Get your mind right about technology

The new technology and techniques inherent in the use of today’s fieldbus systems, servers, smart valves and embedded controllers, is affecting our careers, our plants, and our jobs.

By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

ACTOR STROTHER Martin said it so eloquently, way back in 1969, in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “You’ve got to get your mind right!” Although he was talking to Paul Newman at the time, he could have been talking to us, today. We have to get our minds right about the new technology, and how it is affecting our careers, our plants, and our jobs.

We simply cannot keep on doing the same things we’ve been doing for decades, and expect to stay competitive, make our plants efficient, and keep our jobs here in the U.S.

I recently wrote three related articles: one on outsourcing maintenance for Plant Services magazine; one on diagnostics and troubleshooting for CONTROL DESIGN magazine; and an article on control system architectures last month (July) in CONTROL. In all three, the technologies and techniques I wrote about have hit our industry like a freight train. Not only that, they’ve come out of nowhere in just the past few years.

Actually, they haven’t really come out of nowhere – some have been in development for 10 years or so – but the vendors have been loathe to market them because they may feel you aren’t ready. They may think you don’t have your mind right yet about advanced technologies, such as servers.

On the maintenance and troubleshooting side, the new techniques don’t require a multimeter, probes and a scope any more. Such tools are going the same way as button shoes, replaced by on-board diagnostics, remote condition monitoring, and predictive maintenance techniques.

"Embrace the new technology and use it in your plant. Don’t wait for the bean counters to force it on you."

Instead of alarms and gongs announcing a major failure, the control system or some faraway server computer puts up a display or sends you an e-mail, saying that a motor needs maintenance, a pump is clogging, a valve is sticking, or some other problem exists in your plant. The message arrives long before even your best maintenance tech or operator even thinks a problem exists.

As for outsourcing maintenance, a study by A.T. Kearney says that many people outsource services, including manufacturing and operations, for all the wrong reasons. More than 80% of the companies in its study said they outsourced to reduce operating costs, reduce capital investment, and concentrate on their core business. Fewer than half said it was to increase speed to market, improve quality and gain faster customer response time. Alas, the majority of companies with revenue-related goals reported they failed to meet those goals.

In other words, they didn’t have their mind right about outsourcing. They thought it was all about saving money.

In some cases, outsourcing maintenance is good for a company, because it improves plant operations and makes the company more efficient, productive and competitive. To put it another way, outsourcing companies can do maintenance better than you can, and they are more hip to the new technologies, like condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

The principal technologies involved in modern maintenance and process operations involve enterprise-level software, such as condition monitoring, asset management, loop tuning and CMMS, to mention a few. Increasingly, this involves running the software on far-away servers; that is, outside the plant, maybe in somebody else’s computer.

As we noted last month, allowing another entity to take control of plant functions is anathema to most end user companies, but it is the wave of the future. The big process control companies have been working remotely for years, and can even operate an entire plant from afar. Today, it’s oil platforms; tomorrow, it could be your plant.

Some say there is a failure to communicate—i.e., communications to remote servers are prone to failure – which is true. The vendors have taken care of that with the development of fieldbus systems, smart valves, embedded controllers, and many other tricks that let the plant’s real-time control and data acquisition systems continue to keep running while the Internet, intranet or satellite link is fixed.

Rather than resist server-based technologies, embedded web servers, outsourced maintenance, enterprise-level software, fieldbus systems, and all the other new stuff coming at you like a freight train, it is time to get your mind right: embrace the new technology and use it in your plant. Don’t wait for the bean counters to force it on you when they outsource maintenance, process operations and control system engineering for all the wrong reasons.

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