Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner bring their wits and more than 66 years of process control experience to bear on your questions, comments and problems. Write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner
Stan: The most successful process control systems include operator and maintenance technician input to avoid practical mistakes and to get operator and maintenance (O&M) buy-in. Even if you have a great idea, a lack of understanding on your part or O&M's can lead to the control system not operating in the highest mode and the system not fully maintained. We recently spoke with a principal control engineer named Joe with a lot of experience integrating O&M knowledge and relationships to provide long-term highly successful solutions.
Greg: This engineer works extraordinarily well with people, extracting their best ideas, incorporating innovations and implementing and supporting solutions that increase the performance of control systems in a process industry with some very demanding requirements in terms of solids processing, with incredibly high throughput and exceptional quality parameters. This month we focus on how important maintenance and getting to the root cause of problems is for plant performance. Next month we will conclude our visit with Joe with a view of the role of the operator. In both months we will discuss what ISA can do to help with O&M in production units quite different than the plants in the wet process industry.
Stan: Joe, what led to your special understanding of the importance of O&M?
Joe: I started out as a plant electrical and instrument (E&I) engineer for a large chemical company responsible for small projects, working with corporate engineers on large projects and helping maintenance mechanics deal with the process on a daily basis. I developed a good appreciation of how to keep things working properly. Was a problem due to selection, installation or a mechanic's inability to understand the application or a new technology? Was something wrong with the process or the equipment?
Greg: Often the first thing that gets blamed is the automation system. Astute engineers will also ask what equipment maintenance was done or what changes were made in the process.
Stan: How is the acceleration of technology and software development affecting the user and particularly the people in the trenches?
Joe: Designers of software and networks don't always seem to appreciate the starting point of the customer. The next generation of products tends to forget the evolution previous products went through from collaboration with user. That process made the familiarization and utilization of the product effective. For example, the search engine for a new PLC configuration platform we were testing recently returned results in some random order. Designers of these tools typically have not spent time in the plant, and user involvement is late in the game and selective (e.g., beta testing). What is needed in the development of software is a benchmark process that was part of the prior evolutionary improvement in usability from working with the people in the plants, particularly in O&M. I don't want to stifle creativity, but there needs to be some continuity in the skill and knowledge requirement.
Greg: Often the solution is simply thought to be training on the new system.
Joe: In training classes everything can often appear to be wonderful. The course is often scripted to run smoothly and convey a positive feeling. Trainers need to be able to take on the perspective of the user as well as introduce new concepts. Adult education, especially in industrial settings, has to be approached differently.
Stan: Also time constraints and the potential for information overload limit the introduction of ad hoc problems. Going back to essential problem of getting O&M involvement, what do you do when you enter a new operating unit?
Joe: It is critical to gain the trust of the people in the control room and the shop. You can't short- cut the building of the personal relationships needed. You need to try to spend some time with the users to understand the issues, even if you can't change what you were going to do now. You may be able to take the awareness you gain into consideration in future designs. I am always looking for ways to better transfer knowledge to and from the people who keep the plant running. Attitudes vary due to personalities but sincerity, mutual respect and a willingness to learn and share pays off.
Stan: What can ISA do to bring recognition and education to technicians?
Joe: I was impressed with ISA's Certification of Automation Professionals (CAP). We need something of similar caliber for technicians. "Technician Day" and the track for Installation, Operations and Maintenance at ISA Automation Week is a step in the right direction. I will be giving a talk "Tune or Tune Up" on fixing the source of the problem, common pitfalls with mature process systems, designs that may help maintenance and considerations when applying technology to "solve a problem." Tuning should be used after the root cause has been addressed.
Greg: We have a great program for "Technicians Day" including a keynote talk by Béla Lipták, but I am personally concerned that technicians may not even be looking at the website or asking their supervisors for approval to attend. I also understand the plant E&I engineer who could also benefit from ISA is becoming extinct.