The Future of Process Manufacturing

What Are You Going to Do When Your Most Experienced Operator Retires?

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For years, we've been watching it happen. We have been saying we need to fix the problems. And by and large, the problems haven't gotten fixed, and they've just gotten bigger. These problems include many things that keep plant management up at night:

How can I ensure that my control system is secure? Should I use ASM style graphics for  my new HMI? What would happen to my process if we had an incident? Could the operators cope with the alarms? And what on earth am I going to do when, Joe, my most experienced operator retires next year? How will I be able to train the new guys to the level of skills he has? I am sure to lose production in the learning process.

These problems are real, and they are looming over manufacturing in the process industries like storm clouds. The recession gave us a little borrowed time, but we're running out of that now too.

We are losing experienced operations and maintenance people much faster than we can replace them. And when they go, they take with them the wealth of detailed understanding and situational awareness that makes the plant run. Process plants are aging in North America and Europe. The newest oil refinery in the United States is close to 40 years old. These plants were not designed for modern production or productivity, and the control systems are often patched up, band-aided and cobbled together without much thought other than keeping the plant running. Instruction manuals are often filled with scribbled notes and sticky labels that are difficult to decipher, much less understand. This situation has already killed people (at BP in Texas City in 2005, for example) and it's just getting worse.

Control systems were never designed to be secure, and now that they run on Windows operating systems. They all have access to the Internet, and they are difficult to secure. What do I do first? Patch the system? Put in firewalls? What?

We have been searching for a new HMI metaphor for years, ever since we realized that the use of computer terminal displays had robbed the operator of the easily-gained, whole-process situational awareness of the panel wall. So we've started to recreate those old panel walls on huge video screen displays, but isn't that just "back to the 1960s"? How do we train new, young operators who have grown up with video game consoles and joysticks and want to just jump right in and start "playing?"

And what happens if we have an accident—an "abnormal situation?" Do the operators know enough and have enough experience and situational awareness to know how to shut down the plant in an orderly fashion? Or will they have to think through the process of shutdown on the fly in an emergency, like the operators at BP Texas City did, and will they fail as dismally?

How about the "as-built" drawings and manuals? They are at least 40 years old, in most cases, and very often bear no real relationship to what's really installed and operating now.

We are trying to produce products optimized for the 2010s with devices and control systems optimized for the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any wonder that we're having problems?

Clearly, we need a way to learn how to handle those issues, and help make our plants operational over the next decades.

We need a targeted way to discuss and learn how to solve these problems. We need a place where our peers can gather and share best practices and benchmarks with each other.

We are happy to report that such a conference exists and will take place this May. The conference is called "Automation Technology in Process Manufacturing (ATPM, www.atpm2012.org).

ATPM 2012 is a new conference that will focus on these issues in applying automation and control technology in process manufacturing. The conference, to be held May 21-23 at The Woodlands, Texas, will bring together industry thought leaders to discuss recent developments and best practices affecting process manufacturing.

Industry experts will show how the application of some of the newer standards such as ISA101 (HMI), ISA18.2 (Alarm Management), ISA99 (Control System Cybersecurity) and ISA106 (Procedural Automation for Continuous Processes) can help manufacturing companies to look to the future in a positive way and address some of the hottest industry issues created by the loss of skills due to the retiring "Baby Boomer" generation and the growth in cyber attacks on process manufacturing.

They will also address such issues as whether the power and flexibility of modern control systems is a help or a hindrance. It's possible to alarm absolutely anything—but is that necessary? Maybe the system itself can decide which alarms the operator can see and under what conditions. Then there is the question of gray-scale graphics. Is that what operators want? Again, a modern control system can present 3D graphics of any color, with animation included, but maybe it's better to use the power of the control system to manage the graphics based on process conditions. Come and see for yourself what the experts have to say about these questions and find out what some of your peers are doing to address them.

The conference theme, "Focus on the Future," is targeted to help you build your company's global competitive capability. As global competition becomes a bigger issue for every manufacturer, it becomes critical to understand and apply the latest process manufacturing expertise to remain competitive.

Setting the stage will be two keynote speakers, Eddie Habibi, the founder and CEO of PAS (www.pas.com) and myself.

The conference theme, "Focus on the Future," is targeted to help you build your company's global competitive capability.

Habibi's talk, "KM is dead! Long Live Collaboration!" will look at how 21st-century technologies will forever transform knowledge retention and retrieval. Over the past three decades, knowledge management (KM) technologies have yielded mixed results and, more often than not, have failed to deliver the high-value benefits they promised. In addition,  traditional KM approaches require significant initial effort and cost to implement, rely on humans to follow strict procedures, and are challenging to maintain. In fact, it is very hard to get experts to tell you what part of what they know is important and useful, and what part is "magical thinking." ("Why do you do that?" "Because that is what they told me to do it 15 years ago when I started here.") Also, KM systems do not easily integrate with daily work processes, and most important, are difficult to retrieve context-based information from.

Web 2.0 is fast replacing and making obsolete the whole notion of KM. Collectively, wikis, blogs, Twitter and other social media are transforming the way humans interact with and share information. The process automation industry, traditionally conservative in adopting breakthrough technologies, is warming up to the idea of Web 2.0 as a modern platform for aggregating, contextualizing and sharing critical information and knowledge. This is especially important as it directly impacts the accuracy of the decisions made by plant personnel in mitigating abnormal situations and optimizing plant operations.

In my presentation, I plan to ask the question, "Digital Native Operations—Is There an App for That?"

We hear much about the looming skills gap and the fact that many of today's process operators lack the necessary high-tech skills. But, they have an excuse; they are digital immigrants. They were born in the days when blackberries and apples were fruits, and the only use for a phone was for making phone calls. Having said that, has technology been used to its best effect in the process industries to help these operators? What has happened that may have been avoided with the use of currently available technology? Is it too late to get these operators on board?

And, wait—who's that coming to the rescue? It's the "digital natives," who were born into digital technology, and multitasking is second nature to them. The last thing they use a phone for is to make calls, and any type of PC is passé at best. They want information at their fingertips now. These are our operators of the future. How will they help us to survive? And what will the proverbial "control room of the future," where they're going to be working, look like? What will be the effects of the end of the PC era? Will the operator of the future even be in the control room at all, or will the plant be the control room, as the operator walks around doing rounds?

That rescue can happen if we can convince the digital natives that process manufacturing is as cool as working for Google or Apple or Bain Capital. Listen to ways to improve the education process, so that more young people come into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) tracks in elementary schools and high schools.

Come to The Woodlands for this exciting new conference and put your mind to rest that the future is in safe hands—yours! Please visit www.atpm2012.org for all the details and to register.

In addition to a great conference, you get to participate in the award ceremony for the Process Automation Hall of Fame—a dinner that will honor Vern Heath of Emerson Process Management, Mark Nixon of Emerson Process Management, and Tom Phinney, retired from Honeywell, as they are inducted into the hall. Listen to these automation industry greats talk about their contributions and the issues they see in automation in the next few years. Celebrate the history of automation in process manufacturing as we learn how to create its future. 

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