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Process automation at Dow: Part 2

May 11, 2006
The second part of this three-part series describes Dow Chemical Co.’s transition from a successful, homegrown company to a commercially developed, highly integrated process automation solution provider.
By Maggie Walker, Ed Sederlund, Jerry Gipson and Eric Cosman, Dow Chemical Co.

MORE THAN 30 years ago, the Dow Chemical Co. embarked on what ultimately evolved into a global corporate initiative: to develop and broadly leverage a standardized, highly integrated process automation system, incorporating basic process control, process information, and safety-system functionality.

Based on what we wanted to accomplish, and a lack of commercial offerings at that time, we developed several proprietary solutions, including a process control system that came to be known as MOD, which is short for “Manufacturing Operating Discipline.” With its MOD 5 System, Dow was the first company to certify a process automation system with logical separation of the control and safety functions.

Our development approach served us well for many years, but we reached a point where it was no longer cost-effective to develop our own system. Part 2 of this three-part series describes Dow’s transition from our successful, homegrown solution to a commercially developed solution, including what went into the decision process, why we needed to change, and how we grew and nurtured a truly collaborative, technical relationship that will take our operating discipline forward.

From the beginning, continuous improvement has been at the heart of the Dow Chemical Co., and forms the essence of its mission today, “To constantly improve what’s essential to human progress by mastering science and technology.” To achieve this, we’re committed to the principles of Sustainable Development. As we discussed in Part 1 (“The Mod Squad: Process Automaton at Dow,” CONTROL, Feb. ’06), this underlying philosophy has been an instrumental driver in our process control journey.

The roots of Dow’s process-automation philosophy go back to the 1960s, and are based on our operational strategy. Consistency and sustainability are key elements of that strategy. As a global company, it’s important to operate facilities the same way, every time, to achieve consistent high quality, as well as process reliability and repeatability of best practices.

Of course, safety performance also is a key focus for Dow. Protection of people, the community, and the environment have always been non-negotiable priorities in our corporate culture. We must operate our plants safely every time, as well as the same way every time. Our "Vision of Zero" translates to zero incidents, injuries, illnesses, accidents, and zero environmental harm. So our safety practices needed to be repeatable and re-deployable, too. All of these elements made up our Operating Discipline (OD).

Initially, commercially available process automation systems didn’t give us the capability we needed. Technology was available that could be applied to the problem, and we developed several solutions based on general-purpose computers and operating systems. As we gained experience with these systems, it became evident there were significant shortcomings when applied to process automation and customer needs. Over time, we developed the MOD 5 system to meet our needs (See Figure 1 below).

     FIGURE 1: MOD 5

With its MOD 5 System, Dow was the first company to certify a process automation system with logical separation of the control and safety functions.

For nearly 30 years, and with more than 15 patents related to MOD technology and TUV Safety Integrity Level (SIL) 3 certification, we enjoyed continued success in fulfilling our OD with our proprietary MOD System series. It grew from an analog system at one site in the 1960s to a globally deployed, standard process control system with 1,500 systems installed throughout Dow by the year 2000. Over the years, the MOD series system delivered tremendous productivity benefits to Dow. We reduced the time to develop control strategies by 45%, and reduced support costs by 50%. Process startups were automated and coordinated across multiple-unit operations. Alarms were “intelligent,” reflecting the state of a process, rather than just a deviation from a limit. Batch processes were fully automated, resulting in reduced cycle times. Imbedding the OD concept in the automation system also helped us achieve our Environmental, Health and Safety (EH&S) goals. All of these performance improvements jointly contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in value to our businesses.

Exploring New Sustainability Solutions
In early 2000, however, we realized it wouldn’t be cost-effective to continue to invest in proprietary hardware and software systems. Our efforts to develop the next version of the MOD system, MOD 6, proved to be much more time and cost intensive than we anticipated. MOD 6 development began in 1987, and envisioned a triple-redundant, synchronous architecture built on dual-redundant synchronous architecture learnings from the MOD 5.

The strategic error in MOD 6’s development was building our own computer and communications application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and related software and development tools. MOD 6 was successfully demonstrated in 1998. However, rapidly changing computing and automation technologies, such as changes in networking, connectivity, communication protocols, integrated systems, real-time information access, and embedded intelligence made it difficult for us to incorporate all of them into the current development cycle, which became more unwieldy to manage with each passing day. It seemed that we’d come to the crossroads where commercially available technologies were at long last catching up to us.

External markets also conspired to force this change. As a global manufacturer, our new plants were bigger and more complex than ever. We also were expanding rapidly. The expectations for capital utilization, energy use, overall efficiency, and throughput were higher. And, the need for information integration between processes, plants and people were growing more sophisticated. The performance pressures in the global economy were intense, and, just like everyone else, we needed to find ways to do more with less. The need to continuously improve productivity was always there—every cent matters to the bottom line. So, it was imperative that our plants run smoothly, efficiently, and without interruption. At the same time, we had to accomplish all of this while being true to our Operating Discipline, and make sure that our solution was sustainable going forward.

Consequently, it just no longer made business sense to continue to develop and maintain our own process automation system. We needed to focus on our core manufacturing business. While we wanted to preserve our process automation expertise, we knew we didn’t want to be providers of hardware and software, so we began looking at other options. Some of the commercially available solutions looked like they had the potential to develop into something that could work for us, but going this route first required a lot of investigation, homework, and soul-searching. It isn’t easy to give up a job that you’ve been doing very well for more than 30 years, and just hand it over to someone you don’t know. Yet we knew, for pragmatic reasons, it had to be done.

The culture, the knowledge, and the passion for process safety were already ours. That wasn’t going to change in this transition. What was going to change was the platform. It just so happened that our first platform was the system we invented. So, the goal was to slide that platform out, slide in another platform, and allow the culture to continue forward undisturbed. We needed to find a solution platform to meet our needs, as well as a process automation partner that would share our vision, goals, and philosophy.

Critical Requirements: “The Crown Jewels”
To be considered as a possible solution, a commercial system had to align with our process automation wants as well as our needs. Once we decided to pursue a commercial option, we defined more than 400 requirements for this system that addressed our need for sustainability going forward. Long-term commercial availability, cutting-edge technology, and forward-looking solutions were all essential criteria. We absolutely needed a process control system that would take us successfully into the future, be deployable on a global scale, leverage commercial standards as they became available, and be on a platform that Dow could use as a standard at any plant anywhere.

Based on its list of 400 requirements, Dow defined 32 high-level criteria, affectionately known as "The Crown Jewels."

We expect our plant assets to run for 40-50 years, so our process control systems need to be as sustainable as the rest of these assets. A commercial system also would have to meet our increasing need for knowledge management, while remaining true to our process engineering culture. It had to be able to shape our future engineering culture, just as the MOD System had since the 1960s.

After agreeing to go commercial, we explored various ways to collaborate with external suppliers. Following our initial attempts, we hired an objective, third-party consultant to work with us in the evaluation and selection process, and help us define our requirements. Of course, after all our team had achieved with the MOD series, our expectations were much higher and our wish list far more detailed than a typical automation customer. We knew exactly what we wanted. Were what you might call an extremely knowledgeable consumer.

Based on its list of 400 requirements, Dow defined 32 high level criteria, affectionately known as “The Crown Jewels.” The consultant provided a short list of recommended candidates for Dow to approach. We did an extensive onsite evaluation based on our requirements for each recommended company, and met with their executive management, technology officers, and development teams.

“It was unique to meet a customer with such a detailed list of functions outside the normal market standard requirements. This led to a number of internal discussions, including how to fulfilling these functions and the technical needs for all of them,” recalls Frank Duggan, currently senior vice president for ABB’s Group Account Management. “On the other hand, we were dealing with a partner with a deep understanding of systems. If we could fulfill the rest of Dow’s requirements, we felt this could become our competitive differentiator for the industry.”

ABB: A Shared Vision
ABB was one of the companies on our short list. We spent five days with them during the onsite evaluation. One thing we told them upfront was that we didn’t want to see any “smokescreens” or ethereal vision presentations. While vision is extremely important to us, we also had an immediate need for a sustainable solution. We couldn’t afford to wait for something that might materialize someday.

Consequently, we met, we visited, and we sat through numerous company overview and technical presentations, some quite boring to be perfectly honest. On the fifth day of their visit, ABB’s presenters showed us their IndustrialIT technology, which was being developed as the heart of their Extended Automation System 800xA. At that point, we knew that we’d found the commercial solution that would take us into the future. We saw in that one day’s presentation exactly what we were seeking—the integrated environment, safety systems, and repeatable engineering solutions. It was all there. IndustrialIT had the ability to integrate multiple systems and plants into one environment, as well as system flexibility, integration of databases, common operating views, and engineering functionality. It was right in line with what we were needed. The alignment with their direction compared where we wanted to go also came together nicely. 

So, we’d found the commercial technology that could accomplish what we needed to continue fulfilling the Crown Jewels. We could use this platform to leverage our experiences and learnings with the MOD System’s services. However, while the technology was crucial ingredient to making the conversation happen and implementing the solution, much more was needed to help Dow and ABB’s relationship succeed.

Consequently, even though we’d found the technology we thought could take our Operating Discipline forward, the really hard work was just beginning. We needed to lay the foundation for a truly collaborative relationship, and let go of our own sole-system development mindset at the same time. The next article, Part 3, will discuss what was involved in building a close working relationship with ABB, and the elements that are essential to starting and sustaining any collaborative relationship that yields results.

Click here for more information on Dow's patents related to the MOD technology and TUV SIL 3 certification.

See: The MOD Squad: Process automation at Dow, Part 1
In the first of this three-part series, the team from Dow shares its perspective and techniques for developing its own process automation and safety systems, lessons learned, and why it took the path it did.

  About the Authors
Margaret R. Walker is vice president of engineering solutions for Dow Chemical's Technology Centers and Manufacturing and Engineering Work Process; Jerry N. Gipson is director of Dow’s Engineering Solutions Technology Center; Edward R. Sederlund is Dow’s Process Automation product manager; and Eric C. Cosman is Dow’s Engineering Solutions architect. The authors would like to thank Peter J. Kindt, Dow’s Process Control and Advanced Control discipline leader, who also contributed to this article.

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