It can be easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated when faced with a flood of new, quickly changing and expanding technologies. But one way to stay above water and capitalize on the benefits of new solutions is to divide and conquer on understanding, implementing and maintaining them.
This is exactly what the instrumentation team at Potash Corp.'s New Brunswick (NB) division did to cope in the wake of a recent transition from its former RS3 distributed control system (DCS) to a DeltaV digital automation system and AMS suite software system and to prepare for a $2.2-billion plant expansion that is soon to come online. Located in Sussex, NB, Canada, the huge plant's three mills contribute to Potash's profile as the world's largest fertilizer company, which produces the three primary crop nutrients—potash, phosphate and nitrogen.
"This session isn't about new technology, but is about our instrumentation technicians and their relationships with that technology," said Bob Emery, Potash NB's instrumentation supervisor. "This all began in 2003 when I was promoted to instrumentation supervisor, and we subsequently switched our fuel systems over to natural gas and our control systems to DeltaV.
"The problem was we had so many technological changes, and they prompted adding so much smart equipment and operating methods, that it created a real technological storm for us. So we had to come up with our Champion Concept of narrow specialization to help solve these problems."
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Emery and Matt Fenwick, Potash NB's instrumentation technician and AMS champion, presented "PotashCorp NB Champion Concept" Wednesday morning at the Emerson Global Users Exchange.
Emery reported that the DeltaV system and all the new hardware and software related to its transition and expansion were installed, and the plant was getting its basic production done, but it wasn't using its new equipment to its full potential. It was also experiencing too many operating problems and downtime. As a result, Emery and his colleagues sought help from Cliff Topolinsky of Emerson local business partner Atlantic Controls and began seeking a way through the storm.
"We wanted to help our guys keep up to speed, and all the new technologies promised a lot, but there was so much coming in that it was very frustrating for many technicians, and our actual installations times and downtime increased. We needed a way to motivate and excite our teams," said Emery.
"When people have enough time to train on and master the new equipment, they're able to really take advantage of it and be happy. In the past, people might learn a few pieces about an application, but no one knew all the tricks, and so several technicians might huddle around one problem, and this wasn't very efficient either. And no one could master all our new technologies. They might learn some basics, but then they'd forget after not using them for awhile and have to learn again."
Emery reported that the key to Potash NB's solution for coping with and truly taking advantage of the DeltaV system and its other new technologies was specializing, and this became the heart of its Champion Concept. Staff had gravitated to areas they were interested in before, but now it would be more organized, planned, narrowly defined and prioritized for maximum effect.
"We looked at each technician's unique strengths with each technology and where their interest lay and assigned each to learn, know and maintain a specific technology area, so we could learn and find solutions faster overall. We were going to become like doctors—you don't see a general
practitioner for a hip replacement—and that's what we needed to do."
Emery added that establishing specialization and its Champion Concept wasn't easy at first because many technicians were reluctant to change from being generalists; they were concerned about only knowing one or two of the new technologies, especially if they were called in later to help in an unfamiliar area during an emergency; and they didn't want to be possibly saddled with technologies that might be less important or interesting than those in which their colleagues were specializing.