Hunting Know-How

July 13, 2010
Everyone Wants to Gather and Preserve the Knowledge of Veteran Process Control Engineers. However, Few Know How to Turn Expertise into Useful Information that Rookies Can Use to Make Wise Decisions

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

How do you get process control knowledge out of someone's head? Ask them and then pay attention. Simple, right? Well, it's easy to say, but it can be devilishly hard to do.

First, you have to ask the right questions about operations, best practices and exceptional events. Second, you must document that collected know-how and coordinate it with the input from all the other veterans you're interviewing. Third, and most challenging, you have to convert this documented know-how into instructions that rookies can use for training and to make better decisions.

"Sometimes those people with the most knowledge are the least likely to write it down, so we've had some success pairing them with technical writers and then collecting their knowledge into a coherent form that others can use," says Eric Cosman, engineering solutions IT consultant at the Dow Chemical Co. ( in Midland, Mich. "We even have some videos steeaming on our corporate intranet."

Likewise, Finland-based Neste Oil Naantali ( and Metso Automation ( recently cooperated to implement a refinery-wide metsoDNA CR automation system, which forms a complete process monitoring and control entity that covers phases that used to be controlled as separate units (Figure 1). Besides unifying the refinery's controls, Neste Oil's engineers report that metsoDNA gives them knowledge management tools, such as "diary" and "process helps," which store and allow sharing of experience, enhance continuous learning and develop operational practices. They add that metsoDNA's knowledge management also builds an "organization memory" to further boost performance and learning of Neste Oil's production staff.

Managing Knowledge

Figure 1: Neste Oil Naatali unified its process control system with a metsoDNA automation system that provides knowledge management tools to help users share practical experience and build organizational memory.

"It's now is possible to use operator resources and increase the value of the oil fractions through the whole production chain without skill or technology limitations, since all processing units are now included in the same DCS version," says Kari Koivisto, who directed Neste Oil's automation upgrade project. "The operators share a similar process view through a uniform metsoDNA user interface, which enables uniform operation and feedback. Of course, the old veterans know the process right down to the last detail, but the new system is also useful to them because it gives them an overview of the whole process and helps when they're training new operators."

To help other users learn how knowledge management differs from what they do now, Eddie Habibi, founder and CEO of PAS Inc. (, explains that its heart is: 1) aggregating know-how into large collections after it's captured; 2) contextualizing that knowledge after it's retained, and 3) simplying it for easier sharing. "Knowledge is of no value until it's turned into an output," says Habibi. "This is also how our Integrity software brings in know-how; normalizes it, so everything looks alike; gives context to the data, so all the pieces make sense; and simplifies it, so the results are easy to find and use."

Habibi adds that PAS recently surveyed about 40 plant personnel who work with automation systems and found 25 to 40% of their time is spent searching for information instead of solving problems with that information. "Integrity can shorten those searches, so they only take up 1% to 2% of automation professionals' time," says Habibi. "For example, Integrity can indicate when an operator is preparing to start a pump and then suggest reviewing incident reports for it; or remind him about a procedure that needs to be done with this type of pump; and finally capture more knowledge at this point of transaction."

Extracting and Converting

While it's not easy to turn in-the-brain expertise into digital documentation that others can use, there are more than a few projects seeking to do it. "The key isn't capturing knowledge, but putting it to use. The know-how in books, papers and even DCS databases is no good if you can't apply it to the situation at hand. Fortunately, we're finding ways to put this knowledge in play automatically without so much effort," says George Buckbee, PE, Expertune's ( vice president of product development and marketing. "This all begins with the ability to recognize patterns. For example, a sticky valve will generate patterns, such as a square wave on process variables or a saw-tooth wave on control outputs, but users need to be able to recognize and look for them. An expert like F. Greg Shinskey would recognize these patterns as a sticky valve, while a novice might just see it as something cycling. Capturing enough knowledge can help software like our PlantTriage perform these diagnostics, rather than just presenting data, and lead to direct action to correct problems. One of our PlantTriage users says it tells him what not to work on. Now, it's still difficult to capture all expert knowledge, but we can take key parts, make them accessible and apply them to actual situations." In fact, Expertune has codified knowledge from experts like Shinskey and used it to add active-model capture (AMC) and large-scale interaction analysis capabilities to its software.   

{sidebar 2}For instance, Saudi Basic Industries Corp.'s ( Innovative Plastics plant in Burkville, Ala., recently used PlantTriage's new knowledge-infused analysis functions to find and solve the cause of some large swings in a pressurized hydrogen area and chilled water application. "Our interaction analysis found a cooling tower with two fans whose electrical loads had dropped, which caused them to shut off, and this caused the problems in the larger process," says Buckbee. "So the users reset the fans to run more continuously, and this stabilized the process (Figure 2)." Buckbee adds that PlantTriage's diagnostics were greatly aided by OPC software-based data transfer tools from the OPC Foundation (

From Preservation to Simulation

Besides helping individual users make better decisions, another primary reason for preserving and coordinating expertise is to make it available and usable in ways that hard copies haven't done in the past, which can help larger systems and organizations cooperate better too.

"We discovered that three to five years after designing, building and opening a plant, 80% of the original knowledge about it is unavailable—50% is just gone and 30% can't be looked up," says Tom Williams, program manager for operator effectiveness at Honeywell Process Solutions ( Williams also led Honeywell Specialty Products' Automation Showcase project in Geismar, La., which started in 2004 and just wrapped up in June. "A lot of paper-based information is filed away or lost in organizational islands that aren't connected to users who may need it. Now, we can connect electronically and retrieve that information more easily."

Gather and Prioritize

Everyone seems to have a to-do list for knowledge capture and management. Here is a compilation of many popular procedures for collecting process control expertise and then massaging it into forms that others can use.

  1. Determine what specific topics you most want to know about from your veteran engineers, technicians and operators.
  2. Draft questions about how they do routine operations, perform best practices and handle exceptional events.
  3. Select a documentation method, database software and, most likely, an Internet-based infrastructure that trainees and others can use to access know-how after it's been collected and archived.
  4. Enlist veteran engineers and operators still on staff for interviews and recruit retired experts to come in on a consulting basis.
  5. Conduct interviews (perhaps with hand-on demonstrations of techniques and best practices that can be recorded).
  6. Compile, organize and manage responses and demonstrations in a database.
  7. Coordinate common threads and themes among responses and compile as multi-author best practices or issues that need to be addressed.
  8. Sift databases for more useful advice and methods that rookies and others can use in their jobs.
  9. Provide best practices in easily accessible, Internet-based presentations, training sessions
    or simulations.
  10. Conduct follow-up interviews when new knowledge gaps appear.
  11. Maintain and refresh know-how databases with input from new experts as they become available.
Williams reports that all plants have some kind of operating procedures, but most have been passed along via word-of-mouth or in on-the-job training. Unfortunately, much of this know-how can be lost when the experts are laid off, move to other jobs or retire. This is where simulations can substantially benefit users by capturing best practices and then training people over and over on them. Williams adds that the Geismar facility has been using Honeywell's Operator Training System, which is built on its UniSim simulator, and had three sections—Experion system, computational engine and UniSim unified platform—that were recently joined on one virtual server. "This was a big help at Geismar because now we can run these formerly separate elements on one laptop. This means the trainer and the trainee can both work and test at the same time on learning regular operations, infrequent events and abnormal situations. And, of course, showing someone how a veteran performs a best practice will help him retain that knowledge a lot better than just telling him about it."  

Optimizing Catalyst Regeneration

In fact, one such infrequent event occurs in reactors at a Honeywell Specialty Materials' chemical plant. These reactors have to be taken offline every three to six months so their catalyst can be regenerated. When the reactors were taken off-line previously, operators had to meticulously perform each regeneration step over an extended period. Typically, the plant required multiple regenerations per year, so downtime and lost productivity were taxing the operators and plant efficiency. "We had to find a way to minimize the time the reactors were taken off-line to regenerate, plus we wanted to reduce the cost of the catalyst," says Williams. "The only way to meet our goals was to find a way to automate this process and remove some the variables we couldn't control."

To improve regulation of regeneration and reduce catalyst performance variability, the plant's engineers recently used Honeywell's Procedural Operations software in its Experion PKS solution and were able to show the best procedure for regenerating the catalyst in the reactors. "Procedural Operations captures exactly how the regeneration procedure should run," explains Williams. "So we now have operators following HMI screens and prompts to do it precisely that way, or they can automate the process or park it safely if there's an abnormal situation."

Likewise, Procedural Operations inserted more reliability into the regeneration process. "Because the process is now the same every time, we expect to reduce the variability resulting in cost savings for our site," said Jeff Richards, Honeywell Specialty Products' automation site leader. "Also, Procedural Operations let us convert a manual procedure into an automated system that incorporates operator check and trigger points based on demonstrated best practices."

Learning Organizations and Social Butterflies

Once the collective expertise of a facility's veterans is gathered, prioritized and redistributed, several observers say the next step is to become a "learning organization" that can reflexively acquire and disseminate the knowledge it needs to handle future challenges.  

Hurdles and Helpers to Knowledge Sharing

The road to enlightened knowledge capture and management has many ups and downs, according to Marc Leroux, ABB's ( marketing manager for collaborative production management. Here are some of the main impediments to knowledge sharing, and some ways to overcome them.


  • Vocabulary—Many companies have grown through acquisitions and are rationalizing a work force that has different heritages. As a result, something as basic as a common understanding of what items or processes are called, become impediments to understanding what has to be done or lead to delays in executing.
  • Reluctance to share—In many cases, experience is considered "person intellectual property," and may be seen as a way to ensure job security.
  • Deductive process—Experienced engineers have a tendency to intuitively leverage that knowledge. Looking at a problem, they can subconsciously make a series of decisions based on existing circumstances or the environment, and come to a conclusion that will not seem at all obvious to someone does not have this experience level.
  • Perceived cost—Typically discussions on knowledge management start or quickly turn into discussions on new automation or systems, and lose focus because the perceived costs have not been balanced against the potential return.
  • Management reluctance—Particularly in the case of some of the newer social technologies, such as blogs and wikis, the perception is that they are used in social sites such as Facebook, and may not be appropriate technologies to be used in a manufacturing environment.


  • Use a strategic mentoring program to build up core knowledge. Rather than have a one-on-one interchange, make it part of the process that the new information is captured and documented, so that it can be shared.
  • Develop and implement a common manufacturing model that can be used by applications such as control systems and historians and can also be shared between sites. This fosters easier collaboration, and also a common vocabulary between all sites.
  • Explore and implement some of the modern technologies such as wikis, blogs, social networking, etc. The new workforce has grown up with these, and understands how to use them effectively.
  • Look at all the capabilities that your vendors bring to the table. Often we find that companies look at control systems, for example, just as the control system that it is replacing, which might be 10-15 years old. It would be more beneficial if the evaluation was done on the overall value that the new technology can bring, not just on what it may be replacing.
  • Embrace your supplier's knowledge. ABB offers consulting services (Consult IT), Full Service and Remote Service, all of which can be used to build up an effective knowledge management base.
Williams reports that, once Operator Training System was installed at Geismar in 2008, the operators began to enjoy using and training on it because its mimics the plant and its control issues so well. "They could see loops and control strategies that weren't performing well," says Williams. "As a result, they began to go into screwy areas, play with the systems, dialog with the process engineers, show problems that might not have been found otherwise and call for fixes. This is why a good simulation should show the plant—warts and all."

Drake LaCombe, one of Honeywell Specialty Products' senior plant operators, is even more enthusiastic about Operator Training System and the benefits it brings to his application. "What I love about this system is that controls that work in the plant also work in the simulator, and controls that aren't worth a blankety blank in the plant also aren't worth a blankety blank in the simulator," says LaCombe. "A rigorous simulation can show where a new control strategy is good or not. In the past, if we said we had a hunch about a possible issue, then the plant manager might say it was too risky and not to do it. Now, since we can show proof of the problem, it's more likely that he'll say OK. A good simulation make our improvement cycle a lot faster."

Besides being hungry for new knowledge itself, these new learning organizations also make use of new avenues through which to gain it. Of course, these include the latest software add-ons and networks linked to their DCSs and PLCs, but they also includes all of the emerging collaborative software and Internet-based social media tools too. These include web-based discussion groups and Internet forums, weblogs, mini- and microblogs, wikis and other hybrid forms, and they usually let users share text, emails, audio, images and video. Some examples of social media include Wikipedia for reference tasks; Yahoo Groups and Google Groups for reference and social networking; LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook also for social networking, YouTube for video sharing; Twitter and others for micro-blogging; and a bunch of ever hipper and more cutting-edge hybrids. Of course, many of these tools overlap and often are linked directly or indirectly with many or all of the others.

However, Cosman cautions knowledge managers not to get distracted by ever-changing technologies for delivering data, and focus instead on what they wanted to accomplish. "It's important to craft a knowledge-management strategy and stick to it, so you don't just chase technologies and lose track of what you're trying to do," says Cosman.