Operational Excellence in the Digital Transformation Age

Author photo: Bob Gill
By Bob Gill
Technology Trends

Operational excellence transforms an organization that safely performs activities to one that performs value-prioritized activities safely and efficiently. And digital transformation can help companies accelerate operational excellence as well as progress from automated to autonomous operations. So said Rachel Yee, Manager of Industry Consulting in Hexagon PPM, as she kicked off her presentation, The Road to Operational Excellence: Carve Your Path with Digital Transformation, on the first day of the ARC Industry Forum Asia event.

In her introduction, Rachel Yee, who is based in Malaysia, was keen to emphasize that Hexagon PPM provides smart solutions across the entire manufacturing lifecycle, i.e. from initial design facility design through to day-to-day operations. Hexagon’s acquisition of PAS, supplier of software solutions for OT integrity, which was announced in November 2020, adds cybersecurity capability, something increasingly important for critical infrastructure and industries.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit all industries hard, the energy sector has been particularly impacted, she said, forcing companies to rethink and transform businesses. As a result, digitalization of facilities is becoming even more critical than it was in pre-COVID times, as companies look to increase levels of safety, sustainability, and profitability.  

Digital Twin: Connect, Think, Do

The digital twin is at the center of digital transformation, said Rachel Yee, citing its accelerating use across industries and potential to increase operational effectiveness by at least 10 percent. When constructed and maintained correctly, it serves as a high quality, consolidated source of truth and is a gateway to operational excellence.

For Hexagon PPM, digital twin development starts with Connect, when a dynamic digital depiction is constructed from the physical entry information. Then, with Think, data is diffused seamlessly between the digital depiction and the physical entity, and advanced analytical technologies, such as machine learning, enable the thinking element to provide actionable context. The third stage, Do, is when the digital twin is operationalized to give immediate understanding of the current conditions of asset, and help to predict preferred future performance issues.

Operational Excellence

Based on her past experience, she notes that many companies struggle to get started with digital twins, because the existing data needed to construct the digital representation is scattered and disorganized. However, technology is available today to deliver intelligent information from unstructured, duplicated and disconnected data and documentation. This technology includes readers that can extract and consolidate information from multiple sources, such as CAD, spreadsheets, PDFs, legacy databases, etc.

But she also cautioned that even if a company successfully goes through a data clean-up project, it can often fall back again without a comprehensive management-of-change process to retain data quality. The digital twin should also be augmented by information from transactional data systems, such as maintenance inspections, reliability systems, and real-time information from sensors. Without accurate, up to date, easy to discover information about the physical asset, all attempts to leverage digital technology to improve the returns from owning and operating facility assets will be limited in success.

An artificial intelligence technique, like machine learning, can be used with together with the digital twins to help us identify patterns not otherwise apparent. This makes possible predictive and prescriptive maintenance approaches, which can prevent and eliminate unplanned technical failures or other issues that could result in loss of profitability and unsafe conditions.

Towards Autonomous Operations

Operational excellence will continue to evolve, said Rachel Yee, with new technology coming along and offering new and different kinds of opportunities because of the new capability. Autonomous operations, where most plant functions and decision making are carried out by system rather than humans, is one of those opportunities. Offshore platforms in the oil & gas industry and mining operations are beginning to advance from simple remote monitoring capability to remote control at very degrees of autonomy.

Insights gathered from assets and the action taken by personnel will be leveraged to drive a new level of intelligence. The progression to full autonomous operations will be gradual, but the steps along the way, e.g. plant automation, semi-autonomous, autonomous orchestration, will all provide value. 

Let's imagine, continued Rachel Yee, if the system made use of what happened in the past to predict what will happen in the future. And more importantly, understand what actions are needed and what the outcome of those actions will be. So, achieving autonomous operation is all about empowering the plant to run, learn, adapt, and thrive in tomorrow’s environment, and the benefits include reducing costs and enhancing productivity by freeing up human workers to perform higher value tasks.

Operational Excellence

The Key to Success

Operational excellence, along with digital transformation, is a journey, emphasized Rachel Yee, as she came to the close of her presentation. The key to success is understanding processes, the workforce, and your existing data prior to considering technology. Those organizations that start with technology and focus too heavily on a specific toolset are far more likely to struggle in terms of scaling pilot projects and achieving benefits from the digitalization. Instead, start with a clear business case in an area where there is potential for improvement.

In addition, achieving operational excellence through continuous improvement requires patience, planning, and team efforts, with close collaboration across people, process, technology, and organization playing a crucial role. There must be a commitment to prepare people and foster behaviour to fundamentally change existing business processes. When it is time for the technology, make sure to identify and deploy those digital tools and approaches that offer the most value to the business.

Innovation is the only way to overcome the challenges of tomorrow, believes Rachel Yee.  Operational excellence in the digital age will enable heavy-asset companies to achieve higher operational performance, make faster and better decisions, reduce risks from greater predictability, and significantly reduce costs and efforts.


Rachel’s presentation video (Day 1, Session Digital Transformation Initiatives Part 2) is available for viewing at the ARC Asia Forum event site platform site. An array of documents on digital transformation and other topics are also available for download at the Hexagon virtual booth until October 15, 2021.


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