Automation Process Knowledge Management

Tribal Knowledge - New Tools Are Putting Process Know-How into Online Pools, Letting Newbies Access More Useful Knowledge, and Even Awakening Some On-the-Job Training Efforts

By Jim Montague

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July 2011 CoverIn the good old hunter-gatherer days, know-how and those who needed it didn't evolve so fast. Likewise, masters and apprentices in traditional process applications were in on-site engineering departments in the same location, and they had time to work together on projects, convey critical experience from one generation to the next, and even learn to deal with unusual situations. Needless to say, times have changed.

Years of short-sighted downsizing and layoffs gutted and eliminated most internal engineering groups. Even more veteran engineers are retiring, and their remaining colleagues are spread painfully thin. And these staff cuts have all happened at a time when technological advances are happening faster than ever before. Talk about bad timing.

As a result, some end users, system integrators (SIs) and suppliers are collecting useful and critical process, operations and maintenance knowledge and storing it in ways that can be easily accessed by less-experienced engineers, technicians and operators. And while this collected know-how begins with formal, documented procedures, most efforts also include gathering tacit data or "tribal" knowledge that was never preserved anywhere before now.     

New Smarts Needed

For example, system integrator Maverick Technologies (www.mavtechglobal.com) in Columbia, Ill., reports it's maintained a learning culture since it started in 2000 and began compiling its homegrown technical skills and softer, people-oriented abilities and courses in its Maverick University website in 2005-06. Maverick also employs its Project Complete project execution methodology (PEM) to make sure everyone uses the same "sheet music" on each project. However, to preserve more detailed data and its own tribal knowledge, the system integrator also launched an internal "Maverick Wiki" website about 18 months ago.

"We have a lot of engineers and about 500 employees in all, and we needed to have more information at our fingertips," says Paul Galeski, Maverick's CEO. "But our staffers are very geographically distributed, and so we needed the better information backbone that a wiki could give us."

Consisting mainly of high-level, documented knowledge and functional specifications, Project Complete includes at its core 180 policies and procedures that Maverick uses to execute its projects, but the company found it still required more. "We needed the wiki for more real-time, intimate, unstructured knowledge," adds Galeski. "We still had a lot of minutae, undocumented features, small issues and tasks that had to be captured. For instance, a regular document might say, ‘You're supposed to do this,' but a specific application might add that, ‘You also must do this and this,' such as describing what kind of I/O card it needs."

Though the wiki's specific benefits haven't been tracked yet, Galeski reports that it's already making many projects more efficient and increasing profits. "The wiki makes it easier to access detailed, virtual information, especially at job sites," he says. "And updates aren't limited to one or two individuals, but instead go to the whole company. For example, if someone on the West Coast resolves an historian issue, they can now offer it up to the whole organization. There's no longer a whole process to publish. It's just there. The staff has already found these, and they've been very useful to some who've been ‘out in the weeds' at 2 or 3 a.m."        

Know-How Drives DAQ…

Whatever their level of development or sophistication, all knowledge management programs are built on their user's process control application and its essential operations and maintenance data, which is often logged in data acquisition (DAQ) systems, historians and similar PC-based devices.

For example, CF Chefs (http://cfchefs.com) in Dallas, built its foodservice sauces business on manually switched and controlled production lines, whose operators expertly mix and cook 160 different items in five- to 2800-pound batches in kettles on load cells. However, when the company recently replaced two of its four liquid production lines, its managers decided to collect its recipes and operators' know-how, so they could be carried out by automatic process controls.

"It was becoming a bigger challenge for CF Chefs to keep track of all their recipes, ingredient weights, temperatures and cooking times at each stage of production. The temperatures and cooking times also varied due to different ambient temperatures and cooking times needed at different times of day," says Francisco Porras, owner and founder of system integrator HMI Automation Inc. in Grapevine, Texas.

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