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How integrated communications can improve asset management and drive business growth

29 November 2016

Klaus Allion of ANT Telecom says intelligent, ambient telecommunications could transform high hazard organisations. But to get there, everyone from the boardroom to the factory floor must immerse themselves in an organisation-wide communications strategy.

The fledgling concept of ambient intelligence is finally coming of age. The philosophy, where humans are supported by non-intrusive networks of intelligent devices that are embedded into their everyday environments and are adaptive and responsive to their needs, is rapidly gaining traction. The Internet of Things, which builds on advances in sensor networks and cost-effective RFID technology to automate activities and revolutionise everyday life, is tantalisingly close. In the consumer world, it seems an exciting but futuristic vision – but in the corporate environment, it is already happening.

The most progressive organisations are leveraging ambient technology to facilitate integrated communications that are reinforcing employee safety and driving major gains in productivity and efficiency. But the approach, unlike the technology, is far from ubiquitous. An uncomfortable majority remain hamstrung by traditional processes and structures that prevent them realising the true operational benefits of immersive technology. And they’re paying the price in profitability. So how do you unlock the door to integrated communications.

The clue is in the title. Integrated communications, unsurprisingly, requires an integrated internal approach; collaborative, cross-functional strategic planning, driven from board level – but designed, implemented and maintained by telecommunications specialists.

But while head office and commercial environments commonly deploy integrated systems that ‘talk to each other’, connectivity rarely extends to the plant or production environment. In many organisations, production and manufacturing plants work in operational silos, using disparate systems that are disconnected from HQ. This approach not only potentially compromises workforce safety, but can also have major ramifications for operational efficiency, productivity and profitability.

The potential risks are manifold. In hazardous environments safety is a high priority – yet organisations’ suboptimal use of technology could leave workers exposed to unnecessary risk. Engineers, for example, can often venture into areas with hot ovens, boilers, heat exchanges or work in intrinsically safe environments with low foot traffic;  an unforeseen accident could leave them isolated, undetectable and unreachable for dangerously lengthy periods of time. 

Likewise, when machines malfunction, businesses often rely on monitoring systems or human intervention to observe a fault and respond appropriately. However, this approach is far from infallible and can lead to slow response times, poor quality control and costly produce wastage.
These are inefficiencies that businesses can ill afford – and they are relevant across all manufacturing industries. For example, in the food sector, a faulty machine overheating – or underheating – can lead to the avoidable wastage of ingredients or, if undetected, threaten consumer safety. In the utilities environment, a simple fault can lead to water contamination or the risk of explosion.

In each case, intelligent communications technology can mitigate risk and help organisations align for growth.  Automated machine-to-human or machine-to-machine technology can help companies identify and resolve problems quickly and efficiently – and in the process, enhance productivity and profitability.

For example, automated machine-to-staff solutions could use geo-locational technology to alert the nearest engineer when a machine develops a fault. Forklift truck drivers could receive a warning when colleagues walk into a distribution area. A process may stop, or a power warning be issued, when an unauthorised employee enters a geo zone. The opportunities are limitless.

The most common barrier to progress, however, is cultural. Organisations are not blind to the opportunities of disruptive innovation, but in many cases, long-standing structures and processes make the specification and procurement of technology a piecemeal, silo or divisional decision. Yet the optimal approach to procurement should be as integrated as the technologies themselves – and be based on collaborative insights and the shared understanding of business objectives and challenges.

Nevertheless, organisations are increasingly recognising the value of integrated communications and how this can underpin their broad strategic goals. The drivers for change are clear:  the renewed ability to protect workforce safety is, of course, a moral obligation for any employer – but the additional opportunity to reduce waste, save money and improve productivity is a commercial no-brainer.

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