Whereas industrial automation typically refers to machines with the ability to perform highly-structured, pre-programmed tasks in lieu of human labor, the term industrial autonomy describes systems that are capable of adapting independently to diverse challenges with minimal human intervention. With underlying technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning booming, many expect industrial autonomy to be the next frontier for technological innovation in manufacturing.
In 2020, electrical engineering and software company Yokogawa published the results of a survey that found a significant shift toward industrial autonomy among respondents. According to survey respondents, 89% said they planned to increase the level of autonomy within their operations. To gain more granular insight into this trend, Yokogawa recently conducted a follow-up survey that explores the use of industrial autonomy among respondents in more detail. The survey encompasses 534 respondents from 390 companies across the chemical and petrochemical, life sciences, oil and gas, power generation, and renewable energy sectors.
One of the biggest takeaways from the survey is that environmental sustainability is one of the areas where autonomous technologies are expected to make the greatest impact. When asked “what level of impact are you expecting industrial autonomy will have on the following applications in your plant in the next three years?” 45% of respondents stated that autonomy would have a significant impact on environmental sustainability, including dynamic energy optimization, water management, and emissions reduction, making it the most selected category. By contrast, 43% of respondents reported that autonomy would have a significant impact on robotic surveillance and inspection, 42% on AI-enhanced process optimization, and 41% on supply chain optimization.
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Regarding sustainability more specifically, autonomy was most expected to aid in waste reduction, with 38% of respondents anticipating it would have a high impact. Furthermore, 35% of respondents anticipated autonomy having a high impact on greenhouse gas reduction, and 34% on energy management.
In addition, while 31% of respondents ranked productivity improvements in production and manufacturing processes as the most likely source of a return on investment in the next three years, a further 26% indicated health, safety, and environment would likely result in more cost savings. In line with this finding, 34% of respondents expect autonomous technologies to boost worker safety.
Furthermore, the survey found that implementation of industrial autonomy projects is growing, with 51% of respondents reporting that they are scaling autonomy deployments across multiple facilities and business functions. Meanwhile, 19% report having deployed a project in at least one facility or business function.
“It is gratifying to see…that environmental sustainability is emerging as an area in which the shift from industrial automation to industrial autonomy, which we call IA2IA, is expected to make a significant positive impact,” said Tsuyoshi Abe, senior vice president and head of the marketing at Yokogawa. “However, our survey also indicates that one of the biggest challenges in implementing industrial autonomy is the lack of a clear roadmap, with almost half seeing it as their most significant challenge. This underlines the importance of a defined roadmap to industrial autonomy and finding the right partner to develop it.”