Boundless opportunities in the new realm of automation

Innovation’s the name of the game for the refining and petrochemicals industry, and organisations have to strike a balance between optimising production reliability and minimising cost. We speak to Peter Zornio, Chief Technology Officer at Emerson Automation Solutions, getting his thoughts on the matter – and explaining what exactly “boundless automation” is supposed to mean.

To start off, please briefly describe your role at Emerson – what’s it like?

My primary mission or my primary goal, if you will, is to make sure Emerson continues to have all the market-leading and most innovative portfolios of solutions for customers in the marketplace.

Most of our actual product development programmes are contained inside our business units, whether it is measurement and instrumentation, control systems and software, or valves and actuators. But there are several programmes that we need to do that tie the portfolio together, such as communication protocols. And as we look now at cloud services and cloud-deployed solutions, a lot of the things that have happened in the digital transformation space require us to work more closely together across our portfolio and I’m responsible for that.

I also am part of our venture board. So, I do spend a fair amount of time looking at startups that Emerson might want to invest in that are relevant to our technology. 

We have several shared services that we provide for the business units around cybersecurity or testing, and we have a very large Research and Development (R&D) center in Pune, India, that is a development center that serves all our business units and that reports to me.

So, I’m responsible to make sure we have our overall portfolio and road map put together.

What are the biggest challenges you see in your role?

Probably, the biggest challenge is really making sure that our overall road map and portfolio are headed in the right direction, and are making the right calls and choices on technology and product areas to focus on ones that are really going to be the successful ones in the market.

Frankly, there’s also a challenge in that we’re a very large organisation with very distributed development and all these product areas. So, it’s not easy always keeping everybody going in the same direction, to be candid, when you look at the scope of the portfolio that we do have at Emerson.

With Emerson’s new direction and tagline around “Go Boldly”, suggesting a more risk-taking approach, how do you see this changing Emerson’s focus on innovation?

That’s a great question! So, two things that I would say we’re doing to address that specifically:

One is Emerson ventures where we can get in and work directly with early-stage venture capital companies that are working on cutting-edge technology. These might be programmes that are more out there or riskier from a technology point of view in an area that we would normally tackle ourselves directly. And the other thing we’re doing is internally trying to encourage people to take more risks and drive bold technology initiatives. And we’ll do that by having programmes like hackathons, or sometimes we call them Shark Tank, which is a very popular show in the US. But the whole idea is really driving people to present their new technology ideas to us and then pick some of those out as more high-risk programmes that we would tackle.

In your opinion, what is the main driver influencing change in the refining and petrochemical industry as we know it today?

Well, one of the main drivers has been the conflict in Ukraine. For refining companies especially, that’s been the biggest driver commercially because it has changed the supply and demand of marketplace and they have to move along with that.

If you put that aside and you say – OK, what else is going on? Well, clearly, sustainability and decarbonisation are challenging all industries to improve their energy efficiency and reduce negative impacts on the environment like emissions. Many of the key players have increased their focus on renewables. Many of them are looking at other avenues of investments like carbon capture and carbon sequestration. Another driver is on the technology side and overall modernisation and digital transformation. Refiners and petrochemical companies are looking at how they can optimise production reliability and minimise cost by making better use of the data they already have and potentially new data that they would get through new sensors and software applications. There will be increased focus on building data management and advanced analytics capability.

You’ve mentioned the concept of “boundless automation” before – could you share a little more about what this is?

We could do a whole interview on just that, but I’ll try to keep it to less than five minutes.

So, Boundless Automation is really our vision of what the next generation of automation technologies looks like. It’s our vision of a new software-defined automation architecture designed to catalyse the future of modern manufacturing.

This next-generation architecture will empower companies through “boundless automation” to manage, connect and deliver operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) data seamlessly and easily across the enterprise. Moving data freely and securely across OT and IT domains – from the intelligent field to the edge and cloud – will enable operational and business performance optimisation across the enterprise.

The automation architecture currently used across the world’s most essential industries was purpose-built with operational data isolated from hardware and software systems. This siloed approach presents a barrier to meaningful data use because separate layers of automation – including sensors and software, cloud-based applications and artificial intelligence – sometimes block data access from one layer to the next.

Leveraging automation to its fullest potential requires secure OT data access to put data to work across layers to optimise process, reliability, safety and sustainability simultaneously. New technologies and applications combined with market needs – including “born digital” companies, decentralised operating models and the move toward self-optimised plants – have created demand for a new automation paradigm where a unified software environment streams data across the enterprise effortlessly, when and where it’s needed.

This software-defined, data-centric and app-enabled architecture will more easily “democratise” critical data. The automation architecture will easily gather data from devices and modern edge-based technology control systems and securely move it to today’s cloud-based enterprise for analysis, trending and forecasting – enabling tight collaboration between information technology and OT.

When it comes to automation, one common area of pushback is that there is a relatively steep learning curve for refiners to learn and take on automation solutions. How can we circumvent this?

At Emerson, we started a whole programme across the company called human-centered design and we had a centralised team to drive the effort. And it’s as simple as that name sounds, the goal is to make products that are intuitive and easy to use so that you don’t have that steep learning curve. So, all our product organisations have people in this area of human-centered design.

At Emerson Exchange, we have a whole set of booths for our customers to test prototypes and observe how they interact with the product. We also believe that commonality across the portfolio and having the same thing done the same way across Emerson products is another big thing for human-centered design. And we have incorporated that in our product design approach.

Looking forward to the rest of 2023, what do you think the year will hold for the refining and petrochemicals industry?

As I mentioned earlier, the supply and demand situation is the number one thing that I think the industry is watching.  As the conflict continues, everybody’s just watching what the supply and demand is going to do because that’s going to move raw material prices all over the map and potentially what overall energy costs are.  Meanwhile, the industry will continue to focus on their sustainability and decarbonisation initiatives.