Digitalization is emerging in every branch of life. It is also expected to bring up unforeseen business efficiency for process industry plant lifecycle businesses – from capital investment projects to operations and maintenance of industrial plants. Every company has its own approach to digitalization. Therefore, it has been challenging to find out what it actually takes from an individual company. The inspiring discussions at the recent Finnish forest industry workshop proved this once again (Pöyry house in Vantaa).
The participants clearly shared common understanding that digitalization means business process automation, exploitation of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), new ways of doing old businesses and also brand new business opportunities. Everyone was able to pick up the benefits for his own company. But it was substantially more difficult to figure out what must be done to fully redeem the promises.
The big challenge is that a part of the pending tasks must be agreed collaboratively within the business ecosystem. And the rest still need to be carried out by individual companies. At least the following four separate important issues must be taken into account:
1. Data models and standardization
The essence of digitalization is information exchange. Data model standards for commercial and technical information exchange play the key roles. Sadly, each company has their own data models that are different to those used by the business partners. But luckily, all the data content to be transferred is already available. Of course, it would have been good if everybody had exactly the same data models, but unfortunately that cannot ever be the case in the multifaceted process industry business environment. The data receiver always needs to map the sent data correctly into his own backend systems. As the sender and receiver have different data models the easiest way is to agree common data model standard for exchanging data.
UBL (and RosettaNet) are well known commercial transaction standards. They are directly applicable in all businesses also beyond process industry. The challenge in the process industry plant lifecycle business is that the trade item (product or work to be bought) is very often a special (engineered) subject that cannot be found from any standards or catalogues. Therefore, straightforward e-catalog orders can usually be applied only to simple spare-parts. In addition, the process industry business requires wide set of technical information regarding the product itself and related engineering design specifications. ISO and IEC cover all that standardization, unfortunately not always unambiguously. The Finnish PSK (a local standardization body) is creating application guidelines for those.
The justification of using common data models and standardization seemed to be clear to all the workshop participants due to their experience of existing business practices.
2. Intercompany business processes
Digitalization requires integration of business processes between companies. The same principles in internal business process automation must also be applied in intercompany business process automation. All information exchange must always be a natural part of related workflows – not an additional separate process on top of the actual process. Processes facilitate digitalization for every participating company. To reclaim the maximum benefits all business partners are well advised to digitalize the corresponding workflows. This may and should mean changes to old existing processes!
The commercial UBL (and RosettaNet) standard covers all related business processes in addition to the data models. Unfortunately technical ISO and IEC standards don’t describe detailed intercompany business processes. Even though some technical standards do take into account selected important process related issues, they are not that clearly connected to similar process standards as the commercial standards do. This is probably due to the complexity of managing technical information.
Even though several commercial business processes, such as ordering and invoicing, are clearly understood as intercompany business processes most of the people are not familiar with them. Instead, when discussing business processes most people prefer thinking companies’ internal business processes, and consider intercompany interactions as an interfacing issue only. Although some work remains to be done to get the common understanding on higher level in general, the Finnish process industry initiative is now in a very good shape. Participating companies already agreed action points to get commercial and technical information exchanging processes included to the common standards.
3. Information system adapters within the ecosystem
To get information exchanged between two separate IT systems they must be integrated using an appropriate IT adapter (API). The adapter initiates the data transfers from the source system to the target system and converts the data content formats as needed. In traditional one-to-one partnership, the companies involved must agree the data exchange related business processes and data model conversion practices in advance. However, this point-to-point solution is always costly to establish and maintain.
Information mapping and adapters are familiar technologies for all IT experts in every company and systems integration is never ending work for them. However, it is not always clear, how this integration should be optimized – especially in cases where more than two parties are involved. In traditional environment, connecting to a network of companies may be technologically challenging and financially costly. Furthermore, it may be too slow for emerging business environment changes. That’s why integration is not just a question of technology but agility and profound business judgment.
One well known solution for integrating several systems together is based on the traditional middleware idea. Historically, middleware is computer software that allows several distributed applications to exchange information through commonly shared data models and business processes.
4. The way to run networked operations
The big issue then is how to organize the “middleware” between networked ecosystem partners?
Can companies make point-to-point systems connections based on their one-to-one partnerships? Of course they can and they have. And emerging standards help. But a few problems remain: (1) Each one-to-one connection might still require some tweaking of the adapter as the other partner has chosen a particular way to interpret the standard. (2) Data transfer itself is still somebody’s responsibility – companies do not run their own networks but more and more services are run on low cost operator driven platforms. (3) If you don’t “get it”, is it feasible to go to your partner and tell them that “they got it wrong”? Who would be responsible of connecting switchboards together, if everybody had their own telephone switchboards?
As we know operators do that work and take that responsibility. Telephone was invented 140 years ago, and very soon after that commercial telephone operators took responsibility to connect phone calls. Every company still has their own internal switchboards – often automated – taking responsibility of internal communication. All this is possible when standards have been agreed, companies have adapters and everybody agree that all this should work in open network for everyone. Meaning that an operator is always needed – being in principle commercial corporations, cooperatives or even nonprofit associations. However, only the commercial operators can have the flexibility to take the financial responsibility of required initial investments and developing competence needed for successful intercompany communication.
Now the process industry ecosystem has started! Plenty of companies are already joined the network – Collaxion Oy as the open process industry network operator.