By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Can you stay on this horse? Would you like a little help to do it longer?
Chronic recessions, galloping globalization of suppliers and customers, and accelerating technological changes, such as cloud-based services and virtualized computing, are like a bucking bronco for many of today's process manufacturers and their applications. As a result, many are seeking assistance to keep on riding and maybe even to tame these many and varied challenges.
In fact, to underline and respond to the collective needs of its users, Invensys Operations Management kicked off its OpsManage'11 event this week in Nashville with an end-user executive panel discussion on challenges they're facing, and what they need from their operations, engineering, IT and maintenance staffs to survive and thrive in these difficult times.
"Process automation is becoming more relevant to the business world, and the speed of intelligence is synchronizing the business level with the production execution centers," said panel moderator Kevyn Renner, central marketing vice president of Invensys Operations Management. "The question now is can control loops be extended up to the business loop, and can they be closed together by using information in context? The aim is to control setpoints and determine optimum settings, but also to maximize profitability and uptime and minimize risk. And once we have our new KPIs at the business level, how can we leverage them back for use on the plant floor? We've had these kinds of integrated systems before, but they were really only the glue for what we're doing now. The real value on top will be driven by closing our business and control loops, and the ultimate determining factor for success will be empowering people to make it happen."
Travis Capps, vice president of energy and gases at Valero Energy Corp., commented that the bulk of his company's business is refining, so keeping the control loops closely linked with its business loop is becoming more crucial to its production speed and success. "For example, we may have 30 grades of gas going through our Colonial pipeline, so we say what's visible to us is what gets managed. Maintaining the links between the process control and the enterprise level is what leads us to profitability."
However, maintaining production-business links is just the beginning of enabling staffers to make better decisions, according to Bob Baird, vice president of downstream operations at Husky Oil Ltd. in Canada. "We've done a great job of teaching people the technical aspects of our processes, but I don't think we've done as good a job at giving our people the business education they need. These days, you have to understand the overall business you're in, follow the value chain and the dollars, and get up to speed on making better decisions."
Rick Van Dyke, supply chain engineering director at the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo, added that his firm makes all kinds of different products and SKUs, so his colleagues require the same kind of aid to make the right decisions each day. "We just try to give our people the tools they need, so instead of just keeping score of their processes, they can now change the score."
Baird agreed that, "We recently hired 250 people, but we still have 500 vacancies, so we're also using IT as an enabler to speed up operations and get business and process applications to work more closely. We have a couple of self-managed plants that operators can stop at night, if needed, but then they also need the right training so they can be empowered, make the right decisions and be accountable for them. We do a lot of work to add context to our data to aid better decision-making."
Capps added that, "It's true that IT-enabled devices like our smart phones are increasing productivity, but Valero is also trying to put more dollars back into our control rooms at the same time. Likewise, addressing safety and environmental concerns is simply the right way to do business, and [the control rooms] need revenue put back in to accomplish them as well. We also put all the useful information we can in one place, so the right people can take action on it, but the problem is often that there just aren't enough bodies."
Increasingly, as these new employees begin to arrive, more are younger and Xbox-savvy, so the panelists report they're planning to handle their unique needs as well. "Younger staffers are used to having all the information they need at their fingertips at all times, so we're adjusting our systems to handle them too. You just have to be flexible and adapt to the equipment you already have in place," explained Van Dyke.
"We older guys are finding out that we're sometimes the barriers in these situations," added Baird. "So I tell our younger people that, ‘If I say it can't be done, then maybe don't listen to me.' These kids have been adapting to technological changes that are much faster than anything we ever dealt with, nd so they'll be able to get up to speed quicker than we did."
When the panel members were asked what advice they might have for other users about how to cope with today's accelerating economic and technical changes, Van Dyke said, "One word: collaboration. Plant systems have to connect with the business. One person can't do it all, so they need to understand the business, but then move to involve everyone else at the plant, IT and business levels."
Capps offered, "We need to put trust back in our businesses. Sure, we have to hold people to account, but we also need to give them the useful information they need and then trust them to do their jobs."
"When we get new people in, I give them the homework assignment of building their personal networks at the peer, manager and subordinate levels," Baird added, "so we can have the cross-breeding and collaboration we're going to need between the technical people, IT and the business side. Again, they have to learn the business and follow the money. It's not always easy for techies, but it can lead to real success."