During his working day, the President and CEO of Yokogawa Engineering Asia for ASEAN, Oceania Region and Taiwan, Toshinari Miyamoto, is immersed in a world of robots and industrial automation, working towards the ambitious goal of industrial autonomy. However, in his spare time, he loves to pull on his running shoes and hit the leafy trails of Singapore – staying fit, de-stressing and getting back to nature all at the same time.
Trail running is a passion he discovered nine years ago while working in Indonesia, just one of the countries he has worked in during his 35 years with Yokogawa. The impressive innings is a sign of Miyamoto-san’s alignment with the company’s commitment to helping machine learning and human best practice join forces. It is a future that has been pushed closer within reach by the pressures of the pandemic.
A brave new world
The idea that robots will become omnipresent in the workplace of the future is certainly not new, but it is one that has historically met with resistance from humans fearful of being replaced and rendered redundant. Despite concerns, this broader adoption of technology does not mean that robots are going to render humans obsolete in the working world. "Humans will use their skills in process improvement activities as opposed to just keeping things running," Miyamoto-san tells The CEO Magazine. "Smart processes are efficient and highly profitable processes that contribute to a sustainable future where waste is minimised and output is maximised."
Indeed, a 2019 study by the Harvard Business Review found that although automation does indeed affect many workers, relatively few of those are "adversely affected". According to the study, only two per cent of workers employed at automating firms left during the year of the automation event, as a result of the automation. After five years, 8.5 per cent will have left, the study found.
"People tend to relate autonomous operation to job losses," Miyamoto-san admits. "Contrary to the myth, it means better utilisation of resources by letting machines make the most accurate decisions for your processes and equipping your workforce with the future-ready skill sets required for innovation."
Towards industrial autonomy
Global research commissioned by Yokogawa found that the majority (64 per cent) of companies expect to reach fully autonomous operations by 2030, a huge rise from 19 per cent in 2023. Just seven per cent had no plans to invest and implement autonomous/semi-autonomous operations.
The shift is being primarily driven by the desire for productivity improvements and operational efficiency as well as quality management, energy management and worker safety. To this end, 42 per cent of respondents are significantly investing in artificial intelligence over the next three years, with 40 per cent doing the same for intelligent sensors and devices, and 29 per cent in quantum computing. The next three years will see companies invest in technologies that aid better decision-making such as cybersecurity, cloud analytics and big data as well as AI, according to Miyamoto-san.
Yokogawa believes, for many end users, autonomous operations is the destination to achieve their smart manufacturing goals, which is why it has introduced its Industrial Automation to Industrial Autonomy (IA2IA) solution to help with the transition, as jumping straight to autonomous operations is a tall order. Instead, it must be done in steps, with Yokogawa developing a five-level maturity model to help companies make the necessary changes.
"The IA2IA shift has already been ramping up due to a convergence of multiple trends such as increasingly complex operations as more data becomes available, difficulties in developing and retaining skilled workers, and increasingly powerful enablers such as AI," Miyamoto-san explains.
The COVID-19 pandemic has simply accelerated this trend by shining a light on the challenges of an absent workforce. Consequently, 54 per cent of the study’s respondents expect to up their investment in autonomy over the next three years as a "direct result" of the pandemic. "COVID-19 put the brakes on economic growth in 2020, but it will be a catalyst for the medium- to long-term growth of industrial autonomy," Miyamoto-san says. "It has arguably presented a great impetus for industrial autonomy moving forward, with a higher priority now being placed on the ability to continue running operations without workers needing to be present."
Even during the uncertainty of the pandemic, it was "business as usual to a degree" for Yokogawa Engineering Asia. "Our reputation is built on being prepared for worstcase scenarios, so we took it in our stride," Miyamoto-san shares. "I remember that right after Chinese New Year and even during that holiday, our staff started preparing for what we needed to do to care for our people based on our business continuity plan as well as lessons learned during previous pandemics like SARS."
The company protected its staff and customers by introducing a range of measures that included promoting workplace hygiene as well as teleworking. "Thanks to the advances in IT in recent years, people can now choose where and when they will perform many kinds of work," he continues. "This trend has gained momentum during the pandemic with rising demand among our customers for remote engineering and remote maintenance solutions."
Where Yokogawa’s service engineers were prevented from visiting a site for safety reasons, the company used technology to provide remote support as well as remote maintenance services. "Soon, unmanned plants will be able to use AI and sensors to anticipate incidents and autonomously initiate measures to keep operating efficiently," Miyamoto-san forecasts. "Hence, digital technology will lessen the need for people to perform dangerous tasks, improving efficiency across every industry.
Yokogawa’s approach to sustainability throughout the business meant that it was already in a good position to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. "Because we have moved towards the business of futureproofing our customers, we also make it a key direction for us to look at how we can navigate the future world in 10 to 20 years ahead – hence our drive towards sustainability," Miyamoto-san confirms. "We are planting the seeds now to enable our customers to manage the future."
New world, new plan
These rapid changes in the business environment and growing demand for these types of technologies has led the company to partly revise its mid-term business plan entitled Accelerate Growth 2023. "The three-year strategy aims for sustainable growth by solving social issues while expanding our contribution to society and the environment," Miyamoto-san explains.
It focuses on three main business segments in order to diversify and expand the business. Energy is one, with Yokogawa anticipating a significant spike in demand for energy, particularly renewable energy as a result of growing concerns over global warming. "We will support safe and optimal operations throughout the diversified energy value chain," he asserts.
Materials is another key component of the company that is central to its vision of the future. "We will be addressing issues like energy efficiency, recycling and switching to raw materials with lower environmental impact by leveraging our strong relationships with customers in this industry and our strength in environmental measures and digital technologies," Miyamoto-san says. "We will also challenge ourselves by developing new materials."
"COVID-19 put the brakes on economic growth in 2020, but it will be a catalyst for the medium- to long-term growth of industrial autonomy."
Third up is the area of the business that focuses on life itself; for example, through industries like food and beverage and pharmaceutical. "The production and supply of food and water will not be able to keep up with future demand," he predicts. "Likewise, we expect a high demand for pharmaceuticals. There is lots of potential for innovative products and production processes where our measurement, control technologies and digital transformation solutions will come into play."
Miyamoto-san highlights strong customer relationships as critical to the success of the Accelerate Growth 2023 plan and is confident the company will be well placed to continue improving customer productivity in the years to come.
However, it is not just about increasing economic value, according to Miyamoto-san. "Yokogawa has contributed to solving problems for customers across a wide range of industries," he says. "Businesses that wish to survive must be flexible and able to adapt to change and be resilient in the face of adversity."
"Smart processes are efficient and highly profitable processes that contribute to a sustainable future where waste is minimised and output is maximised."
To help make this happen and secure its own future success, Miyamoto-san believes it is critical for Yokogawa to shift its focus from simply being an "automation supplier" to a "trusted partner" for its clients. "We need to change our mindset and how carefully we are listening to our customers so that we can understand their challenges, issues and pain points," he insists. "Then we can collaborate to co-create a solution to solve their problems using our own digital technologies, products and software."
He concedes that Yokogawa may not necessarily have the right product to meet these demands and so must be flexible in the way it works. "We may have to bring in something from another supplier and integrate it with our solutions as a package to meet the customers’ demands and solve their problems," he adds.
This "consultancy" approach represents a huge shift for the company, which is still ongoing, but Miyamoto-san is confident the company is on the right track.
Caring for the planet
Catering to the desire of customers for more sustainable solutions is also part of the plan, as laid out in the Accelerate Growth 2023 plan. But Yokogawa is also looking at its own operations in addition to those of its customers in order to truly deliver on this front.
"Companies like us must be willing to do our part to tackle global issues such as resource shortages and environmental pollution," Miyamoto-san says. The company has therefore set ambitious targets in the spirit of "good citizenship". It is working towards the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 by building liquified natural gas and renewable energy infrastructure that will help to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Yokogawa is also creating tools that will ease the transition to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly circular economy. These include AI and other digital technology solutions that will help companies to run their businesses more efficiently.
In order to enhance global wellbeing, it is strengthening partnerships that will support its life innovation business in the organisation’s quest to improve the overall efficiency of the value chains of both the pharmaceutical and food industries. "Due to environmental issues and demographic change, the production and supply of food and water will not be able to keep up with future demand," Miyamoto-san predicts. "Improving and maintaining people’s health will also be one of the big global challenges."
Through Yokogawa’s innovative production processes, Miyamoto-san is hopeful that the company will help to make a difference in these areas and more. "We have contributed to solving social and environmental problems, including energy conservation, resource conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, improved safety and other accomplishments that fall in line with our Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Singapore Green Plan," he says.
Creating the right culture
These commitments are driven not only by the changing needs of Yokogawa’s customers, but also by the need to remain at the top of its game and ensure its team is driven and innovating to the max. "We need to make sure that our people are always energised and motivated," Miyamoto-san explains. "Through personal development, graduate programs and training and retraining, we are committed to ensuring that our employees are the most highly qualified and knowledgeable in the industry. This makes sure we provide the highest possible levels of service to our customers and the uninterrupted continuity levels that are so important to industries operating 24/7."
This dynamic company culture is key to Yokogawa’s ongoing success, explains Miyamoto-san, who highlights the company’s core values of gratitude, value creation, collaboration, respect and integrity. "I encourage employees to constantly challenge themselves to create value, be creative and innovative in their respective roles in our company, and enjoy their life in their social community," he says. "Team innovation helps the company grow and prosper."
Apart from Japan, Indonesia and his current base of Singapore, Miyamoto-san has worked in many other countries including the Netherlands and the US during his time at Yokogawa. This, combined with the fact that the company has 104 offices outside Japan, has helped him get to grips with the different ways each office works and the cultural specificities of each one. He highlights Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map as his "bible", which has helped him adapt accordingly over the years. "Understanding these cultural differences is very, very important, not only to communicate and interact with the employees, but also to properly engage with customers," he stresses.
Just as trail running calls on Miyamoto-san’s stamina and his ability to adapt to the different movements and forces at play, so too does steering Yokogawa Engineering Asia into this next era. Being quick off the mark when it comes to changing times and business needs has, after all, played a big role in the company’s success so far. Now, with Miyamoto-san’s clear strategy and vision for the future, it appears to still be on the right track.