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By Harry Thanos
THE WELL KNOWN problems with sensor and control loop performance are not related to how suppliers define accuracy, nor will they be solved by government regulation. In my experience of many years in the engineering and construction business, the problem lies with the evolution of the project delivery process in the United States over the past 40 or so years. It has become the conventional wisdom among owners (whoever controls the money controls everything) to rush the project work in order that we achieve the so-called on time and on budget performance.
According to this wisdom, performance at completion is compared to initial baseline values. But these baseline values bear no relationship to what is required to properly do the work. And by "properly do the work," I mean the effort-hours needed to correctly answer the thousands of technical and administrative issues that are involved in any engineering/construction work, but do it in a way that is consistent with the financial constraints and goals of the project at hand. Because we measure our performance against meaningless targets, we end up fixing everything in the field, with overall costs and timing higher than if the project delivery sequence was revised to include the proper amount of time for finding the right answer in the shop instead of at the site. Worst of all is the fact that projects fail to achieve their target financial goals, the main reason for which such work is undertaken.
Let me make my theory more concrete. Is it not true that a team of instrument engineers that is being supervised by, say, Greg Shinskey or Greg McMillan or Stan Weiner or Béla Lipták, or many others not so well known, and which team members were given the necessary time to locate the locus of intersection of a correct technical solution with the specific project economics, would have more measured success than today's practices? Is it not true that after a few years of proper work habits, the misapplications of sensors, control schemes, equipment, etc., would tend to decrease and over time become a much smaller problem? To achieve the proper balance between technology and finance is time consuming, because the solution must be tailored to the specifics of each project, but by so doing there exists a much better chance of both avoiding the improper application of hardware/software and hitting the capital return objectives of the owners.
In my judgment, it does not take a genius to solve the technical/financial conundrums of any given project. It does take time. And it does take the use of proper performance indicators. The incorrect use of time in current project execution practice has led us to not allocating enough engineering effort hours, and thus we have slowly, unwittingly and harmfully eliminated the needed supervisory time from project work plans. And, in the process, we not only have created poor designs with bad financial outcomes, but we have also lost the best way for those with knowledge to pass their valuable skills on to others. Meaning that our knowledge base must be slowly eroding and this can’t be good for the economy. There has got to be a better way, so that our engineering and construction work becomes truly value-adding in the sense of helping create true economic profit while at the same time it increases our knowledge base.
So what do I suggest?
FOR PROJECT DELIVERY TEAMS:
FOR CONTROL MAGAZINE:
Support existing or initiate new Operational Excellence Forums, where peers could hold videoconference discussions on technical issues, guided/facilitated by knowledgeable teachers. The thrust of such Forums would be "what's best techno-economically for this case?" A summary of the problem and the understandings reached would be available on the web as a Case Study. Case Studies have been valuable teaching tools to train people on how to solve business problems. Over time we would build up a knowledge library, which will be helpful to future learners.
FOR INDIVIDUAL ENGINEERS/TECHNOLOGISTS:
Keep learning, keep asking, keep advancing. Believe that you can add value. There is beauty and pleasure in digging for the truth and the facts, even the mundane ones that we deal with. Teach others.
In summary, we need a new way to design and construct plants. The old way is not working.
ControlGlobal.com is exclusively dedicated to the global process automation market. We report on developing industry trends, illustrate successful industry applications, and update the basic skills and knowledge base that provide the profession's foundation.