PotashCorp Champions Succeed Through Specialization

It Isn't about New Technology, but About Siemen's Instrumentation Technicians and Their Relationships with That Technology

By Jim Montague

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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."

Also Read: Emerson's Smart Machinery Health Management

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.

"Another crucial part of our Champion Concept was mentoring," explained Emery. "Once a technician masters his technical area, he becomes the champion, go-to person, resource and reference for it, and then he rotates with and mentors guys who are less experienced in that area. In the last two years, some areas are more evolved and active, such as DeltaV, which is in the center of all we do, and so we have two champions for it.

"Now, any of our guys can build DeltaV graphics and work in Control Studio. And when ever newer technologies come along, we're prepared to try and keep up and get trained on it. This has been a kind of off-the-wall revolution, but when my boss saw the reduced downtime and savings that Champion Concept could help us achieve, he became very supportive."

For example, Emery reported that Potash NB has seen large dividends from using ValveLink software to perform predictive maintenance. "We have millions of dollars invested in all our valves, so it's essential to keep them maintained and repaired," he said. "In fact, we just saved about $55,000 because we didn't have to send out valves that were scheduled for repairs, but were actually OK, while we also found other valves that weren't scheduled for maintenance, but did need to be sent for repairs."

Emery added that having these predictive valve diagnostics and expertise in place is especially crucial because Potash NB's recent expansion means it now has twice as many valves to maintain as it did before. "We've been so busy, and in the past we had to focus on putting out fires, and we didn't have time to learn all the things that ValveLink could do. Now, our two DeltaV champions understand the software, and do weekly valve checks. This turned up the valves that weren't on the maintenance schedule, but did need repairs, and this prevented a plant shutdown that would have cost millions of dollars."

Emery reported that another benefit of the Champion Concept is far better documentation and information-access procedures. "We used to have information in binders, in books, in heads and on the floor," he said. "Now, we have an eRecords management champion, who gathers up all our loop sheets, manuals, calibration records and other information and makes them immediately usable by everyone else through a Microsoft Access database. We used to waste a lot of time searching for documentation and other information, so this immediate access is astronomically beneficial to us."

Likewise, Fenwick reported that he and his instrumentation colleagues didn't know at first how many advantages they could gain with the AMS software suite, but specializing with Emery's Champion Concept unlocked this potential. "We were a little suspicious at first, but the Champion Concept really allowed me to get my creative juices flowing about AMS," said Fenwick. "It was a little like Industrial Psychology 101: Giving guys responsibility over specific areas helped them take ownership, and say, ‘This is mine.' "

Emery concluded, "AMS is a wonderful tool, but combining it with our Champion Concept is what enabled our team to learn and share while achieving efficiency and reducing costs. We are able to consume technology instead of technology consuming us."

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