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AutomationXchange event report

Dec. 14, 2006
While basic plant-floor automation is no longer a mystery, advanced control often is, making techniques for solving difficult process control problems of high interest to end users and service providers.
By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

Each August our AutomationXchange event gives our end-user readers a chance to share best practices and meet privately with senior personnel from leading suppliers. In preparation for the event, we interview all end-user attendees to find out their main areas of interest and investment.

Interviews with end-user attendee firms for this year’s event showed that plant-floor automation and standard instrumentation (pressure, flow, level, temperature, etc.) is yesterday’s news. Everyone has done some of it, knows how to do it and knows they need to do more. They were interested in meeting with suppliers to see what was new, but in general, they believed that leading vendors all offered good automation and instrumentation products.

The main area of concern surrounding plant-floor automation and instrumentation was finding staff to execute the budgeted projects. All the attendees had substantial budgeted projects, but many did not have sufficient internal technical resources to get the work done.

Because of internal staffing concerns, there was a huge expressed demand for system integration and engineering services. The main user concern here was finding the right company for the job.

There are a relatively small number of well-known plant floor automation and instrumentation suppliers. By contrast, there are thousands of system integrators and engineering firms in North America alone, and most are relatively unknown to the end-user community. Many product suppliers are keen to provide system integration services, but end users question their independence and cost-effectiveness.

End users are, therefore, very keen to find the right independent system integrator or engineering firm for their project. Matching end users with these service providers has emerged as one of the key end-user benefits of AutomationXchange.

Another area of high interest among the end users is analyzers and process analytical technology. (See the podcast of the 2006 AutomationXchange PAT Roundtable. End users need online analyzers to replace offline lab measurements and to close the loop on real-time processes. They want to buy an analyzer the same way they buy a pressure transmitter; that is, they want it to be cheap, reliable and easy to install and maintain, and they don’t see current models measuring up.

A third area of high interest and investment is linking the plant floor to the top floor. Just about every attendee had a budgeted project in this area. It seems that their bosses are unpleasantly surprised to find that they spent millions to re-automate accounts payable by installing software from leading enterprise resource planning system (ERP) providers such as SAP and Oracle. What their bosses wanted and thought they were going to get with their multimillion dollar ERP investments was real-time access to production information. The bosses want and need that now, and they are committing big money to get it.

Creating this linkage is complex, and many end users are turning to independent system integrators to accomplish this task. Most are looking for system integrators with specific experience linking their existing brand of automation system to their enterprise system.

Wireless and RFID also were noted by many as areas of interest, but with more of an eye to future, rather than current projects. It seems that everyone knows these technologies will be critical in the future, but no one is sure exactly when that future will arrive. Most end users are deploying small wireless projects now for proof-of-concept. Lessons learned will then be applied to larger investments.

Advanced control was the final key area of interest. Greg McMillan, Control columnist and author of a multitude of advanced control texts, led user-only  discussions about advanced control best practices, issues and solutions.

While basic plant-floor automation is no longer a mystery, advanced control often is. Most everyone realizes that taming difficult process control loops will yield huge paybacks, so techniques for solving these difficult process control problems are of high interest. Perhaps the main point made in this area was that a deep understanding of the process in question was an absolute prerequisite for implementing any advanced control solution.

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