Automation Process Knowledge Management

Tribal Knowledge - New Tools Are Putting Process Know-How into Online Pools, Letting Newbies Access More Useful Knowledge, and Even Awakening Some On-the-Job Training Efforts

By Jim Montague

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Consequently, CF Chefs worked with Porras and HMI Automation to design and build the new lines, which include GE Intelligent Platform's Cimplicity iFix software, Invensys Operations Management's Wonderware software or HMI Automation's HMI Max software for the front end, and Red Lion Control's ( DSPSX data logging station, which allows web-based reporting, trending and analysis via Ethernet networking. "We already had a Red Lion data station at CF Chefs, but its SD card was filling up too fast. So, we hooked that station up to a server and scheduled Windows XP Pro to copy the card's files onto a central server. Now, the operators have all the data and files about what they made and when."

Mike Krafft, CF Chefs' manufacturing VP, adds that, "We can now use a touchscreen to view every part of our processes, download formulas and recipes, acknowledge weights and check cooking and clean-in-place (CIP) temperatures every five minutes. This reduced operators needed on each line from three to one, improved accuracy by 50%, and even lets them walk away from the line to deal with more value-added tasks. Our increased accuracy helps us meet the needs of higher-end customers and lets us do more documentation for tracing purposes, which both our customers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are demanding. For us, our automated lines save a lot of time and money and means a lot fewer headaches."

…Aids APC and Alarms Too

Not surprisingly, advanced process control (APC) and its models are also founded on preserving and reusing knowledge. However, they also deliver the most value when staffers add them to their collective know-how to make improvements in their processes.    

For instance, Lothar Lang, consulting human factors engineer at LyondellBasell (, reports his firm used to focus most on the reliability of its equipment, machines and petrochemical processes, but realized it also needed to tie in its people's expertise to get everyone on the same page and improve performance. For instance, critical conditions management (CCM) typically deals with operations and HMI issues, but it must also prioritize its reporting to get the most crucial alerts in front of users, so they aren't just treating symptoms instead of underlying causes.

"We'd used our staff support groups and ExperTune software to implement key performance indicator (KPI) monitoring in processes at 18 facilities, including percent of control loops not in normal operation, percent of loops without output constraints, loops with valve issues and loops with significant oscillations, and then continuously improved them," explains Lang.

For example, LyondellBasell recently deployed an APC system at its petrochemical plant in Channelview, Texas, but then began experiencing wild swings in the steam flow and reflux rate of a distillation column that makes an intermediate product for polyurethane (Figure 1). After an initial search failed to find an APC-related cause, the plant's operators found that ExperTune's ( PlantTriage plant-monitoring software showed that the column's pressure controller was the root cause of the oscillations. Consequently, stabilizing the column allowed the APC to quickly optimize its operation, and reduced two steam flows by 7000 pounds per hour.

"Operators need to be aware of what's going on in their applications, and be able to make changes when they go out of range," adds Lang. "However, you can't expect operators to be proactive if there are too many loops that aren't performing, and if they're constantly putting out fires. PlantTriage helps us find issues and helps compensate for a lack of staff. This is why we're driving the use of KPIs to improve loops in automatic, reduce oscillations, improve performance and keep within efficiency ranges to produce quality products."

Retention and Collaboration

Besides collecting and redistributing tribal knowledge, users can also benefit from how veterans deliver their know-how, reports Eddie Habibi, founder and CEO of PAS Inc. (, and Jim Conner, retired operations and technology VP at Celanese ( Conner helped start Project Graybeard at his former company explore ways to retain senior staffers' knowledge, so they could help their colleagues collaborate better and access safety data easier.

"When experienced people are asked for help, they provide the basic answer, but they also tell more, and usually add important facts about what the questioner is trying to do," explains Conner. "Veterans will answers questions that less-experienced colleagues haven't thought to ask yet, and will push key information to them."

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