Systems Integration

How to get engineers and operators on board for your next system upgrade

Managing the people actually doing the work is key to getting the most out of your system upgrades

By Greg McMillan, Stan Weiner

Stan: As engineers, we forget sometimes that we are people with egos and mindsets that can make or break a project. The best solution is not always perceived as such. We alluded to the understanding of psychology needed in the June 2012 column, "The Human Factor." Here, we take a closer look. We are fortunate to have the insight and perspective of Leah Ruder, process systems automation group manager at the Midwest Engineering Center of Emerson Process Management.

Greg: My whole career was an accident. Jokes come to mind about causalities but the real deal was a series of extraordinarily fulfilling roles in a field I had never even heard about until the interview with Monsanto in 1968. I chose being an instrument and electrical (E&I) design and construction engineer over other job offers in aerospace and communications system design. Leah, how did you get into process automation?

Leah: As a chemical engineering student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, I did not hear about this career opportunity until John Hedrick, the president of Automation and Control Technology (A&CT), gave a guest lecture to my advanced control class. I went to work for A&CT. I knew I was amidst a fantastic group of people such as Bob Otto (see Feb 2007 column "The Best of the Best Part 2,") and Alex Muravyev (see Sept 2011 column "The Key to Process Knowledge and Sustainable Manufacturing,") but did not realize until many years later what a special environment it was. I thought it was like this everywhere. I was really lucky to be mentored there.

My next gig was with Automation and Control Concepts (A&CC). I spent six years as contractor to a large food company upgrading every batch control system at its dry pet food plants in North America. It was a pretty cool learning experience principally involving the flowability of solids. The consistency could range from being granular almost like sand to being very tacky like powdered egg. The moisture content could vary considerably, so packing and clumping was a common problem with the screw auger. You could have a 14-in. diameter screw trying to accurately add just 200 pounds to a batch. As the batch addition neared completion, the rate of change of weight increased due to the height of the fill on the weigh scale. The corporate headquarters engineering department developed some specialized control strategies to provide a much more accurate batch addition. While the objective of an accurate addition sounded simple, the real solution was complex and critical due to material variability, fast addition rates and batch cycle times less than five minutes. Besides achieving the desired quality, you don't want to over-add costly ingredients, and you must not violate the order of ingredients on the product label to maintain compliance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements.

See Also: The Human Factor

Stan: What was the existing system?

Leah: To be kind, you could say the system was primitive. The batch management system (BMS) was programmed in a digital operating system (DOS) to adjust the cutoff point based on the last batch. The plants dug in their heels, basically saying, "We don't want the new system." The experience was a big education on psychology of the rollout of projects.

Greg: How did the corporate staff convince the plants to change?

Leah: The corporate process was that mechanical and control specialists showed the plants that material characteristics were introducing variability, and that the variability was actually worse when their auto-tuning algorithm was turned on. After they reluctantly agreed to the new system, the typical comment after seeing the results was, "I can't believe how great it is!" After about half of the plants had seen the benefits of the new system, the other plants could see the metrics and were clamoring to be next in line for the upgrade.

Stan: What else was good in the technical approach to upgrade projects?

Leah: The headquarters recognized how important the total solution was and would pay for any field device improvements at no cost to the plant. Often the plants did not know what was not working. When pressed as to why they did not report upfront a problem subsequently found in commissioning and startup, the plant often said "Oh, we just go out and kick it." This sort of thing happened in every project. I don't know the reasons, but maybe it was a lack of communication and lack of understanding that the control system can only be as good as the measurements and final control elements.

Stan: Control strategies and tuning can help deal with some problems, but this is essentially a cover-up, and the real solution is to fix the source of the problem and prevent the field from being a limit to the creativity of the solution.

Leah: To this day, people tend to spend lots on the migration to a new distributed control system (DCS), but forget about the integrity of the field devices. There is some unspoken assumption that a migration project will automatically improve plant performance. It takes a commitment of plant resources as to what needs to be done and what could be explored as improvements. It also takes follow-through progressing from design through installation, checkout, training and commissioning to continued support for operations.

Greg: In the ISA Mentor program, I see that plant automation engineers are overloaded. There seems to be no limit as to what will be piled on. I don't think engineers are particularly apt to turn down an opportunity to do more of what they love and to tell their boss this is too much. We think pushing beyond what is humanly possible is partly due to the managers today not having come up through the ranks, besides the obvious greater emphasis on cutting costs. Lew Gordon, in the May 2014 column, "Practical Solutions … Beyond Dancing with Robots," said, "Now management is a profession in itself. Today's engineering managers often know business models, but not necessarily what the engineers working for them really do." Do you see this as an increasing problem?

Leah: Plant people often don't have the opportunity to make the most out of the opportunity in a migration project. They may not even have time for a review. We have been asked to write the customer requirements. We have been told to port over and just duplicate and reverse-engineer as necessary, despite the fact that there could be 15 years of miscellaneous stuff, most of which is not helpful and even detrimental.

Stan: Sigifredo Nino, in the July 2014 column, "Giving Thanks for Process Control Achievements," summed up a similar scenario in the statement: "Various specialists had tried a patchwork of feedforward strategies that resulted in more problems from positive feedback and counterproductive complexity, undermining the operators' confidence in the control system." How do you deal with customer staffing?

Leah: Bigger players do have staff in process control to have engagement. We make the most out of this opportunity. Smaller customers do not even know what they are missing.

One customer had a long string of actions in one giant sequence for three different units. The operator had to skip back and forth to perform a specific function as needed in each unit. Needless to say, the navigation was non-repeatable and inefficient, with safety issues. The request was made to duplicate the existing sequence. The plant staff was so stripped down they did not know there was a much better solution.

I instruct new engineers to ask if the proposed work plan is the best solution. Open the discussion as to whether there is something better. For example, say, "You know best, but if I were you, I would have a safety concern if someone could inadvertently start the wrong equipment or add the wrong material." You need to maintain humility and seek openings and situations to create mutual understanding through discussions. Egos crush opportunities. You don't want to go into a room and say, "This is the way it is."

Greg: I always found it disconcerting when a salesperson would come in and immediately start to tell the customer what they had to have and how great it would be. In opportunity assessments at Monsanto and Solutia, most of the first day was spent listening to what the process engineers and operations had to say before any solutions were proposed. Questions were asked that would help the specialists understand what would and would not work. How do you achieve the communication needed?

Leah: You don't want to make disparaging remarks. You don't know who is in the room. If the boss is in the meeting, you may not get the truth. People will not admit to that they don't understand. You need to talk in non-supplier-specific terms. You need to translate what you want to say into generic industry terms.

You get a sense of who is not involved in the conversation based on body language, such as sitting back with arms crossed, always monitoring who is happy and who is upset. You don't know the dynamics of why. It works best to go one-on-one privately. People often open up and want to discuss what they know with an individual. It is incredibly important to develop a mutual understanding and respect.

One person could make or break the actual and perceived success of a project. This process is not straightforward. People may remain puzzles. You want to do what is best, but there are a lot of personal obstacles besides the technical ones. Negativity can spread quickly. You want to address the potential before it starts. It takes a lot of positives to undo one negative. Plants can be like high school. There are alliances, and you do not want to ally with a nemesis.

I find this situation interesting, besides challenging. I seem to have a knack for reading people's dispositions and developing productive relationships.

Stan: Given that your engineering center continues to grow, how do you attract new automation engineers?

Leah: I tell the interviewee my honest feelings about the profession. I think automation is awesome. Where else would you have access to great minds and a diversity of applications? By working with clients you get to work with many types of processes and have access to the best experts. You can have rock star conversations on technologies across a huge spectrum of industries and gain a wealth of experience. You don't have to worry about being bored. The rapid development of technology also levels the playing field. Today's graduates with their computer skills can often quickly and effectively get the most out of new software tools.

Greg: We conclude with the "Top 10 Signs a Customer Is not On-Board with an Upgrade Project."

Top 10 Signs a Plant Is Not On-Board with an Upgrade Project

10. Project definition is an existing configuration.
9. Project team is nameless.
8. No refreshments in the meeting room.
7. Attendees are accountants.
6. Project cost and completion date are the only topics of interest.
5. When innovations are proposed, the question is always, "Does this change anything?"
4. When asked about checkout and commissioning coordination, the reply is "Huh?"
3. Arms are crossed, hands are crossed or eyes are crossed.
2. Operators are marching outside the meeting room with signs "No Way No How!"
1. Your plant badge no longer works.