Industrial Metaverse—Dream or Real?

Just over a year ago, Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined a vision for the future of the social media giant—the metaverse. “We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet, we’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are,” he said. He bet a huge amount of money. In November, he laid off thousands of employees working on the project.

I recently moderated a panel discussion on the Web discussing the Industrial Metaverse. I wanted to establish a definition. I failed. Perhaps the best short description of the Metaverse is that point where the physical and digital worlds come together.

English technology analyst Benedict Evans wrote, “Sometimes it seems like every big company CEO has read the same article about the same tech trend, and sent the same email to their team, asking “What’s our strategy for this?!” A couple of years ago there were a lot of emails asking for a 5G strategy, and now there are a lot of emails asking about metaverse.”

Yes, it seems like only yesterday I was swamped with press releases and requests for interviews about 5G. But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone (to quote singers Chad and Jeremy). Evans continues.

Evans continued, “Answering the 5G email was actually pretty easy, partly because almost no-one needs a 5G strategy at all, but also because we knew what 5G meant. We probably don’t know what ‘metaverse’ means. More precisely, we don’t know what someone else means. This word has become so vague and broad that you cannot really know for sure what the speaker has in mind when they say it, since they might be thinking of a lot of different things.”

The metaverse needs a digital twin. This is the digital representation of physical reality. It also needs sensory input. There must be visualization of the digital output—perhaps AR glasses or VR headsets. Oh, and application sense must form part of the mix or else why do it. 

The word metaverse occurred first during the recent Rockwell Automation event Automation Fair on my third day. Even then, it was stated ironically. Rockwell did have an exhibit with a virtual reality headset. The application about to be released, however, was on flat screens accessible by all.

The metaverse experience that Siemens showcased at its Web Summit builds on the company’s digital twin technology—physics-based, real-time and photorealistic digital twins. By offering a completely digital model of the underwater farm, this technology enables the Nemo’s Garden team to develop, adapt, and control its underwater biospheres at scale. The photo-realistic metaverse experience at Web Summit is implemented with Unity, a cross-platform game engine.

With VR glasses on, visitors experience underwater farming with four senses: They can see and smell the vegetables and fruits, they can hear the sound of the underwater environment, and they can even feel the vegetables and fruits through full-feedback gloves. Visitors not wearing VR glasses can follow the action on a big screen and influence what is seen in the metaverse. 

Molex and Arrow Electronics conducted market research and returned an optimistic look at the value of the metaverse in industrial applications. They see manufacturers among first to benefit from convergence of physical and virtual processes to improve product-design cycles and factory of the future initiatives.

Some of the technologies commonly thought of as part of the metaverse include AR/VR, digital twins, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics.

Next-generation Machine Visualization Solution

Emerson enhanced its presence in discrete manufacturing with its acquisition of parts of the old GE Intelligent Platforms business. They’ve updated the PACSystems HMI platform.

  • Easy-to-use, smartphone-like graphical displays.
  • Designed with projective capacitive touchscreen technology that allows users to interact with the visual display with 10-point multitouch capabilities like swipe, pinch or zoom to move to the next screen or expand a chart.
  • Comes pre-loaded and pre-licensed with Movicon WebHMI software. 
  • HTML5-ready.
  • Protocol support with OPC UA for data contextualization and MQTT for cloud connectivity.
  • IP66 water resistance rating.

Industrial AR as a Service

Mainstream tech media drools all over augmented reality and virtual reality. Which big tech company will introduce what? We’ve written about the benefits of AR in manufacturing for years. It’s still getting here, but closing in. This news comes from a company called RealWear with a new cloud SaaS offering—RealWear Cloud, marking the company’s shift from a hardware-centric company to a fully platform-centric business. The company calls this “assisted intelligence.”

RealWear Cloud is a multi-purpose software offering for IT and business operations. Through the new dashboard, IT and business operations can remotely and securely streamline control of their RealWear device fleet. As companies grow their fleet of RealWear devices, RealWear Cloud allows for convenient low-touch, over-the-air firmware updates, keeping the devices secure and company data protected. Working alongside organizations’ existing EMM or MDM software such as Microsoft Endpoint Manager (InTune), the offering further provides teams more real-time data and metrics to optimize operational efficiency. RealWear Cloud complements existing EMM/MDM solutions and enables device-specific control and configuration capabilities. Also, it is the only way to gain trusted and secure access to certified third-party apps designed for our product portfolio.  

In addition, RealWear is introducing RealWear Cloud Assistance as part of the offering.  RealWear Cloud Assistance provides real-time remote technical support and troubleshooting to frontline workers to quickly identify, diagnose and fix device issues. Reducing device downtime through remote troubleshooting will have a growing impact on company bottom lines. According to VDC research, individual incidences of device failure result in 72 minutes of lost or disrupted productivity for frontline workers. Remote support, firmware updates, and data analytics will not only increase productivity but will be necessary as businesses face ongoing talent shortages, the scarcity of which Gartner notes was exacerbated in 2021. 

RealWear Cloud will provide a two-tier offering: Basic and Pro. Foresight, RealWear’s previous lightweight device management tool, will transition to RealWear Cloud. Current Foresight customers will automatically be enrolled in the Basic plan.

Mixed Reality Simulator and Updated Process Automation from Honeywell

Honeywell User Group landed in Orlando two weeks ago. Meanwhile, I’ve had several meetings with Honeywell again this week, also in Orlando, at the annual ARC Industry Forum. Two additional items have popped up this week. One relates to worker enhancement and the other fleshes out additional details of the updated Experion PKS process automation system. This topic was broached last week, but there’s a little bit more.

Honeywell Enhances Immersive Field Simulator

Manas Dutta met with me to discuss this simulator product. Mixed reality experiences have often been explained as training applications—and indeed that is a great use. However, Dutta also explained that design engineers can also use the technology to visualize the physical plant. They can see where a scaffolding may need to be erected or where there may be interferences. This is most useful in the usual use case where engineering is done remotely.

Honeywell announced a new version of its Immersive Field Simulator (IFS) offering, a virtual reality (VR) and mixed-reality-based training tool that incorporates a digital twin of physical plant operations to provide targeted, on-demand, skill-based training for workers. With IFS technology, plants can simulate scenarios such as primary failure and switchovers, and cable and power supply failures, that train and test personnel on their skills.

The new version of IFS – R120 – incorporates a simulation engine that enables customers to build field operator training lessons without having to link to a larger panel operator simulator. This provides more flexibility in how they conduct training and alleviates the need to pull multiple operators off shift for sessions. In addition, it reduces the solution’s footprint and allows it to be more accessible for impromptu training or refresher courses.

Furthermore, IFS R120 can facilitate an open platform communications connection to any panel operator simulator that a customer may have.

“Megatrends such as the aging workforce and increased complexity of technology are putting even more pressure on industrial companies and their training programs,” said Pramesh Maheshwari, vice president and general manager, Lifecycle Solutions and Services, Honeywell Process Solutions. “More than ever, they need training and development solutions that empower workers to improve plant performance, uptime, reliability and safety.

He continued: “One of the best ways to do this is by simulating real-world environments and rare but critical plant operation and maintenance scenarios to enable safe, hands-on learning away from the hazards of a plant. This version of Immersive Field Simulator offers increased flexibility to meet any site’s operator training requirements.

IFS R120 will be available at the end of 2022.

Experion PKS Release 520.2 For Next Generation Process Control

Joe Bastone sat down with me at ARC Industry Forum to talk about the next gen process control from Honeywell. As he discussed the “Hive” technology and new features, his excitement and passion for the product was abundant.

However as I’ve discussed previously, an interesting sub-story is that the product contains many of the features requested by ExxonMobil and other end users that has led to the development of the Open Process Automation Forum and standards, but no mention of OPAF is ever made. This story will continue to develop. For sure, significant advances have come to process control.

Honeywell announced Release 520.2 (R520.2) of its Experion Process Knowledge System (PKS), introducing new process automation features and functionality to end users across the industrial sector. 

At the center of R520.2 is Experion PKS Control Highly Integrated Virtual Environment (Control HIVE) functionality, which enables users to integrate individual controllers and have them act as a cluster of shared compute resources. This functionality, combined with the capability to optimize control system resources and input/output modules, significantly reduces the complexity and capital expenditure associated with automation projects and control systems.

Control HIVE also reduces unplanned downtime and shutdowns through unlimited availability and redundancy; provides longevity; and simplifies lifecycle management and support through streamlined maintenance and upgrade activities. Furthermore, Control HIVE provides an open, scalable control platform that can accommodate other types of applications, reducing the complexity of integrating, operating and maintaining third party systems and packages.

Experion PKS R520.2 also expands the functionality of Control HIVE, which allows automation projects to be deployed in a more flexible and resilient manner by decoupling control system elements that are traditionally engineered, configured and deployed in a hierarchal manner. 

Rounding out the updates is side-by-side support for Honeywell’s C300PM and EHPM controllers, which provides more flexibility for migrations; unit operations controller enhancements for Life Sciences, Pulp and Paper, and other vertical end users; PROFINET S2 redundancy; and materials requirement planning support for increased availability and simplified device replacement.

“Building on the foundation forged by Experion PKS R520.1, this new version of Experion PKS incorporates ground-breaking technologies and capabilities that effectively establish the necessary requirements for the next generation of process control,” said Joe Bastone, director of offering management for Experion PKS, Honeywell Process Solutions. “Implementation of R520.2 can truly transform a user’s current installed base, leveraging existing investments while solidifying their operations for a digitalized future.”

Smart App Embedded with Artificial Intelligence Improves Operations in Real-time

The popular press dithers over Artificial Intelligence and the “young ladies” Siri and Alexa spy on your every word. However, there are real, practical applications of AI that can help us operate and maintain our manufacturing and industrial operations. Here is one from AVEVA, a company that seems to have dominated my news this summer.

It has launched AVEVA Insight OMI app infusing real-time artificial intelligence into an operator’s decision-making. This app presents real-time anomaly detection in a context-aware OMI visualization display.

The AVEVA Insight OMI app introduces AI capabilities into the AVEVA System Platform, formerly Wonderware, and leverages predictive early warning and automatic detection of unusual operational behavior. This provides users with early notification so they can quickly resolve issues before they become critical business problems such as unplanned downtime and production losses.

A simple management interface enables operations, maintenance and production teams to quickly train the AI engine to adapt to the enterprise’s specific implementation. An intuitive thumbs-up or thumbs-down confirmation ensures AI-driven notifications are relevant to the needs of the user and support overall enterprise objectives, with no programming or data science knowledge required. This closed-loop feedback improves the accuracy of the AI prediction engine over time and enables users to see what matters. As anomalous patterns are identified, they can be captured and presented by the app within an organization’s on-premise HMI/SCADA solution, delivering insights directly where operators need it.

“IIoT applications have driven a massive increase in the collection of real-time operations and manufacturing data. As a result, operators face alarm overload and often cannot effectively react to or distinguish between process-critical situations and false positive alarm conditions, resulting in the loss of operational time and resources. By harnessing the power of AI and advanced cloud analytics, AVEVA is enabling operators to take proactive action, before process and maintenance problems occur,” commented Rashesh Mody, Vice President, Monitoring and Control, AVEVA.

“In today’s climate of increased demand for innovative technology solutions, the launch of our new AVEVA Insight OMI app is a significant development because it serves as a single interface into operations by bridging the information technology and operational technology divide for increased agility and situational awareness. We are very excited to introduce a solution that will help our customers manage critical operations and improve decision support for maximum profitability in these fast-changing times,” Mody concludes.

Intelligent Wearables Solution Improves Compliance, Productivity

Intelligent Wearables Solution Improves Compliance, Productivity

I was working with controls, instrumentation, computers, software when I traded it in for media work first with Control Engineering and then with Automation World. Through a lot of those media years, Honeywell was one of the Big Four or Five in process control and systems. Over the past 6-10 years, those big companies have diverged into differing specialities. It’s been interesting to observe that part of the industrial market.

Honeywell began leveraging expertise of its various divisions into wireless, mobile, and wearables. Much of the emphasis has been safety with a spillover effect into productivity.

Wearables comprise a growing market category with much promise. I’ve had the opportunity to try on a number of different products. These increasingly solve real world problems with ever reducing interference in the real work of the person.

In this latest release, Honeywell announced that Braskem Idesa has adopted a hands-free, wearable connected technology solution at its plant in Veracruz, Mexico. Honeywell’s Intelligent Wearables will allow Braskem Idesa to improve productivity and compliance with process procedures, capture the expertise of experienced workers and provide critical insights and information effectively to trainees and support workers in the field.

Honeywell is delivering a complete outcome-based solution that tracks specific key performance indicators and integrates hardware, software and services, and a full Wi-Fi infrastructure to support use of the solution across the plant. The wearable technology will also accelerate training and ensure safety for field operators at the Braskem Idesa facility.

“With this solution, Braskem Idesa is embracing the digital transformation that will enable us to retain our leadership in the petrochemicals industry,” said Roberto Velasco Gutiérrez, industrial director, Braskem Idesa. “Capturing all the relevant expertise and data within the organization and getting it to workers wherever and whenever needed, will help get trainees safely into the field faster and ensure that every worker operates to Braskem Idesa’s best standards.”

A comprehensive range of applications from Honeywell will boost the speed, safety and reliability of field workers thanks to the following services:

  • Expert on Call: Provides field workers with live, real-time access to experts in the central control room or elsewhere for troubleshooting, support and advice
  • Video support: Enables users to view videos demonstrating key tasks
  • Paperless rounds: Provides step-by-step instructions for common and complex tasks

“Braskem Idesa has not only taken an important step toward Industry 4.0 but has now also replaced paper-based and manual operations with a sophisticated solution that’s both digital and wireless,” said Vincent Higgins, director of technology and innovation, Honeywell Connected Enterprise, Industrial. “Wearable, voice-controlled computer headsets and software eliminate the need for clipboards, pens, and flashlights. Our offering will help Braskem Idesa capture expertise and document critical tasks to ensure operational compliance.”

Honeywell’s solution for field worker competency and productivity enables Braskem Idesa to tie its plant performance directly to the performance of its workers, critical to the success of any industrial enterprise. By connecting field workers with remote advice, Honeywell Intelligent Wearables also reduce the need for site visits from experts, empower workers to continue learning, become their best and effectively share their knowledge with peers.