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Marty: I am commissioning a model-predictive controller (MPC) remotely from home. I could be doing it from Navarre Beach. I can analyze and improve an advanced process control system (APC) and take a MPC in and out of service by remote access. I love the immediate knowledge and results of continuous processes. With batch processes, especially bioreactors, you have to wait 10 days for the batch to complete, plus a few more days for lab results on the product. In the separations business you can make changes and see the results right away.
Stan: How do you avoid the perception of APC as a threat?
Marty: You don't force something down workers' throats. You reassure them the higher level of automation will not take away their job, but will free them up to help solve problems in the field. They can leave the console. Operations can focus on dealing with abnormal conditions. The company holds them accountable. The loss of purity is an incident and depending on the severity and customer impact, goes up the chain of command.
Stan: How do you help operations gain confidence in APC?
Marty: We had to prove what APC can do, be there and reassure operations they are not getting the typical APC taillight guarantee (we are done when you see my taillight so we can jump to the next sexy project). I promised in 2008 we would not let go. We could not guarantee how fast or how a problem would be fixed, but did guarantee we would provide the support necessary to solve the problem. MPC is now the standard, and APC is viewed as essential.
Greg: How do you help operations when things go wrong?
Marty: We can support our plants anytime of the day anywhere (home, airport, coffee shop, etc. provided there is an Internet connection). When operations are having problems, your virtual presence in the control room is worth its weight in gold. When the process has changed or is in a zone never seen before, we need to know this before operations takes the full brunt of the impact. Often the explanation from operations is really not the root cause; rather it is a symptom of some larger problem. Since we often do not speak the same language, seeing the same thing makes a world of difference. We also do primary and refresher training remotely on their systems with newer technology. My group can service over 40 plants, adding about five plants a year.
Greg: On a personal level, what has remote access meant to your group?
Marty: We have cut travel time by 40% for our group. We are decreasing burn-out and saving marriages! You have to have a very understanding spouse to be gone 70% of the time. New employees spend more time in the plants initially, but graduate to remote access as soon as it makes sense and the proper relationships with the plant personnel have been built. It takes credibility and trust from operations to make changes to the system without being present. We can hire and retain talent with this plan.
Stan: What have you done to prevent hardware from holding you back?
Marty: Currently we have sourced computers with a set specification (motherboard, memory, drivers, operating system, etc.) for APC use. We have spare replacement computers should a plant APC computer fail. We maintain image backup of the APC computers and are able to reimage a replacement computer for a quick installation. However, we are now in the midst of going to a VMware solution. We will be able to run as many virtual machines as we need. We would not be limited by RAM and processor capacity. We would have high reliability by redundancy. It is expected that hardware failures will be less common. The hardware becomes less critical. Outside of remote access, virtual computing has the potential of making me the happiest in the last two years. I will no longer have to take care of the computers in the plants.
Greg: What kind of people do you have in your group?
Marty: I am fortunate to have three silver foxes. The youngest is 50. These guys carry a lot of weight in the plants. They have extensive regulatory control and practical process besides APC knowledge. There is one guy in his 60s. He is able to break down complexity to simple things in many buckets and pours them together to reformulate the problem. I told him when he retires, I go too. We are so lucky we have people who love what they are doing.