of the issues we wrestled with at AVEVA World Summit (AWS) in Cambridge, England a few weeks ago. Leaders from engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms; asset owners in oil and gas, chemical, power, pharma, shipbuilding and other industries; consultants and techies presented their company’s strategies and findings, all against a backdrop of AVEVA’s current and future-ish technology directions.

My key takeaways:

  • Every enterprise is applying digitalization in its own, unique way — commensurate with their level of technological readiness. Some are still 2D shops, so it means moving from 2D to 3D –but we learned some shipyards are simply more comfortable with 2D in manufacturing and see no real reason to change. Others are implementing new-to-them technology such as laser scanning for analysis (from as-designed, or over the life of an asset, or to prove milestone completion) after using it to augment as-designed CAD models. Still others are investigating augmented and virtual reality platforms as a way of leveraging their existing 3D models and underlying/auxiliary data. The point: each is starting where they are today, looking at the technology available to them and determining the benefit they believe they can gain and jumping in, piloting something new and, if successful, rolling it out to other projects/teams/locations.
  • Many of the larger enterprises at AWS use homegrown solutions to manage some parts of their engineering data and processes. That’s proving less and less sustainable, as technology change accelerates and as newer concepts, like augmented and virtual reality, are far easier to plug into commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) platforms. The consensus seemed to be that commercial tools and platforms are capable enough, shift the burden of maintenance and extensibility to companies who specialize in software development (after all, power companies make power, not software, as one told me), and ensure that cross-system compatibility is maintained via standards.
  • Security came up often, but in a shifted context that’s, I think, tied to the COTS vs. homegrown discussion, above. This industry isn’t wholly comfortable with the cloud as a compute resource or as a place to store data but seems used to using it as a collaboration platform. But consensus is growing that putting security into the hands of a Microsoft or Amazon isn’t such a bad idea when one is faced with the possibility of a bad actor with a thumb drive bringing down an entire operating facility.
  • Many I spoke with discussed the struggle of assigning costs and value for a digital twin. If an EPC creates a model, and it has downstream value for the owner, shouldn’t the owner pay for it? Yes, but the industry norm presumes the 3D model and attributes are created for clash detection and construction planning — activities that take place before handover, so are part of the EPC’s routine work. Maintaining the digital twin after handover costs money, too; who is responsible for that and compensated to do it? If the benefit is seen in maintenance, repair and operations or health and safety, is maintaining the digital twin now their cost center? This is similar to the PLM pain that many discrete manufacturers face: why should I do more work that makes me look less efficient so that someone downstream can use this data? Gnarly issues with no easy answers.
  • Digitalization is a technology topic but many speakers brought it back to human scale, talking about how important their people assets are. Don’t choose technology your people can’t use, don’t change their work processes without their involvement, anticipate resistance to change … Nothing earth-shaking or new, but important to remember in such a techie context.

AVEVA didn’t overwhelm in its presence at the event, yielding the floor to customers across 3 tracks. CTO Dave Wheeldon kicked things off on day 1, welcoming attendees to AVEVA’s 50th birthday. CTO-designate Trond Straume spoke about AVEVA’s vision for digitalization in plant and marine, driven by the need to adapt in in the face of sub-$50/barrel oil. Mr. Straume said that digitalization has three potential benefits: digitize the asset to capture its data, visualize it in many different ways, and then realize its potential by mining all of the data available for the asset. That’s the key, he said: continuing that digital thread once the asset is handed over; too often, we abandon the valuable intellectual property created during design. Updating it, making it accessible to people who don’t speak “design” becomes crucial. AVEVA didn’t make any huge new announcements during this AWS but signaled “steady as she goes” in the face of:

Schneider Electric. Not surprising, the proposed merger was a topic on everyone’s mind, even though Schneider didn’t have an official presence at AWS. The combination of AVEVA and Schneider Electric’s software assets was announced during the event to be on target for year-end, and attendees couldn’t have been more excited about it. Customers wanted to know how the product integrations are coming along –answer: they aren’t since work can’t start until the merger actually completes– and thinking out loud about how their businesses would benefit from tighter integration between simulation, physical design, costing and operations. It seemed to me that the likely combo added energy to the event, as everyone tried to figure out how they could take advantage of a more comprehensive digital twin and the scale and scope of the expanded AVEVA enterprise.

And that brings me to the last point: Staying relevant for 50 years is no easy feat, but AVEVA has managed it by continuing to reinvent itself and its message of quiet technical accomplishment. Known for a long time as “the 3D company” it is now positioned to take its customers to the world of the digital twin: a visual front-end that’s associated with many different types of data under the hood, from process simulation to operating parameters. It’s an exciting time.

AWS was, as always, an exceptional venue for sharing ideas, pains and gains. And we were all made a bit smarter just by being in beautiful Cambridge and breathing the same air as professor Stephen Hawking, who attend the gala dinner. And what a gala: I am told the room was set up to represent a dining hall in one of the colleges of Cambridge University but, to me, it looked like Hogwarts: long tables and candelabra in a large, high-ceilinged hall. We weren’t wearing floppy Gryffindor/Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw/Slytherin robes but should have been. If AVEVA posts pictures, I’ll link — my photos were from floor-level and didn’t do the space justice. AVEVA shared this photo so that you could see what I’m trying to convey. Hogwarts, no?


Note: AVEVA graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is their photo of someone trying out an HTC Vive VR headset in the demo center. He looks quite stylish!