Early last week, I was a veritable bag of nerves as I anticipated stepping up to the gasworld stage for the first time to present to an audience of around 300 intelligent and inquisitive industrial gas professionals.
The scene was set. Day One of the conference, Session 2: the eagerly awaited session on Technology and Safety Partnerships. My early afternoon presentation would attempt to explain Digitization in the Gases Industry, something of an unknown quantity for many in the industry and, arguably, something that others might prefer to bury their head in the sand over.
Answers and insight were expected. I was also the only thing standing between the audience and the lunch break, effectively the final speaker for the day. No pressure, then.
But as I alluded to in my presentation, it is the industry that is – or will be – under pressure; an increasing pressure to get on-board with the growing trend for automation and ‘smart factories’ across industry per sé.
We are, very much, in the digital age after all. We are more digitised and connected than ever before, and that digitisation is starting to transform our lives at an industry level.
A fourth industrial revolution – Industry 4.0 – is building on the third. We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another – all based upon digitisation. And the first movers are already transforming.
By the time I was making this point, I was already in full flow, bereft of the pressure and anxiety that had besieged me in the days prior. I was loving the experience, and apparently exuding confidence. And then we really got to the heart of my presentation – whether the gases industry is really ready for this next level of innovation and automation.
The industrial gases business is already in the midst of a digital transformation throughout the supply chain. There are countless industrial and specialty gas plants around the world that are automated on some level. Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor technology are already deployed in remote plant monitoring and asset management technologies.
But there is so much more to come and for the gases industry to realise that next wave of opportunity, it will likely need to challenge so many of its established cultural and organisational paradigms – pillars of this business that are centuries-old. So, I asked, where does tradition meet digitisation? How do we take the next step forward?
My next steps were to return to my seat to applause and just 10 minutes later, exit the stage for lunch. My moment had passed, my test had been passed, my confidence had been transformed – and I felt ready to do it all over again. It suddenly felt simple.
Less simple is the challenge facing the industry; it’s a many-splintered thing, from the level of investment to make to the projected returns on investment and, of course, the fundamental human factors to be considered in-between. These were all discussions I faced as the rest of the event unfolded and it became abundantly clear that digitisation really is one of the hottest topics in the industry.
Some questioned the payback and whether they really needed to act now. Others were in the midst of their own digital transformations. A few pondered the human impact with me. For many, if not most, they were delighted and thankful to see the topic tackled and the tone I had chosen to underpin its delivery – a sense of positive urgency, a call to action, if you will.
And they felt that way because digitisation is coming. It is happening. As I was pleased to discover, that sentiment is mutual across the industry and there’s a broad acknowledgement that we need to question not if we are going to get on-board with this movement, but when and how.