Recently, a friend expressed a degree of amazement—while it only cost $1,500 annually to be an end user member of FieldComm Group (versus an instrument or systems supplier), no one at his multibillion-dollar oil and petrochemical company would fund it. I was not shocked, as this was the same experience I had when I worked for a similar-size company. Our employer probably spent more per year on nametags. Why was it so challenging to get support for joining a useful standards organization?
The Open Group, hosts of the ExxonMobil-initiated Open Process Automation (OPA) forum, is one of the more expensive groups to join, even as an end user. Numerous controls specialists from wealthy companies like my own have great interest and appreciation for the vision and goals of this forum, but it’s an effort that will more than likely require corporate director or vice president approval. If you’re at a backwater little specialty chemicals plant making batches of goo, what might you say in five or 10 minutes to a C-level manager to garner five-figure funding? Let’s get prepared.
One thing that should strike a chord is managing risk. If your plants use a DCS or PLC, they're approaching obsolescence or quite possibly are already obsolete. Your conversation should emphasize that the eventual upgrades required will not only cost millions, they will be risky, disruptive, and have near zero ROI. VPs see these projects on budgets as they cross their desks for approval, and they probably can imagine better ways to spend the investor’s scarce capital. We can emphasize that even when we stick with the same vendor, it will be a big expense, most likely in a single year, and will create extraordinary risk for production.
Explain that there are few, if any, proven paths for migrating control strategies, interlocks, operator graphics, etc. from legacy proprietary platforms to modern (proprietary) platforms. “Plant XYZ will require an upgrade before 2020. What if its restart is delayed for two weeks because of DCS cutover problems and delays?” Chances are, they’ve already seen this scenario unfold, and its impact on the supply chain.
The cycle of “new silicon that won’t migrate” will be with us as long as we want connected, microprocessor-based systems. Just have your VPs consider the phone they were using five years ago. Is it still useful today?
One of the key deliverables of the OPA forum is the DCN, a standardized distributed control node that will enable loop-by-loop cutover of a DCS from a legacy platform to a new, open architecture. Instead of a multimillion dollar expenditure and enormous effort and risk in a single year, cutover from the old system to the new can be done in manageable chunks over a number of years. Don’t throw around any acronyms, just emphasize that the new architecture will break the cycle of disruptive and expensive rip-and-replace DCS upgrades for every facility in his or her portfolio—forever.
The other new paradigm in this effort that your VP will “get” is solution/software delivery. Even if you’re not heavily invested in advanced control like ExxonMobil, the new standard will facilitate app-like software delivery. One needn’t wait on their vendor to develop, say, a batch analytics or alarm management solution, they'll be able to choose best-of-breed from a variety of competitors.
Why not just let ExxonMobil pioneer this and do all the heavy lifting? Tell your VP that the effort is most likely disruptive to the vendor community, who are familiar with how to sell, make product and money in the current “velvet rut” of proprietary and closed migrations. Vendors need to see the footprints of their major end users treading into the forum—it will demonstrate support on high levels of the enterprise, and compel them to divert R&D funding to conformant solutions.
Still have a few minutes, or do you see some gears turning? Maybe point out who’s already joined the forum in addition to ExxonMobil: BASF, Chevron, Merck, Aramco, Dow, Koch, Praxair, Shell. Maybe they’ll see a peer or competitor who’s already recognized the value of the effort. The path to operational excellence can be transformed by this forum, and joining the leaders on this journey will have knock-on benefits for all the participants.