End users walk the walk

There’s been a huge language shift in the industry during the past 20 years which is driving end user nuts. It seems the higher you go up in the automation food chain, the harder it is to describe what you do.

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Walt Boyes, Editor in ChiefBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

I SWORE as I walked out of sessions at the ARC Forum that if I heard one more vendor telling me about products that “seamlessly integrate to the enterprise,” I’d either throw up or deck the guy. I have a problem, and it’s all about language.

The higher you go in the automation food chain, from sensor to the enterprise, the harder it is to describe what you’re trying to do in words that don’t sound like the AutomationPursuit edition of Buzzword Bingo. Up near the enterprise, it’s also harder to understand what the real differences are between vendors’ offerings. It’s driving end users nuts.

At the sensor end, we speak a simple language of measurement. It’s easy to quantify. It’s an engineering language, seeking to define quantities in a repeatable way. At the enterprise end, we speak cost accounting. At the sensor end, we deal in real time. At the enterprise end, we deal in months, quarters, and years.

In the early 1980s, a young Israeli business genius named Eli Goldratt developed his Theory of Constraints. (If you don’t know who he is or what a “jonah” is, then you should Google him right now.) One of the first things he noticed was that cost accounting doesn’t have anything to do with operations, and can, in fact, be antithetical to operational excellence. Cost accounting doesn’t take into account lost opportunity cost, or profit from increased performance. It just doesn’t see those mechanisms.

However, for the past 20 years, it’s been the reason why SAP and its competitors told every c-level (CEO, CFO, COO, etc.) executives that all they needed was the cost of the “goesintas” and the number of “goesoutas” and gross sales, and they could run their businesses just fine. Of course, even SAP doesn’t think so anymore. Thankfully, at ARC’s event, Mark Davidson, vice president at Wonderware, showed an impressive demo of connectivity between the Archestra platform and MySAP. There is hope.

But the problem is still language. There’s a huge language shift when you go above the plant-operations level. Literally, we don’t speak the same language, and we don’t care about the same things. Is maximizing availability and minimizing downtime the absolutely best way to run a plant? All automation vendors say it’s as sure as gravity. But is it? Looking down from the c-level, it may be about as easy to see ants from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. So many CEO don’t care. Wall Street and other exchanges speak cost accounting.

Besides funding a bunch of well-placed hit squads, what can we do? Well, while the rest of us chattering classes talk about it, some end-users have been solving this disconnect. Facing the twin challenges of lacking adequate staffing and being way out in the frozen tundra, project teams in the Canadian Oil Sands industry have been chugging away at completely interconnecting their new plants to their enterprises.

At the Devon Energy Jackfish project, for example, the same control architecture controls the plant, plant security (gates, keycards, video, etc.), telephone system, cable TV system (25 channels of on-demand), and maintains the integrated database for the plant’s operating system and construction model. Trent Mullen, Jackfish’s IT project leader, says, “I took this job because, as a process guy, I wanted to see if this convergence stuff could be made to work.” The first part works fine. Now he’s connecting that database to the enterprise portals, so business decisions can be made as a result of instantly available information, not cost accounting roll ups.

Meanwhile, Al Chan at CRNL’s Horizon project is doing the same thing for a project that already is the size of downtown Calgary.

These projects don’t succeed because they’re out of the way. They succeed because their project and enterprise leaders are learning to speak a new language, and it isn’t cost accounting. It might be that Eli Goldratt’s dream will come true with a whole new generation of Jonahs.

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