Control Systems, We Know What You Need

We Know What It Is You Want, So Step Aside While We Give It to You

This article was printed in CONTROL's September 2009 edition.

John RezabekBy John Rezabek, Contributing Editor

Control voice: "There is no need to adjust your control system. We control the vertical. We control the horizontal. Sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your DCS." If you're old enough to recognize these lines, then you've probably experienced the fact that "customer focus"—whether a soft blur or sharpened to crystal clarity—has widely varying interpretations between local cultures and corporations.

I was speaking with one of our local system integrators, who has a contract to supply the panels for a large chain of beverage producers. They were ripping out hardware from one leading supplier and installing a competitor's system. "It (the old system) never worked. They could never put anything in Auto," he said. "It was a package deal."

To me, this echoed a circumstance with which I've become too familiar: the supplier believes it knows better how to control the client's plant than the customer does. Despite the fact that said beverage maker was quite astute at making its product and dominating its market segment, its controls supplier was unwilling to bend its design to match the desires of the end user. Instead, the supplier said, in effect, "We know what it is you want, so step aside while we give it to you."

This is irksome to customers who have a fairly clear idea of how they want things done, or who want to explore some more creative solutions. However, coloring outside the lines simply isn't in the genes of some corporations. There is a comfort and predictability in stamping out "packages," and many have come to dominate their market by doing so. The efficiencies and low cost of mass production also have adherents in the control systems supply chain. "You want it to do what? Sorry, we decided you didn't need that feature." So you don't get it.

Unfortunately, many of us—me included— have been spoiled by suppliers who go to great lengths to meet their customers' needs, such as when we determined we had a bad actuator at 4:30 p.m. I walked to my office, picked up the phone, and had a new one arrive on the early a.m. UPS truck the next morning.

The supplier said, in effect, "We know what it is you want, so step aside while we give it to you."

Such customs evolved to serve a large process industry that would willingly part with generous sums of money in order to keep running, to rebuild quickly after a fire or natural disaster, or to stay in compliance with environmental regulations that would otherwise limit rates. But as the axes of the tax men, the finance guy and other MBAs have swung away at working capital, manpower and R&D, achieving this sort of customer focus has become dicier every year. Could cookie-cutter products that can be serviced by a phone-tree robot—"press or say ‘one' for temperature sensors"—be on your favorite suppliers' product roadmap?

Users trying to better exploit the intelligence of digitally integrated HART and fieldbus devices are facing similar challenges. Standards to better employ role-based diagnostics and to use fieldbus devices in safety instrumented functions (SIFs) have been in development for years, and approved and published for 18 months or more. But curiously, users have to search ardently for the handful of suppliers who have these features on their product roadmaps.

What happened? Did some end users say, "Oh never mind about safety functions and getting value out of all the great diagnostics. What we really want is wireless!"? Users in the large process industries are still peddling hard to comply with SIS requirements, and NONE of them, to my knowledge, use any wireless devices. Our suppliers appear to have decided we didn't need fieldbus, and so, "Here you go—use my solution from the 1980s."

I hope someone in the board rooms filling with gold bars from the sale of wireless instruments will be able to allocate funding for the end-user-promoted features that have been on our plate for years. Which suppliers will step up to the plate and provide what customers have been requesting for so long?