Advanced analytics: industry’s next great thing

By Richard MacRosty |

Digitization has opened the door to big data. This abundance of information is readily available from thousands of instruments and other sources stored on the plant historian—the database software application that logs or “historizes” time-based process data. All good. But without the ability to interpret what it means, it’s not much more than a big pile of numbers. 

Advanced analytics is that next level, an added layer of intelligence that helps us make sense of it all. When applied to industry, analytics is invaluable for identifying the upstream influencers and downstream consequences. It can be used to leverage data in order to understand the process, predict what will happen in the future, and advise us how and when to act in order to influence future outcomes.

Traditionally, people have used tools like spreadsheets to make sense of historical data. But advanced analytics focuses on identifying relationships and behaviors that are embedded in the data. It can show us potential correlations as a function of time, considering the umpteen parameters and issues that may affect the variable of interest.  

From data to actionable information
Our human brains, sophisticated as they are, can only simultaneously process a limited number of ideas, calculations, or concepts. Here, analytics does what we can’t. It can encompass large volumes of data and show us how specific pieces or aspects of it interrelate at the same time, distilling valuable interactions of what can be very complex processes. 

Data is one thing; information, another. For data to be meaningfully applied to business planning decisions, we need to temper and contextualize it, turning it into information that we can understand and use. This is the work of data analysts and subject matter experts (SMEs) working in tandem. The analysts know how to expose the information. But it’s the SMEs who have the process and product knowledge to help us understand what it means. 

Analytics in industry
A recent survey indicated that a high proportion of Canadian C-suite leaders admitted that their next big decision would more likely be based on human judgement than hard data. 

Only now, well into the 21st century, is industry beginning to harvest data electronically and leverage its information potential. Relatively common electronic tools like tablets and cell phones are starting to have a big impact, for the metals industry particularly. Operators can now capture data and instantly upload it to a central system that can interpret it, allocate it appropriately, act upon it, and even get immediate feedback. 

To fully embrace advanced analytics and reap the full benefits it can provide, start with the right people who have the requisite skills and knowledge. Look at the equipment you have in place and the processes you use. Next, examine those specific events that the analytics are flagging in the data. But bear in mind that these won’t tell the whole story. The sensors that capture and feed data are not always reliable, especially in harsh environments that are typical of heavy industry. So be prepared to do some investigating. Follow the breadcrumbs. The data analysts and SMEs will need to pull together, identifying and examining not just things, but the relationships between them. 

Often, these kinds of deep, detailed diagnostics are best left to specialists who can operate at arm’s length from the business. Hatch does this kind of work by assembling our own cross-functional teams, pulling experience and know-how from a variety of process, equipment, and production specialists to augment the analytics process. Having all these different skills in-house is a significant advantage. We can quickly assemble the right experts, transport them to your site and embed them with your team to rigorously examine the operation. Applying advanced analytics to the data to uncover meaningful information is that next tier of identifying and capitalizing on opportunities. Bottlenecks and the main areas of inefficiency—the drains that translate into financial losses—quickly become evident. Once we find them we take the next step, working with you to correct them so they don’t negatively impact your production going forward.

Done well and in the right context, information analytics can point the way to a better future. It can map out steps to help drive your operation to new heights. Expect to invest time and effort to get it right. But you won’t regret it. With the difference that advanced analytics can make to the success of your business, the destination will more than compensate for any bumps in the road you must take to get there.