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  • Jim Gavigan

Are You "Toting The Oil" Up The Stairs?

Last week, my wife Kristina and I visited the Saint Augustine lighthouse and it was an enjoyable visit to a landmark we have taken 3 years of living here to finally go see.

Little did I know that the visit would give me a great analogy for my work life. It hit me Sunday morning as I was thinking about how to explain something to one of my prospects. This person is struggling

to convince their management to use my services to do some work with PI AF and Event Frames, which I view as a major time savers when trying to truly understand what is going on in a production process. It is an incredibly underutilized set of tools for those using the PI System in industry and one that I think speeds up time to value when using time series data. In my work over the last few years, I have seen analyses and data pulls that would take 4-8 hours for an engineer to do be reduced to a 5 minute process through the use of these tools. My message to my clients is always this: "Wouldn't you want your smart people asking questions of the data and figuring out how to improve your operations instead of pulling and shaping data?" The answer is always yes, but it seems everyone asks "Yeah, but what is the cost and what is the true benefit?" These are legitimate questions, but I have yet to be involved in a PI AF project that went after a certain problem that wasn't worth well more than the time and money spent on it.

So, what does a lighthouse have to do with data? With the IIoT? With Digital Transformation? Well, nothing, but something I learned on my visit is a great analogy for the above and for the challenges I am constantly talking with customers and prospects about.

About a third of the way up the 219 winding stairs, there is a bucket. If you stop and read the story, this bucket, or one like it, was used to tote the oil that was burned

to keep the light operational back in the old days, before electricity. As a tourist, you can pick up the bucket about 18 inches (chained to the floor) to feel how heavy the bucket would have been that the keeper would have to tote 219 steps and 140 feet to the top of the lighthouse. I estimate that this bucket weighed around 35 pounds, so this was no trivial feat toting the oil to the top of the lighthouse. I am sure this was done several times a day, and I would even bet that this took significant time out of the keeper's day, but it was an essential function to keep that light burning for navigation.

I really think many of those in industry today are still "toting the oil" in a lot of ways when it comes to using data. People are still looking up "tags," pulling a whole bunch of time series data, likely into a spreadsheet or trending tool, and then trying to filter out all of the information they don't want, or looking for correlations in the data that show what the person is really looking for - what is "good" and what is "bad" in their production process. For a lot of my potential clients, this seems to be good enough. They have the data and they believe that they are getting the information that they desire. This is probably true, but how much time of their day are they taking to do this? I suspect a lot of them don't see another way, just as those early lighthouse keepers did. The oil has to get to the top to keep the light burning. The engineers of today have to pull and analyze this data and get it organized, because they have to keep the plant running. However, is this the smartest use of their time, and what else could they be doing if they weren't "toting the oil?"

Where the story came together for me was when I was back on the ground (legs still shaking) as we were walking through some of the other exhibits and attractions and I saw a set of block and tackles. The first one was a 1:1 ratio and you could pull on the rope and see what it felt like to get a 35 pound bucket in the air. It wasn't easy, and I could see someone's arms burning if they tried to use this mechanism to tote the oil up the lighthouse tower.

The second one had a mechanical advantage of 3:1 and a third one had an advantage of 5:1, each one made the toting of the oil task much easier with regards to physical effort (and likely time). The story goes that the keepers finally implemented a block and tackle system to get the oil to the top of the tower to keep the light burning. To me, tools like PI AF, Envoy Development's Process Monitor, and many other tools that are out or are coming out in the IIoT toolset are designed to give us an advantage with our data. Instead of "toting the oil," we should be spending our limited working time figuring out what the data is telling us, not pulling the data, and go on to more important things. However, sometimes we have to step back, look around at what's available, and make the time to implement tools that make our lives easier, just as those lighthouse keepers did. One of them finally got tired of toting the oil and implemented a better system.

What would have happened if all of the keepers kept being like the cavemen below? It wasn't that getting the oil to the top wasn't essential to their day, but one of them discovered a way to make the task faster and more pleasant to do. My guess is that keeper was then able to spend time on other things that he wanted or needed to do. I would also guess is that this new capability was especially nice to have on a hot, muggy summer day. Wouldn't you like to have capabilities to make your job easier when "the heat" hits you in your job? I am afraid I still see too many people out there perfectly satisfied, or more likely, too busy to step back and think of how they can stop toting the oil by hand.

However, here is the real caveat: there is a way that is coming to get electricity to the top of the lighthouse tower, which reduces the requirement of even toting the oil to the top of the tower. Will you be one of those toting the oil still while your competitors all have electricity for their lights? Do you think that will keep you as a low cost and efficient producer of your goods? As I have stated before, the revolution we are now in will have winners and losers. Those that tote the oil the longest will be the losers. Those that see the path to the block and tackles and eventually electricity will be there winners. Where will you and your company fall?

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