Tales From the Front: Listen Up!

April 26, 2004
Who Does the Control Consultant Talk To If No One's Listening?

As a consultant, I have had the luxury of working in a variety of plants over the past 15 years, but more recently, I have noticed a disconcerting trend.

When I first started working in the industry, most of our clients had teams of engineers with whom we interacted during the course of a project. Almost every company we dealt with recognized the benefit of having people on staff that understood not only how to engineer their processes, but how the process of engineering works. They always included folks from operations, maintenance and safety to ensure that the execution of a project was looked at from all phases. We didn't need to make ourselves be heard because someone was already listening.

But over the last few years, our counterparts have begun to disappear at some of our client's plants. And although at first glance this does seem to offer us a prime opportunity to garner more business, it is my experience that the situation often creates more headaches and more hard feelings at the project's end.

A large beverage manufacturer hired a plant engineer to help the company completely upgrade its manufacturing facility. His plan to convert an old manual line into a state-of-the-art aseptic line would both increase the quality of their product and convert it to a more marketable package.

The project was a resounding success. We designed and commissioned the system and trained both the operators and the maintenance staff. Over the course of the next two years however, the lab manager responsible for maintaining the batching software, the plant engineer who conceived the whole project (the only on-site person who fully understood aseptic processing), were gone. All that remained were two of the operators and the surviving member of the maintenance staff,. There were various reasons for the departures, but now the manufacturer's plant, that once boasted yields of 98%, is drastically more inefficient. Unfortunately, we are now in the unenviable position of defending our original design.


"We cannot continue to communicate the same old way. New people are listening, with a new set of skills and expectations."

I believe that the plant's management should have realized that this was never a simple system that would run itself. No matter what caused all those employees to depart, they needed to plan for this kind of turnover or understand the impact their leaving would have on operations and act to retain key employees.

Yet another project was an R&D effort to convert a batch operation to a continuous process; something no one had accomplished in this particular industry. Through much trial and error, we succeeded. I am very proud of this project.

The control system was one of the most complex, and the process one of the most dynamic that I have had the opportunity to work on.

Unfortunately, after-commissioning, the company had an accountant review the total project cost. It seems that after the cost of the experimentation associated with start-up, the project did not fit in their approved payback guidelines, and they blamed us for not estimating the cost to construct the system properly.

Our construction numbers were accurate. We told the client at the very beginning that we had no idea how much time and material would be needed to commission this system. No one had done anything like this before.

To this day, there are hard feelings associated with this job, and it's really a shame; it was some of the best work we have ever done. The system still runs great, producing the highest-quality material of all the company's plants, but the project is considered a failure.

There has been a major change among some of our clients in who is making the decisions. I do not mean to slight these people; they are talented, hard-working and truly trying to do the best for their company, but they are working from a limited perspective. Whether an accountant, a production manager, or even an IT manager, they still do not understand many of the methods engineers take for granted. This is where we must do better. The rules have changed. So must we.

We cannot continue to communicate the same old way. New people are listening, with a new set of skills and expectations. We have to find new ways to convey our expertise. Whether we are a consultant trying to ensure a project's success, someone in maintenance trying to optimize downtime, or simply an overworked plant engineer who feels all alone, we have to find a way to be heard.

Clifford Speedy is a consulting engineer with C&I Engineering in Louisville, Ky.

Tales From the Front are selected from reader submissions. Do you have a story about plants or process control to share with the readers of CONTROL? We'll make it worth your while if your column is published. For details, e-mail [email protected].

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