Our #pAutomator today is Sujata Tilak, Managing Director, Ascent Intellimation (India). As a part of her role, Tilak is responsible for providing technology and product leadership, including leading product strategy and roadmaps, new market identification, product engineering, etc.
In addition, she has also served as the President of the ISA Pune Chapter (India) from 2016 to 2018. Excerpts from the interview are below…
If you have a similar story you’d like to share, write to us and we’ll get in touch!
You have been in this industry for a while. Over the course of your career, what challenges did you face and what drove you ahead?
I completed my degree in Instrumentation and Control Engineering from the College of Engineering, Pune (India). I have always been fascinated by software as well as automation and control. Combining the two, I decided to pursue a career in Industrial Automation Software.
When I became an entrepreneur in the year 2000, I decided to work in the niche area of industrial automation software. This is not an easy field, as one has to integrate various types of hardware. Here, the software is expected to be very reliable, robust and high performing.
Thus, one has to deal with many technological challenges on a daily basis. But I got a good exposure to advance systems in Europe and the USA, which broadened my outlook. I started promoting the idea of ‘remote monitoring of industrial assets’ as early as 2003 in India.
This was an amalgamation of my exposure and understanding of both automation and IT technologies. We built a pre-cursor to our IIoT platform PlantConnect around 2005. In hindsight, it was not a sound business decision, as it was way ahead of its time. Within a year we decided to put the platform in cold storage. However, I was very convinced that this idea had a bright future. Thus, I continued to evangelize about it whenever and wherever I got a chance.
It was my passion and a strong belief in the idea, coupled with perseverance, that kept me going through many internal and external challenges. Finally, around 2011 IoT started gaining ground. In 2012, we shifted the company’s focus from services to IIoT solutions. So it all paid off in the end. I feel immense satisfaction to have contributed in a very small way as an IIoT influencer.
Can you give us an overview of your business model at Ascent Intellimation? What are the target markets and countries for you and what are the new developments in your area?
Ascent Intellimation Pvt Ltd (AIPL) provides Industrial IoT (IIoT) solutions. AIPL has created an Edge to Cloud IIoT platform PlantConnect® to acquire, monitor, visualize and analyze industrial assets and systems data.
We sell various solutions based on PlantConnect platform and have different business models depending on the solution. For example, for our environment monitoring solution, EnviroConnect, we work with partners who integrate our solution with their hardware and supply it to industries.
For our Industry 4.0 solution, PlantConnect SFactory, we take end-to-end projects where we install and commission the solution as well as provide consulting to industries. We are also developing some strategic partnerships as well as channel partners that will open new markets and geographies for us.
Our target markets also differ depending on the solution. They span the entire manufacturing sector, including automotive, auto components, discrete components, foundries, F&B, pharma, etc. The majority of our current business comes from India. A small portion comes from the Middle East. We are exploring opportunities in other areas as well, but it is a bit early to disclose the details.
What are the major challenges you face in your industry and how do you address them?
The first major challenge in IIoT implementation is connectivity. There is a huge variation in industrial assets on several factors like manufacturers, models, asset generation, types, automation technology and so on.
Providing optimum connectivity solutions for all these assets is very challenging. Our team has to be knowledgeable about many different aspects of the connectivity puzzle, then design a good solution and implement it on the ground. Sometimes it can be a roller coaster ride!
The second challenge is user acceptance of the IIoT solution. Industry 4.0 touches the full spectrum of users within a manufacturing plant. From top management to machine operators, it involves everyone. So getting all these users on board is a big challenge. Different pitches have to be created to convince different users. Unless they accept the system, implementation cannot be sustained.
What are the key aspects of successfully implementing the IIoT project?
Now that IIoT is moving from the concept stage to implementation stage, I would like to emphasize key aspects of success. Everyone thinks that the latest technology is the key aspect, but that’s not true. The key aspects are Business, People, Solution/Partner, and Connectivity. To elaborate further:
- Well-defined business goals
- Getting all relevant people on board
- Selecting the appropriate solution and partner
- Connectivity to maximum assets
If these things are in place, an IIoT project will definitely succeed.
Awareness on the developments around the industry is vital, while there is still some skill gap today. Being a part of ISA India, how do you think is it working in this area?
I agree. There is a lot of confusion around initiatives like Industry 4.0 and technologies like IIoT, AI/ML, digital twin etc. People are not clear about how it applies to my industry. As such, a lot of evangelizing and awareness initiatives are necessary. Professional bodies like ISA, CII, Nasscom are doing their bit by organizing conferences and workshops. Many people, including myself, are spreading awareness through social media like LinkedIn.
But awareness alone is not enough. We need major skilling, upskilling and reskilling programs to make the large workforce ready for the 4th industrial revolution. Digital transformation and related areas should be included in technical education at undergrad and postgrad levels. The industry has to work with academia. My company is committed to setting up PlantConnect SFactory installations in a few engineering colleges for students to work hands on.
How does OEM affect the industry? Can you give us some examples of this?
There are two categories of OEMs in this case. These are asset manufacturers and automation providers. Their policies and willingness to cooperate with IIoT solution providers have a big impact. Ultimately, it is an ecosystem game!
No single company can do everything. Most of these OEMs also have IIoT solutions. Today’s trend is to cooperate and compete with the same companies, depending on the scenario. These are very interesting dynamics. Our overall experience is quite positive. It can take some time and a lot of patience, but things can be worked out with the right approach.
Going forward, what would you advice to the next-generation engineers?
I believe this is a great time to be an engineer. As automation influences everything from cutting-edge areas to our everyday lives, whatever may be your area of interest, there is tremendous scope for making a difference.
And remember, in today’s complex world, no individual or single organization can achieve great things, but an ecosystem can. So take a multi-disciplinary approach and understand the whole nine yards within your industry. But develop deep expertise in your chosen area within that. Don’t stagnate and keep reinventing yourself.