Pokémon GO: reflections on the process industry

Introduction

Over the last few weeks, the world has been taken by storm as Pokemon GO progressively rolled out from one country to the next, rekindling the memories of many people in their 30s and 40s, enchanting younger and older generations, and quickly becoming the most downloaded game in US history. Whether enchanted or aggravated by the craze, I presume most of us have played the game or at least discussed the craze with someone else at some point.

In the midst of the rampant desire for players to “Catch ‘em all,” significant incidents have occurred that are directly linked to the influence of the game itself.

What follows is a quick review of the game for those who are not familiar:

1.       The word name comes from combining two Japanese words: Poketto (pocket) + Monsuta (monster) = Pokémon

2.       The goal of the smartphone app is to catch various Pokemon characters as they are superimposed on your device, in real time, as you move around town. You then “catch” the characters, which you use to battle other Pokemon players and their characters, in a winner-take-all events. The ultimate goal is to win battles and catch at least one of every character in the game.

3.       Pokemon characters come in various shapes and sizes; they resemble animals and have magical powers. All characters come from a specified area or type. Some pokemon are ground characters (which can be caught near wooded areas & parks), some are water characters (which can be found near ponds & fountains), and some are made from electricity (which intentionally cannot be found during a thunderstorm), the list goes on and on…

The third point is where recently things started to become very interesting for our industry, interesting and potentially dangerous. A number of institutions in our industry have begun to issue numerous warnings in an effort to deter the public from their attempts to catch pokemon, such as “Electabuzz” or “Zapdos,” which are often found near powerplants and industrial areas because they are, naturally, characters made from electricity. 

The first warning came from Duke Energy urging the public to focus on safety when playing the game, as safety is “greater than” the game. Following soon after was Cass County Electric who proactively searched for “Zapdos” throughout the plant so the public didn’t have to (FYI: they didn’t find, thus could not catch the elusive Zapdos). Soon after, Reddit jumped on the industrial bandwagon and posted a picture of a “Koffing” found within an unnamed industrial complex.

The situation reached a climax when one Pokeholic trespassed onto a nuclear Power station in the US. This prompted Japanese energy giant TEPCO to also make a public statement asking that no person should enter their facilities in the search of pokemon characters, and advised all staff to never play while in the facility. (Note: the single pokemon found within one of TEPCOs nuclear facilities has now been removed at the request of the company)

Reflection

As I write, I reflect upon how the world is being pushed into new and uncharted territory and consider what this means for our industry, which is, quite often slow moving and risk adverse, and for a good reason. What will quick shifts and fast innovations mean for automation platforms which are often in place for 10 or 20 years?

Today’s platforms were designed before our youngest operators were even born. Considering the rate of change that we are experiencing, the gap in mental models and thinking processes from junior operator to senior operator is widening, and will continue to widen as time goes on. Change is continuous, and I believe that we must keep up with the trends so that automation platforms and facilities remain safe, optimized, and competitive. Children these days are born with ipads in their hands, almost literally! (see video) Here inlays some fundamental questions:

  • How do we optimize a plant for the generation that designed the plant, to the generation that is operating the plant 20 years later?
  • How do we get these young operators who are digital-natives to work at their maximum potential when they were born with an iPad in their hands?

Pokemon at unnamed facility 

Imagine this… it’s the year 2025 and a fresh graduate from a top-tier university is applying to companies as an operator, and two companies have made the graduate a job offer. Plant A uses pneumatics and manual logging, Plant B uses devices that resemble iPads, iWatches and big data with interactive interfaces and easily accessible information. Which plant/company do you think the freshest and brightest engineers and graduates will want to work for, A or B? How long will it take for the less tech-centered companies/plants to lose significant competitiveness due to difficulty in hiring the grade A staff?

It is my opinion that keeping the workplace safe, optimized, and conducive to the both the old guard and new guard will be more important than ever before, but also more challenging, in the coming years.

The challenge is one of achieving balance between supporting the needs of the experienced operators (who started with pneumatics and chart records) so that they can still perform their tasks to drive the business forward, and the digital-natives whose basis of thinking is based on the new and more advanced technology that enables (and encourages) them to push forward. How to achieve this balance between old and new is the multi-trillion dollar question. This question will always be a work in progress as each generation goes by, and the answer will vary highly depending on culture, facility age and demographics, investment cycles, and much more.

Most companies have already put forth some level of R&D into leveraging the power of artificial reality within industrial facilities. Yokogawa has been researching this area for quite some time, and ironically, similarities between this project and Pokemon Go can be seen clearly.

The project is called iMaintain. Working with Akzo Nobel in Germany, the program is designed to overlay maintenance procedures and real-time data from the Centum DCS into an Artificial Reality display. By bringing all components together, we can identify opportunities and methods to enable real improvements from front-line maintenance staff.

What do you think?

iMaintain by Yokogawa and Akzo Nobel

This is an exciting time, and there are many questions that still need to be asked, and answered. As an industry:

  • Can we learn from the consumer world on how to bring the benefits of Augmented Reality and an immersive world to the plant floor, whilst avoiding the safety implications we have seen in the Pokemon Go phenomenon?
  • Is it possible to satisfy the old guard and encourage the new guard as the gap widens more as society moves further forward?

I am curious to hear from everyone else -- any thoughts on what we can learn as an industry from Pokemon Go??