By Vernon L. Trevathan, PE, PMP
hat’s the second thing you ask when you see a new piece of automation hardware or software? The first thing you probably ask is “What does it do?” Or, if you already know something about what it does, you might ask “How does it work?” Then the second thing usually is: “How much does it cost?” It’s just human nature to ask the price.
When the buying decision is subjective as it is in personal purchases like a new digital camera or a new car, its priceis the right thing to focus on. But purchases of new technology for automation applications should only be for objectively estimated benefits. That means that for automation the better question is “Will it deliver net benefits that exceed my company’s hurdle rate?” If so, it should be installed whether it costs $5,000 or $500,000; if not, then don’t buy it.
We often ask the cost question to make a quick analysis of whether we will be able to get it approved. If a level of credibility does not exist in your company that allows new automation with good benefits to get approved, then you have some work to do. Of course there are some companies that will not spend any money on anything regardless of the benefit, but that is hopefully a temporary situation and at any rate that is a different story.
A Short History of Automation
Distributed control systems (DCSs) began to be installed in the late 1970s with most of the installations done in the 1980s. This was a Good Thing. Digital gave much better control than analog and the DCSs gave the operators much better tools to run the plant. This was such an obvious Good Thing that companies often did not require a specific, well-defined justification for their approval.
In many cases, the intent of replacement projects was to just duplicate the analog control functionality so as to not give the plant too much change too fast, but to allow improvements in the future. Most of these systems did deliver benefits that justified their cost, but they often delivered only a fraction of the benefits they could have. And those future improvements often never happened.
In the 1990s many companies realized they were not getting full value from their control systems. Monsanto did a key benchmarking study that showed fewer benefits from DCSs than did other leaders in the industry. The study resulted in more than 120 automation professionals working part time for several years to identify and achieve more than $60 million of new benefits annually with minimal capital.
"Automation projects can yield significant dividends enterprise wide. But returns should not be counted only in dollars and cents terms."
This opportunity was available because the initial DCS installation did not require a hard look to identify and install controls that delivered new benefits. Monsanto and some other companies with larger internal staffs were able to capitalize on that situation. Many companies, particularly including those without adequate internal staffs, did not gain new benefits because engineering contractors and vendors were not structured to provide the efforts to help get these benefits.
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s there was a focus on integrating data among the various control systems. We were trying to achieve Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), though we were never sure just what that was, and trying to avoid “islands of automation.” This was obviously a Good Thing and many companies spent a lot of money trying to achieve it with only a very hazy understanding of the specific objectives they were after. Some companies focused on manpower reduction and, while the thousands of jobs that were eliminated by these approaches justified their installation, much more could have been done if there had been better defined objectives.
Now most companies are replacing their older control systems. This is a Good Thing. The new systems have much better advanced control capability, better integration capability with less programming, are easier to program and use, and are cheaper to maintain. The benefits seem so obvious that companies often do not require a specific, defined justification for their installation. This often means that there is no stretching to identify and install functionality that will deliver new benefits, so less than the best result often results.
In recent years manufacturing IT applications have often eclipsed automation benefits. These IT applications typically have a different type of justification that can be more subjective and does not stretch to identify quantified benefits. Particularly in the U.S., we often tend to “just do it” when it comes to IT applications. This approach is credited with the impressive productivity increases the U.S. has enjoyed in recent years. However, in the manufacturing area where we have the capability to be more objective, we could have gotten even more from the IT applications if we had searched for maximum benefits.
Now the pendulum is swinging back to automation systems with more emphasis and benefits from using manufacturing data in all types of systems to improve manufacturing. This increasing emphasis on real time manufacturing data means that we need skills of automation professionals who understand real time sensors and data management and plant floor integration. This availability of real time information is very seductive – so much so that we are tempted to install these capabilities without a defined justification. Thus we are in danger of falling into the same trap we have several times before – not getting maximum benefits because we are not looking hard enough for them.
Accounting personnel may also not understand automation benefits and often don’t trust real-time data. Good real-time data will likely be more accurate than counting the number of trucks, so again, there may be some work to be done. Also marketing personnel may say that they want higher quality but are unwilling to commit to charging a higher price for it. So if there is no expected value from the higher quality then there will be no new benefits.Fourth, Partner
The surprising thing is not that partnering is so seldom done well, but rather that it is ever done at all. Partnering is very beneficial, but it is hard; and benefits usually take some time to appear–more time than management may be willing to wait. If partnering is not working for you, you need to ask if you have done what you should to support the partnering effort.
Have there been discussions between the end-user company automation management and the supplier management to set objectives and expectations for the partnership? Have each of the partners assigned a person to manage the partnership and given them appropriate amount of time to do so? Do all of the participants in each company understand the objectives of the partnership and who in their company to go to for assistance with the partnership? Are surveys done on a regular basis to determine levels of satisfaction? Are the partnership managers really resolving issues, and are there regular meetings between the partnership managers?Fifth, Develop Professional Staff
Creating a viable cost-efficient automation system design is challenging. Not only is the scope of automation technology available extremely broad, but the technology is changing and advancing rapidly as well. In addition to the technical nature and ever-changing scope of the control technology landscape, automation professionals must often take responsibility for communicating with individual stakeholders and for the overall performance of the project.
Few automation professionals (engineers) learn these technical skills in school–in fact, professionals in automation have a more varied educational backgrounds than most any other technical discipline. Furthermore, because the automation and process control profession attracts people who are interested in becoming immersed in its complex technology, even fewer are prepared for the communication and leadership roles they must take on to manage automation projects successfully.
In the past, most automation personnel learned their trade by working on the job in a junior role for some number of years and continuing their education by taking courses or training sponsored by the company and from technical societies, vendors and other providers. Today, as in most industries, cost pressures on both end users and suppliers have virtually eliminated on-the-job training; and far fewer courses are taken by individuals, except those specifically required to know how to operate or program a specific system. Benefits Even Harder
Delivering new benefits from an automation standpoint is even more challenging since it requires knowledge of identifying and estimating them and developing justifications—really taking charge of the project—and a possessing a broad enough knowledge of automation to conceptualize the best technology to use.
Certification is a way to help deal with these issues. While the basic role of certification is to ensure that people practicing the topic are qualified to do so, a major benefit is to motivate applicants to learn more.
Certifications are everywhere today. Even the most obscure specialty in the medical field–for doctors, nurses and technicians—seems to have a certification program, and many of these are required by law or required by the hospital or by the insurance company to operate that equipment or to practice in that specialty.
Some companies require that project managers hold the Project Manager Professional (PMP) certification. Worldwide, more than 80,000 project managers are PMPs. Outside the engineering and medical areas there are even more certifications. In contrast, designing mission-critical automation systems and designing safety systems to protect the environment and personnel rarely requires any certification or even any specific education. Many states have the Professional Engineer (P.E.) registration but in automation that is required only for some types of electrical design. To date, only a small fraction of automation professionals in the U.S. have a P.E. Some other countries have similar certifications but in most countries even fewer are certified than in the U.S. Regardless, a shift to use the P.E. as the certification for all types of automation work is not always practical. There are serious geographical and technical scope limitations with the P.E. relative to automation; and, because of the engineering educational requirement for the P.E., only a fraction of the people working as automation professionals today could qualify).
A new certification developed by ISA, Certified Automation Professional (CAP), has the right scope to deal with these needs. It focuses not just on the broad technology of automation but also on the identification of benefits, justification and execution of the project.
The best of best automation practices
1. Replace control systems when they are “obsolete” (The term “obsolete” should really be retired because as long as a system will do the task it was installed to do it is not really obsolete; and systems can be maintained almost indefinitely at some cost to do that task. The real best practice is to replace control systems when there is a defined benefit to do so.)
2. Install smart sensors and valves in critical areas.
3. Fix the control valves (Studies of control valve performance often indicate an average of more than one problem per control valve).
4. Tune your controllers and get them operating at the highest design level.
5. Put advanced process controls such as model reference controls on unit processes that are difficult to control. (The book, Advanced Control Unleashed,
is loaded with good things to do with advanced process control.)
6. Install an asset management system.
7. Install a scheduling system to optimize product runs and make changeovers faster.
8. Make data more widely and easily accessible. Install and integrate plant data with MES systems.
9. Integrate plant inventory and production information with business systems. For supply chain scheduling, make to order vs. make to stock.
10. Install a work-in-progress inventory system using live data to give accurate real time cost accounting information. Improve ability to determine delivery dates. Install functionality to do equipment performance monitoring.
11. Standardize hardware, software, and communications across the company.
Vernon L. Trevathan, P. E., PMP, has worked in process automation and project management for more than 40 years, mostly with Monsanto Co. in engineering and manufacturing management positions. He is an ISA Fellow. He currently consults and teaches in project management for automation; and he may be reached at email@example.com