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Remote Operations: A process, not a technology

Remote Operations: A process, Not a Technology

Remote Operations: A process, Not a Technology

The benefits of remote operations will outlive the pandemic, but businesses must understand the significance of the change.

Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s not surprising, then, that the COVID crisis has dramatically enhanced interest in remote operations for industrial manufacturing. In a matter of months, we have seen years’ worth of progress as businesses have overcome previously insurmountable barriers or objections. For some, shifting control, monitoring or support functions to remote centers has been the only way to continue operations in the face of travel bans, sickness and social distancing.

Yet the drivers for the uptake of remote solutions across mining, oil and gas, chemicals, pulp and paper, pharmaceuticals and other industries predate the pandemic and will outlast it. Remote operations offer opportunities to drive efficiency, cut costs, boost safety and alleviate skills gaps. Consequently, they are central to addressing not the just the ongoing problems of the pandemic, but the challenges of the future too –particularly in industries hard hit by the crisis’ economic impact.

It’s due to these benefits that sectors such as offshore oil and gas had seen significant adoption before the virus hit. For them, shifting control and monitoring onshore has removed the need to base workers in harsh and dangerous environments. Substantially reducing risk to personnel, it also cuts costs (of accommodation, travel and the hazard-based premium on pay). Perhaps as importantly, it can help address challenges with recruitment and retention.

That’s crucial for offshore oil and gas with its enduring skills gaps, but the benefits are also felt more broadly. Shifting work to urban centers provides opportunities to change not just working environments but also working arrangements and roles. In turn, businesses can significantly expand their potential employment pool.

Mining giant BHP is a prime example. Remote operations have been key to its drive to achieve 50 percent female workforce representation by 2025 –in an industry where the average is just 16. Relocating workers from rotation at its northern camps to the shift work in the cities has not only boosted the number of women it’s hired; it also enabled the business to recruit from a diverse talent pool for workers with similar skills, including air traffic controllers, emergency service dispatchers, and medical scientists.

At the company’s integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC) in Brisbane, 53 percent of its controllers are female, and 32 percent were new to mining.

Not plug and play
The transformation at BHP and other businesses illustrates an important point: Remote operations is a new way of working, not merely a change of location. It also follows that remote operations are not simply a technological solution but a business transformation.

There are, of course, critical technologies that help make the move to remote operations possible. Remote console stations, advanced displays, cybersecurity solutions, collaboration tools, analytics and wearable technologies are all critical. These solutions help provide the visibility and situational awareness that operators need to monitor and control processes and systems remotely while keeping any remaining staff onsite safe and supported.

There are, of course, critical technologies that help make the move to remote operations possible. Remote console stations, advanced displays, cybersecurity solutions, collaboration tools, analytics and wearable technologies are all critical. These solutions help provide the visibility and situational awareness that operators need to monitor and control processes and systems remotely while keeping any remaining staff onsite safe and supported.

But technology is only part of a wider transformation that’s required to make the move to remote operations a success. The key changes are operational and focus on people. Moving control, monitoring and support away from the process requires a radically new way of working. It should, therefore, begin with a readiness review encompassing the key elements that determine operational effectiveness:

• Operations philosophy and scenario planning
• People and organization
• Control room design
• Infrastructure architecture
• Control strategies and HMI graphics
• Situational awareness and field collaboration

There must also be a significant focus on and recognition of the change in the operator’s role. It’s not simply a case of moving their screens. Complexity analysis that reviews the control system, ergonomics, workflow, process and other factors will ensure remote operators are neither overloaded so that they are unable to anticipate, prevent or respond to abnormal situations; or underloaded so that they become unproductive, bored and less alert. This analysis draws on many of the lessons from the work of the Abnormal Situation Management® Consortium. Viewed in this light, the move to remote operations will draw on foundational, enabling and supporting technologies. But it will also call for revision and reallocations of human resources, competencies and internal structures. It certainly requires leadership and significant change management.

That means that there is no out-of-the-box solution. Remote operations change the way that businesses work, and it’s a change that’s here for the long term. Fortunately, so, too, are the benefits it will bring.