Innovation: Implementing cutting-edge technology without getting cut
Communication is key. How manufacturers and operations personnel can improve on the end result by collaborating in the use of new equipment.
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In our daily lives, we have become accustomed to the frequent introduction of new technology. Every year, cell phone companies roll out their newest offerings and people line up to replace a perfectly good phone with something new and enticing. In contrast to that, the rate at which new technology percolates into the industrial space is much slower and is rarely met with the same excitement.
When the Clean Air Act of 1970 established the first standards for national ambient air quality in the U.S., it set in motion regulations that ensured new technology would continually be required to reduce the emissions from fossil fuel combustion. After almost 50 years of these regulations, we have seen the evolution of combustion technologies which have dramatically reduced the formation of pollutants. At the same time, we have also seen the pain and suffering that implementing these new technologies has caused the end users of this equipment. Sometimes just mentioning the phrase ‘new Low NOx burner’ in a facility will cause experienced operations personnel to start gathering their torches and pitchforks.
Equipment suppliers hold a portion of the blame for industries distrust of new technology, as companies are very good at touting all the benefits of their newest lower emission product, but not so great at discussing the trade-offs that inherently come with its implementation. Making users find out these limitations the hard way, after a piece of equipment is installed and running, has created an atmosphere of distrust. A highly competitive landscape exacerbates this problem, as equipment vendors feel compelled to try to outsell their competition. Honestly discussing your products limitations while your competition is claiming they have none, can quickly lose you an order. Taken to the extreme, this can devolve into a game of liars’ poker where there is no real winner and the end user is always the biggest loser.
An additional factor that has complicated the introduction of new technology into facilities has to do with the resources that are available in those facilities today. The technology that has been deployed to help modernise and automate facilities has reduced the manpower required to run most plants.
The graph, Figure 1, from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that for approximately 50 years increases in productivity were closely tied to increases in personnel employed. Starting around the year 2000, we began to see a significant deviation from this trend. While technology has allowed us to do more with less people, there are things that it is not well-equipped to do. Being able to anticipate, experiment and innovate is something that requires the knowledge, experience and creativity that people bring.
As the workforce has become constrained, it has resulted in the loss of the resources and expertise to evaluate and implement new technologies effectively.
With continually tightening regulations and our desire for constant progress, we will always need more advanced technology. So, what can we learn from these decades of developments that will make the implementation of new technology less painful?
One area with unambivalent room for improvement is communication. Increased dialogue between equipment users and manufacturers is needed to ensure trust exists. It is extremely rare that a reduction in emissions comes without a price. The cost may be in terms of increased operating expense, increased maintenance requirements, a reduction in operational flexibility or some other combination of these or other factors.
Manufacturers need to present a balanced view of their products’ strengths and weaknesses and users should be wary of empty promises that cannot be backed with proof from actual operating facilities. Given the years they will have to live with operating this new equipment, users must make sure their process for selecting the right technology to meet all of their facilities’ needs includes adequate technical expertise to properly vet the options available and fully understand the implications of each.
While few people enjoy being the guinea pig, there are some advantages to being the first to try a new technology. Rather than shun the adoption of new technologies, users can embrace being a collaborative part of its development and implementation. No matter how sophisticated a company’s test facility is, it will never be a substitute for running a piece of equipment inside an operating facility. There will always be critical learning that goes on during the first couple of installations that help to perfect the technology.
Giving manufacturers access to this real-world testing ground in your facility, with the operating flexibility and time to learn and make tweaks, helps ensure new products perform as needed when regulations require you to implement them. Many manufacturers are willing to deeply discount, or even offer for free, their products and services for this chance to prove out new technology. As an important reference site for their new products, companies also have a vested interest in making sure you continue to be satisfied with the operation of their equipment.
While you cannot remove all the risk from trying something new, you can greatly improve the chances for success if you devote the time and resources up front to objectively analysing all of your options. And if your operational situation allows, you may even be able to win big by being a partner in implementing the latest and greatest new technology.
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