Create stimulus for the instrumentation, control supply chain

Sept. 2, 2020
Find responsible ways to support the vendors that have long supported you

Visits from my turbine controls’ field engineer were exhausting. “Max” had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and joined some fellows at their U.S. business. Max traveled the world for his employer—it seemed he had been everywhere.

But there was nothing extraordinary about the modest 13,000-hp turbine in our facility, however vital it was to our enterprise’s reliability and efficiency. But when Max was onsite for commissioning our new controls, you'd think it was a mission to rescue a child trapped in a cave. Max took few breaks, ate no lunch, and labored for hours on our outdoor turbine deck, where shiny aluminum acoustic panels trapped the early summer heat and stifled any breeze. What was this guy made of?

When Max described some of the Kafkaesque scenarios from his former country, one could surmise where he got his work ethic. The top-down, centrally planned society suffered greatly from its illogical mandates and endeavors, enforced ad absurdum. We in the U.S. have our foibles, but they pale in comparison. And I imagine when Max experienced pay and benefits in proportion to his efforts and contribution to the business, it inspired him with a distinctive and enduring commitment—and disdain for the system he fled.

No place for complacency

As our troubled economy claws back from the depths of virus-induced recession, the imperative to contain costs and limit spending is widespread. If you’re at a manufacturing site, this period might be a strangely relaxed and tranquil time. At less-than-maximum rates, nothing is stressed; it’s hard to find the motivation to work at optimizing throughput or efficiency. But while our jobs may be safe as we putter around with the day-to-day distractions, some of our vendors are gasping for oxygen.

Perhaps you find your comrades crowing about how much they’ve been reducing open MOCs (that is, management of change documentation as described in OSHA 1910). I’m inclined to chime in, “that’s because we’re not doing anything.”

We’re not in a Soviet-style economy, where we’re told to buy 10 tons of steel—whether we need it or not—because that’s what the upstream factory produced. We're in a free market, and if we’re not working at planning for expenditures when normal times resume and spending on what expenditures can be justified, the vendor resources we’ve long relied on might not survive. If you’ve been in the measurement and control discipline for a while, you’ve often been reminded that we’re only as good as the individuals who support us—and that includes the vendor representatives who call on us.

Safety, security, sustainability, certainty

Even at reduced production rates, devices fail and the trickle of maintenance and repair operations (MRO) expenditures continues. But in this environment, what else can we justify? It might help to try imagining the mindset of a publicly traded enterprise executive, faced with weak demand and uncertain future. What spending still makes sense? Think safety, security, sustainability and certainty: investments in mitigating threats in these areas are normally given precedence anyhow, but they might be even more compelling now.

Clearly frivolous spending is a bad idea, as is spending on contrived crises. So, make a case and offer options. In a running plant, get out of your office and observe—is the bypass always open around the cooling tower control valve? Maybe a controlled minimum flow kickback has potential, or perhaps a trim upgrade for the valve. Having trouble staying on spec at low rates? Add or improve the distillation tower d/p measurement, or maybe some wireless surface temperature sensors can reveal channeling. Is a control loop that should be in cascade always in manual? Seeking out untrusted measurements or flaky valve positioners can reveal opportunities for budget-friendly repairs or upgrades.

Max was an inspiration to break a sweat and pursue all the bugs into a corner. And stomp on them. By resisting the doldrums of minimal spending, we might find some opportunities—however meager—to create a little stimulus for the instrumentation and control supply chain.

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About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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