Adoption of Digital Technologies has its Challenges and Opportunities

By Sharada Prahladrao

Industry Trends

Executive interviews at the ARC Industry Forum elicited insightful perspectives on the adoption of digital technologies and digital transformation journeys in a volatile business environment. In a joint interview, ARC’s Inderpreet Shoker, Senior Analyst, spoke to Geff Wood, Director ITAS Automation and Operations Solutions for Alcoa, and Vijay Kumar, Business Segment Head for Energy and Resources at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Speaking about his role at Alcoa, Mr. Wood said that in the Information Technology and Automation Solutions (ITAS) business segment, he works closely with multiple teams to help drive value with the deployment of automation and digital solutions. Mr. Kumar of TCS said that he’s responsible for the metals and mining, oil and gas, and EPC segments that are the backbones of economies across the globe. His role is essentially to bring in the best of TCS across its service lines to all its customers and partners for the joint success as a purpose-led organization. In this context, he mentioned that Alcoa has been a great partner for the last 15-16 years. They spoke about adoption of digital technologies, trends, operator-centric models, impact of the pandemic, and the road ahead. This blog captures the key points of the interview. It can be viewed on YouTube or/and below. 

Harnessing Technology to Transform Businesses

Ms. Shoker’s opening query to Mr. Wood was about the business areas where digital technologies would transform how business is done in the metals and mining sector to enhance safety and efficiency.  “This sector was a slow adopter of technology, but today new trends of digital technologies are visible in every business segment, resource unit, and support function,” said Mr. Wood. These technologies provide better supply chain visibility, resulting in downtime and working capital reduction. This is enabled by secure connectivity to the cloud as well as mobility, Industrial IoT and edge devices, all making their way into the company’s infrastructure to provide data and computing power. Further, he spoke about the connected worker program that brings many of the technology improvements enabling the operator-centric workforce. This initiative provides the workers with a tool set that enables their workflows (work permit, work instructions, work order and so on) to be completed as efficiently as possible. Developing this tool set not only required a detailed analysis of the work people do and how those workflows work, but it also required getting the mobile devices in people's hands. This is a work in progress in collaboration with TCS.

Empowering the Workforce

Mr. Kumar said that the operator-centric model that Mr. Wood spoke about is a theme which has been adopted across industries. The key factors are:

  • Advancement and democratization of the enabling technologies, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, robotics, and human and robot interface

  • Competitiveness and cost pressures to make operations safe and efficient

  • 50-60 percent of time is lost because the worker doesn’t have the information on his device

What is important today is context specific information in the hands of field workers, without the complexity. This information has been further enriched by the capability to capture videos, audios, geo information, etc., which makes the whole data collection much more effective and accurate.

Challenges of Adoption of Digital Technology

Ms. Shoker commented that end users realize the benefit of technology, but there are a lot of challenges associated with the adoption, and resistance to change is a major challenge. She asked Mr. Wood how Alcoa overcame this challenge.

Mr. Wood replied that resistance to change is probably why the company was a slow adopter/developer of technology. Later they began focusing on employee engagement and involving people from the initial stage, and asking them how the new tools could give them a better user experience. The approach was positive - to make their job easier and more fulfilling - and not from a job elimination stance. After the teams were convinced, the IT specialists that included partner TCS and Alcoa focused on providing tools with high reliability, fast response, and a strong support network. “Often, the way people resist change is to find excuses not to use it,” he said. So, they worked hard on the front end to eliminate all those excuses and make it a pleasant experience.

Impact of the Pandemic

“The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies,” opined Mr. Kumar. He explained this through the three categories in the market:

  • Companies like Alcoa and some other partners of TCS who had deployed technologies before the pandemic, did not see any slowdown

  • People started thinking about returning to work safely (maintaining social distancing, mask/PPE compliance). TCS moved 400,000 people in the secure, borderless workspaces and they are working effectively on large projects

  • New conversations have begun on business resilience that goes beyond efficiency and safety. This is about managing operations/factories with minimal people with better social distancing and access to remote expertise

Road Ahead

Mr. Wood spoke about the value chain pipeline where all these ideas are tied to the value they can generate in the company and try to tie that to a delivery timeline. The company would like to expand the connected worker program to more worker types across all the different roles on the shop floor and broaden the usage to different aspects, such as roles and functionality. “Even though you've got the connected worker, what is needed is a connected team,” he said. So, Alcoa is working on its daily visual management tools to discuss performance-related issues. The teams put forth new ideas that are discussed with Alcoa’s partners and check what will work and can be deployed. Going forward this will generate a tremendous amount of value.

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