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Getting the best APC team

How a large refinery is managing to maintain expertise in advanced process control

By Greg McMillan & Stan Weiner

Greg: I had the honor of serving on the AIChE Spring 2017 panel, “The Future of Advanced Process Control (APC),” organized by Mark Darby, our interviewee of the last two columns. Next to me on the panel was Vikash Sanghani, senior process control engineer and APC team leader at Chevron. Vikash has done a remarkable job of building a productive and growing APC team at a large refinery. He is capitalizing on a 22-year career at AspenTech, where he was a senior advisor taking care of clients in turnkey applications of APC in all different types of working environments, including manufacturing and chemical as well as refining, oil and gas. He always enjoyed the opportunities to raise the level of automation and to see the world working with different cultures. This gave him a perspective and wider understanding of challenging applications engaging the best professionals and making the most out of what software has to offer.

Stan: How has the landscape changed in corporations and industry in general?

Vikash: In the past, operating company (OC) engineers were more like project managers rather than process control engineers. The suppliers of APC software were contracted to provide turnkey applications. Currently, these software vendors do not have the services group. For example, a major software vendor has gone from 100-plus to about five control engineers. The people who used to do the implementations now work as consultants or directly for customers.

Greg: What are consequential vulnerabilities of users?

Vikash: Most OCs have not changed hiring practices and don’t realize that contractors don’t have the APC application engineering resources. Most OCs engage in “passive hiring,” where they hire from within the company. That can lead to an internal feedback of decline from retirements and a lack of perspective and experience, particularly by management. The people implementing process control often feel they are continually on the defensive with managers asking the value proposition for process control and, with their lack of experience, not being able to provide that justification.

What I found we needed is “active hiring,” where we seek people with between five and 15 years of experience applying process control.

APC software suppliers assumed operating companies would pick up responsibility for knowledge they lost, but most did not, leading to many APC systems falling into disuse from being sidelined by operations.

Stan: What software are you using?

Vikash: We are using Plant Triage for single-loop optimization, DMCPlus for unit optimization, and GDOT for multi-unit optimization. We use GDOT because it gives us the flexibility to use different types of models for optimization. We can use first principles, planning and/or DMCPlus models.

Greg: Many young engineers are looking for the job that can get them the fastest promotion. I saw this when I taught process modeling and control to chemical engineering students. The use of the virtual plant let them see that a profession in process control could be exciting, since it is the window into the process and the means of continually affecting the process on a real-time basis. They went from thinking of being managers to being process control engineers. Fortunately, in the company Stan and I worked for, a process control engineer in corporate offices and plants could be promoted to progressing levels of Fellow and Technologist, with no upper grade level limit. A distinguished Fellow or Technologist could potentially be the same level as a president.

Vikash: In plants, we don’t have the progressive levels that are possible in corporate offices where the focus is more on modeling and downstream planning. We presently rely on the enthusiasm of accomplishment where the benefits of an APC application may be $5 million per year.

Greg: What is the first step?

Vikash: What I found we needed is “active hiring,” where we seek people with between five and 15 years of experience applying process control. We look beyond the resume and judge whether the person can hit the ground running and is flexible, willing to acknowledge other points of view and communicative, and learns quickly. The person needs to be able to intelligently converse with planning, operations, process engineering and maintenance.

Stan: The chemical companies that Greg and I worked for had extensive in-house courses and mentors for the first 10 years of our careers. All of that disappeared along with eventually all the corporate expertise. How do you develop your people?

Vikash: We have in-house global courses customized for our multivariable control and optimization needs. We open these courses up to process engineers to nurture better communication and setting of objectives. This is in direct contrast to most companies that have whittled away training and customization. Regardless of experience level, we assign mentors for at least the first two years to all new employees to ensure that the onboarding process is smooth. After that, there is adequate knowledge-sharing within the team and globally to ensure employee development.

Greg: How have you gotten management onboard?

Vikash: We have achieved a way of selling the value proposition to management, satisfying the people who are listening. We conduct post audits to calculate the value generated by APC, a practice that is now mandated. We get the economic numbers from planning personnel, who are in tune with the market conditions for demand, highest value products, and greatest margin. If there is value, management is willing to give you the freedom and motivation to implement the best APC solution. The question we get now from management is, “Why can’t you capture all the potential right now?” This provides us with the motivation and justification for “active hiring” to deliver more.

In our hiring practices, we are now more focused on hunting on the outside than harvesting on the inside. The corporate and team visions are all value-based. In interviews, the vision is explained and the degree of enthusiasm generated by the candidate is used to gauge if the person will work well to capture the full value of APC.

Stan: Tell us more about the technical background needed

Vikash: For a chemical engineer with little APC background, we have been able to shorten the onboarding time to less than two years to be productive, but in most situations, we don’t have the luxury of waiting this long. For a non-chemical engineer, it usually takes four years or more. Even then, it is difficult to see how a non-chemical engineer would be able to do optimization because of the process and physical property knowledge and understanding needed.

Engineers from universities need to have a basic understanding of the different types of model predictive control (MPC) used and the soft skills needed in industry. This is a big hill to climb. The focus at universities is less on preparing students for industry and more on securing research grants and promoting graduate programs, often by publications in academic journals.

We have started having interns, which is like a three-month interview. We have hired one and others have gone to process engineering, facilitating our ability to work with them.

Greg: What are the broad implications for the future of APC?

Vikash: We will see an accelerating decline until we deal with the loss of recognition of the importance of optimization. The problem is widespread. The first step is conducting post audits and educating leadership teams. I am seeking to develop an AIChE class that would address this need. We then all need to work on identifying the increasing gap between actual and potential plant performance, and revitalize APC by a mission statement and education. Cultural change takes time, but you need to start. Universities are not going to do it. We in industry must do it. AIChE needs to listen more to industry and assist in educating and filling that gap.

Greg: I think companies need to do more to provide grants to universities to work on practical problems that would enhance the use of existing industrial process control system capabilities and software. We have much greater functionality and flexibility today that is largely going untapped as we regress into upgrade projects that are largely copy jobs with an emphasis on project cost and schedule rather than process performance.