End users, vendors, engineering firms and system integrators have been using various collaboration tools for decades to execute automation projects and optimize plant operations. But in the last few years, the power of these tools has increased while costs have plunged, leading to more widespread use.
For example, up to the late 1990s, email was of limited use because it only allowed users to send and receive simple text messages, and because not everyone had an email account. But now, everyone has multiple email accounts, and most can access these accounts worldwide from fixed and mobile devices.
Email has also grown much more powerful with file attachments, folders and other features. "Two aspects of Microsoft Office, in conjunction with email, have been shown to be a particular value," says Steve Elwart, director of systems engineering at Ergon Refining, a crude oil refiner in Jackson, Miss. "The first is Polling, which allows emails to be sent to a large group of people, and provides the capability for individuals in different locations to vote on requirements, documents or anything that requires a consensus. The other is Routing, a capability within Microsoft Office that allows documents to be sent sequentially to individuals for review and approval. Using this through email provides clarity in the approval process, and aids in keeping the task organized."
Video conferencing is a collaboration tool that has exploded in use because costs have dropped precipitously. Initially, video conferencing costs ran to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hour, as each site required custom hardware and software, dedicated and high-bandwidth communication channels, and real-time administration by a third-party provider. Now, Skype and inexpensive webcams allow video conferences to be held at a moment's notice for a fraction of those costs, spurring use.
Similarly, the use of other collaboration tools is exploding to the point where it's hard to imagine any automation project being executed without the use of multiple collaboration tools.
A variety of "open" collaboration tools are available, plus some from automation vendors. Those who use collaboration tools typically employ more than one tool. Ergon Refining, for example uses email, SharePoint, teleconferencing, Skype, Doodle and WebEx/LiveMeeting to coordinate projects among various groups in the company and Emerson Process Management, its automation system provider.
Read "Process Automation: Collaboration at Ergon Refining" describes these tools in some detail, and explains how Ergon uses them.
Collaboration tools save time, reduce travel expenses, and allow system integrators and vendors to work with process firms worldwide. In some cases, collaboration tools make it unnecessary to visit the process plant. Scott Klages, of systems integrator Parsec Automation in Anaheim, Calif., reports, "Parsec has successfully implemented projects in China without any of our employees setting foot in the factory until the startup/training visit." (For more on how Parsec uses collaboration tools to eliminate site visits, see "Collaborating Halfway Around the World.")
Everybody Uses Email
No matter what other tools are employed, everyone uses email. "Optimation uses email as a primary method of communication," says Diane Trentini, marketing and sales VP at systems integrator Optimation in Rush, N.Y. "We use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, and leverage such features as public calendars to show planned vacations and resources for conference room sign-out."
An anonymous end user at a refinery says, "We pass all types of information via email, including source code to vendors. This is particularly nice if you have a critical fix that needs to be
applied quickly. Email the source code, they make the changes and email back, and we load the changes."
Rick Hakimioun, senior instrument/electrical control systems engineer at Paramount Petroleum in Paramount, Calif., adds, "Email is an effective tool. That's because the correspondences and information exchange are documented and can be archived."
Tim Johnson, project manager at systems integrator Avid Solutions in Winston-Salem, N.C., agrees. "Each project is assigned an individual mailbox dedicated to all email communication associated with the project," says Johnson. "Benefits include having every piece of email and data transfer attachments located in one centralized location. Access is granted to each individual working on the project. Accessibility and organization are especially key when working internationally. Email is great for tracking, tracing and sorting deliverables. It's used as an overall communication path."