Cover story: Technology transformation: Adoption at the right pace

Vimal Kapur, president and CEO, Honeywell Process Solutions, explains the technology transformation, challenges, innovations, initiatives and milestones of his company since 1975.

Vimal Kapur, president and CEO, Honeywell Process Solutions.
Vimal Kapur, president and CEO, Honeywell Process Solutions.

Vimal Kapur, president and CEO, Honeywell Process Solutions, explains the technology transformation, challenges, innovations, initiatives and milestones of his company since 1975,  in an interview given to Martin Menachery during his recent visit to the UAE. 

Every downstream manufacturing facility needs process control systems to drive operation/production efficiently and safely. Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) is well known for process control systems since 1975. The company had been providing these systems in the Middle East for the last 40 years.

Over a period of time, HPS diversified from control systems to software to optimise plants to run more efficiently, productively and sustainably. The company also entered into services as customers needed support for their systems which are relatively difficult to maintain. Currently, the business of HPS is a combination of process control systems, software and services – all of which have automation as the core element.

Improving business performance

“What we do is fundamental to the productivity, efficiency and safety of refining and petrochemical industry. All our products and services are targeted towards that. Our business – process control systems, software and services – is crucial to the success of the business of our customers in the refining and petrochemical business,” says Vimal Kapur, president and CEO, HPS.

HPS is a leading provider of advanced process control, which is a very common way by which an operator can drive more energy efficiency in any downstream facility and it is heavily deployed by many customers. Several solutions offered by the company substantially enhance energy efficiency in refineries.

“We constantly stay focussed on the core values we provide for our customers, which are efficiency, productivity, safety and sustainability. We keep adopting the latest technology trends. Making products which are relevant for our customers by assimilating these trends successfully is our business model. Our job is to make successful and viable solutions which solve the modern process plant challenges,” Kapur adds.

Adopting new technology trends

Automation drives productivity and makes plants safer. Innovation in automation industry follows technology business. Automation sector was a proprietary hardware/software-based business till 2000. Then, there was a big adoption of Windows-based systems and Intel-based hardware which was called Wintel Wave.

This adoption did not give any big benefit to customers. But this adoption made automation a part of the mainstream innovation of technology industry. As a result, any innovation in technology business became available to automation sector as well. Since then, as an industry, it is up to automation business to decide what to absorb and what not to absorb as far as innovations are concerned.

Most of the technology industry innovations like virtualisation, cloud computing, mobility, etc. are already inculcated by automation sector. As of now, every mega trend that happens in technology business also gets deployed in the automation industry.

“Our focus now is on how we adopt those technology trends in to automation and make those integral part of our offerings to customers because it helps them drive more efficiency and productivity, and solve skill-related problems,” observes Kapur.

“Many of the downstream industry customer issues get very well aligned with some of the technology trends which are happening now. We take pride in leading the thought-leadership in these technologies and constantly drive new innovations,” Kapur remarks.

Key innovation initiatives

“We have adopted a lot of new ways to do work which benefit our customers. For example, how to do projects faster? How to do projects at a lower capital cost? How to reduce operational costs? How to minimise cyber risk? All the customers are looking for viable answers to these aspirations,” explains Kapur.

“Lot of our innovations currently are focussing on three pillars – enhancing capital efficiency, reducing operational costs and minimising risks. Many product launches and technology adoptions have been done in each of these three areas over the past three years. We are way ahead of our competition in each one of these,” Kapur reveals.

“We are performing most of our engineering work in a cloud environment now. How does it benefit our customers? For example, look at a large project involving the customer, multiple EPCs, and Honeywell Process Solutions. Our involvement could be from a single office, or multiple Honeywell offices from different locations,” clarifies Kapur.

“When we are able to do our engineering work on a cloud environment, we are able to do that concurrently instead of serially, thereby saving a lot of time. We are able to test our configuration in a cloud environment which again saves time. By being able to do work faster, we are able to offer capital efficiency to customers because time is also money in a capital project,” Kapur comments.

HPS has always been very strong on software-based methods to reduce operational costs. For many years, the company had been working with customers in the downstream industry for different ways to improve plant and energy efficiency, enhance yield, and support material reconciliation in different applications.

Cyber security is another area where HPS is in a key position. The company has very strong skill sets to enable its customers to minimise their cyber risks. Capital efficiency, operational cost reduction and risk minimisation are three areas in which the company is constantly working on innovations.

LEAP methodology in project execution

LEAP stands for Lean Execution of Automation Projects. This is a methodology HPS launched in early 2014. The concept of this methodology was how to take an automation system out of the critical path of a large capital project.

By default, automation systems are required to commission a plant. The automation system provider is always the last in the queue to get all the design inputs in a capital project. Due to this, the automation system provider cannot finish the work on time and the system is always on the critical path.

To come out of this vicious circle, HPS unveiled LEAP. The company created different pillars to take automation systems out of the critical path. The first step was the company doing engineering work on a cloud environment.

The second step was introducing an innovation called ‘Universal I/O’. In any process facility, there will be different kinds of inputs/outputs (I/O), which produce signals to control various process equipment like pumps, compressors, heaters, furnaces, etc.

Some of these signals are analogues, which are continuously flowing, while others are digital, which turn on and turn off. There are different kinds of hardware to deal with these signals. Here, the customer faces a serious flexibility issue because if the mix of these signals is changed, the hardware used has to be changed. Accommodating this change of hardware is very labourious and causes serious operational delays.

“To offset this, Honeywell Process Solutions introduced the concept of Universal I/O by which any input/output could be configured by software for any channel. The operator does not need to wait for perfect inputs from different designs and is able to drive risk-free execution because the delay caused by lack of clarity is gone. The operator does not need to know how many signals are analogue/digital because it could be configured through software,” mentions Kapur.

Traditionally, the software was loaded on a server machine. By the time a project is completed, the hardware is already obsolete. The third innovation rolled out by HPS through LEAP was freeing up hardware linkage to software. The first step here was to set up the capability to test software in a cloud environment so that there is no need for a physical machine. The second step is adopting virtual machines heavily. This means that there is no need to use a physical server; a virtual machine can do the job, thereby freeing it from risks of a hardware which gets obsolete very quickly.

“All the above three elements put together – ability to do engineering work in a cloud environment, Universal I/O and virtualisation adoption – Honeywell Process Solutions introduced LEAP, which collectively took automation systems away from the critical path. This was a very innovative initiative,” Kapur states.

The adoption level of LEAP by downstream industry customers is very high. All major projects adopt this methodology now. As a new wave of projects come up in the Middle East, the company expects many of the downstream projects to adopt the LEAP principles.

Connected plant and big data

Putting it very simplistically, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) means what is offered by connecting a plant to the Internet. The plant is an isolated asset as long as it is not connected to the Internet, and plant data is not being exchanged with anybody. So, what happens when a plant gets connected to the Internet? The possibilities of this connectivity are what Honeywell Connected Plant offers.

The concept of Honeywell Connected Plant is very simple. The knowledge to run a plant efficiently is with few experts. These experts do not have access to real-time plant data. These experts are people who are licensed to build a plant, or suppliers of some critical machinery for the plant.

If any critical plant incident occurs, these experts are not available in real time for their critical knowledge. When the operator informs them later about the failure, the experts advise the operator about what could have been done and what should not have been done.

What happens if the operator and experts are connected in real time? The knowledge of these experts could be made available to run the plant smoothly and to reduce downtime. This is the concept of connected plant – how to connect a plant by embedding the knowledge of experts in a cloud environment.

The experts get plant data from every connected plant and they are able to constantly upgrade their knowledge in a cloud environment because they witness many faults occurring since they have access to multiple sites. This allows the experts to continuously upgrade their knowledge, which is shared with operators in real time as critical incidents occur in connected plants.

“Honeywell Connected Plant is a system, where multiple customers are collaborating with different suppliers who possess unique knowledge and by working together they are able to improve overall plant uptime. Honeywell Process Solutions is working with many customers with this concept. It is relatively new – only launched in 2016. This is one of the IIoT offerings of the company,” notes Kapur.

The second IIoT area HPS is working on is Big Data. The process plants already have a lot of data. But, it is not captured efficiently and not used in a manner by which users can make business decisions. The company has products today where it can capture plant data from all data sources, which could be an ERP system, a maintenance system, a control system, or even a Microsoft Excel sheet, for example.

HPS has methods to collect data in a very structured manner. Once data is collected, it is associated with key performance indicators (KPIs), which could be safety, productivity, sustainability, energy efficiency, etc. The customer can set in certain KPIs, based on which it is possible to hypothesise any anticipated scenario from real-time data, thereby facilitating studied business decisions. The company is doing major projects with large customers in the UAE to demonstrate the power of Big Data.

“Honeywell Connected Plant and Big Data are the two major initiatives we have launched under IIoT. These are still evolving and if you talk to me six months from now, I am sure we will have more initiatives because IIoT is an advancing technology and lot of new concepts are getting deployed,” Kapur discloses.

Major automation challenges

“There are no unique challenges in the Middle East. Our business, which is global in nature, has certain challenges that are faced all over the world. What our customers in the UAE are expecting from us may be the same as what our clients in the US or China are demanding,” declares Kapur.

Every customer is looking for capital efficiency, operational excellence, risk minimisation, etc. What could be different in the business trends from region to region is the pace of adoption.

“There are two challenges that we face as an industry – these are not specific to Honeywell Process Solutions. Our systems have a very long life and we support our equipment for many years. We do not obsolete it. We upgrade it from an old version to a new version. Even today we support the systems we supplied in 1975 – when we started our company,” Kapur points out.

“Supporting systems which are that old makes our business very difficult because the components and operating systems are obsolete. People who knew well about our old systems are no more working with us because they have retired. Many of our customers do not adopt the new technologies at the pace that we want. But still we support them,” cites Kapur.

“How to balance between adoption at the right pace and making a convincing business case to a customer that now is the right time to upgrade from a particular version to a higher version is a really challenging task. This is the first big industry challenge in our business. I am not saying customers do not adopt new technologies; they take a longer time than we desire,” Kapur asserts.

“The second major issue automation industry faces is on skill front. There are not enough number of skilled engineers available. Automation is a very sophisticated and complicated field. Technology adopts very quickly. We are adopting cloud-based computing, mobility, virtualisation, etc. All these things came in just three years back,” says Kapur.

“How do we train all our people – including those who are working with us for 25 or 30 years – on all these skills? All these people also need to know the core components of control and automation, which itself is a reasonably difficult stream,” Kapur adds.

“We are responsible for skills of our customers and skills of ourselves. It is a really tough task making sure that we have people with right skills who are able to perform their tasks to the satisfaction of ourselves as well as of our customers,” observes Kapur.

“Our customers expect us to have people with right skills. They also expect us to train their people. This is a very big responsibility. This is a challenge we are constantly working towards by different methods, and we keep building on skills of our new engineers always,” remarks Kapur.

“So, the pace of technology adoption and availability of skilled engineers are two main challenges in the automation industry. These issues really do not bother us because our work is always very exciting. Technology in automation keeps changing always. These changes keep everybody working in the automation industry very excited because it empowers us to do new and different things very frequently,” Kapur explains.

The Middle East story

“We have a very strong presence in the Middle East which is a very important region for our business. We have large operations in the UAE – both in terms of manufacturing activities and the number of people working. We have similar scale presence in Saudi Arabia, in Dhahran Techno Valley. We have major operations in Kuwait and significant presence in Oman,” observes Kapur.

“In the Middle East, there are a limited number of companies. Most of these companies are our customers – for example, Saudi Aramco and SABIC in Saudi Arabia; KNPC, KOC and Equate in Kuwait; and PDO in Oman,” Kapur reveals.

“Middle East is one of our most critical markets. That is why many senior Honeywell people are frequently visiting the region to interact with customers to ensure we understand their requirements and perform our services to their satisfaction,” discloses Kapur.

“The purpose of my current visit here for a full week is to get direct feedback from customers, as well as their future expectations and requirements. That is the Honeywell work culture – we want to serve all our customers the best way all the time,” Kapur notes.

“In the Middle East, customers are very professional in their business dealings. They do follow well-laid procedures. They are very transparent. They reveal the rules of the game prior hand in every business deal. These rules might be tough. Some businesses get bogged down by these procedures. But, every country and organisation will have certain ways of conducting business. And, we, as a business, have to make a choice, whether we want to do it, or do not want to do it,” declares Kapur.

“In the Middle East there is general clarity on how to do business. There is good communication by customers about their expectations. There is excellent engagement on a life cycle and proactive basis to share feedback on how they expect us to perform differently. I find a partnership style business culture in the Middle East, especially in the UAE, which is very encouraging,” Kapur points out.

“The Middle East customers give very candid feedback on things which are working well as well as those not doing well. This feedback is never in the spirit of criticism; it is always in the nature of partnership. The customers in the Middle East want us to improve our performance because if we do better, they will also do better. As a very successful company for a long period, they want us to sustain many more years. They make us feel that we are required here. That is something very unique about the Middle East,” reveals Kapur.

Another important aspect that makes doing business in the Middle East easier for the US-based companies is the ability to communicate with everybody directly in English. In some countries in certain regions, this advantage is missing. The ability to directly engage with the Middle Eastern customers at all levels and to have good and transparent communication is a big advantage of the region.

“The downstream industry in the Middle East is performing really well. Customers are constantly investing across all the countries. Other regions are not growing in the downstream industry as fast as the Middle East. Our business in the region has become much bigger than what it was five years back and it will become much larger in the next five years. We foresee a very promising future for the Middle East downstream industry,” Kapur mentions.

A milestone achieved

“Honeywell Process Solutions has been in the same business since its inception in 1975. From our competition, not many companies have remained in the same business for forty years. Out of the few companies which started with us, after forty years, most of those are left far behind than us. Being in the fast-changing technology business, we have survived four decades, and we are still the leader. And that is not easy in a high-technology business in which the demise happens very quickly,” observes Kapur.

“Many companies which used to compete with us ten years back do not exist now. When we look twenty years back, the list will go longer – many of our competitors got acquired by others and many got out of the business. Our success to constantly keep ourselves in the same industry, with the same focus and without drifting ourselves, is a major milestone for us,” Kapur asserts.

“Generations of Honeywell process solutions have been able to adapt to every emerging business reality and adopt each new technology. Some of our customers are continuously doing business with us for the last forty years. We still do what we used to do forty years back – in much better, sophisticated and modern ways – and we really take pride in that,” concludes Kapur.

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