What can be done to change our fate

Dec. 15, 2017
Tactics and technology might enlighten executives.

Greg: Last month, we discussed how executives think, and how they determine the fate of the automation profession and the process industry. Here, we continue our conversation with Walt Boyes and his wife, Joy Ward, who are the founder and director of research, respectively, at Spitzer and Boyes, LLC. This column is a result of another dinner with them and my wife at the innovative setting of the Boat House in Forest Park, St. Louis.

Given that the executives of many manufacturers in process industry have only a business degree and a short-term view, what can we do to change their perspective and approach?

Joy: Ideally, we would benefit from executives who came up through the ranks so they would understand each level and how it affects manufacturing, and have more than a parking-lot view.

Walt: Executives will have to learn the threats, most notably cybersecurity and safety, and the opportunities to improve plant performance. They should take an example from [a major supplier of automation systems and solutions], which continues to have engineers making decisions, even in marketing, and running their plants, including a high ratio of women to men. The attitude and skills gained from guiding and knowing what their employees are doing technically are absolutely critical to moving forward. 

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Joy: There should be an objective movement through the levels in manufacturing with time to explore new possibilities. A large, highly successful personal and business computer company was giving key people a sabbatical every seven years to learn something new. Then a business person became CEO, the company policy and goals become solely financial, and market performance deteriorated remarkably. Similarly, when Harvard MBAs took over major automobile manufacturers, the emphasis was on, how cheap can we go? Compare this to the goals and accomplishments of CEO Elon Musk, who took over two deserted auto plants to manufacture Tesla with a vision, including SolarCity and SpaceX, to change the world and humanity through technology.

If your goal is to increase plant performance, you need to know how to use the extensive advances in automation capability and flexibility. You would also benefit from the altruism of millennials who want to use technology to make a better future.

Greg: The performance of smart instrumentation and the power of control systems today is an order of magnitude greater than in the 1980s, when process control was at its peak. We lost the experts and managers who understood and drove the effort to make the most out of PID and model predictive control to optimize processes. The few people left are not given the guidance, time or incentive to do more than simply replace obsolete systems, resulting in largely copy jobs. I am thankful we have the new automation systems and am making it my life’s purpose in my golden years to help make the most out of their largely untapped capabilities. Part of this effort is seen in my ISA Mentor Program, Q&A posts and Recordings to advance the use of technology that seeks to make the most of the synergy of smart people and smart systems.

What do you see in automation system staffing?

Walt: People who know stuff have retired or are about to retire. There is a huge gap in ages due to the lack of hiring between 1980 and 2010. They may take the picture as the thing itself, thinking of the control system as a video game.

Greg: Most of the protégés in the Mentor Program are working in plants and get a much better understanding of what you need to do, whether it is simply realizing the existing tight shutoff valve should not be used for feedback control, but they should keep the on-off valve for isolation and add a true throttling valve for control.

A great concern on my part is the seduction of management into thinking that they can just throw the all data to a cloud and reduce the need for the best automation systems and automation professionals.

Walt: There is a misconception that statistical analysis can give the process knowledge needed and allow the use of lower-price instrumentation and installation practices. What they don’t realize is that this is not really possible because of poor repeatability and response times, and what you really need is closed-loop control with the best measurements and valves. Operator reactions are by definition not consistent or timely, and are based on prejudices.

More data does not mean useful data.

Greg: The 12/26/2016 Control Talk blog gives insight as to why thinking IIoT is the total solution is like having your head in the clouds. I don’t know of any engineer who has worked on the plant floor who thinks IIoT is more than a resource and is certainly not a replacement for knowledgeable process and automation engineers.   

Joy: It’s going to take something really bad to wake executives from their dream. The conditions for a deadly explosion in a Texas plant had actually occurred 16 times before. It was only the deaths from driving a diesel truck into the combustible cloud that caused company executives to decide something better needed to be done to prevent the release.

Greg: Maybe there can be something like what we see on the TV program “Undercover Boss,” where an executive working with people at various levels learns firsthand what is going on and what changes need to be made at the top. The executives gain dramatic insight and appreciation for what their employees face in day-to-day challenges. If we can’t convince executives of the need to get their hands dirty and take the time to learn what is really happening, maybe a virtual plant showing various scenarios with operator and control system reactions could be an eye-opener, especially if there are dollar metrics on before and after cases. Rapid dynamic visualization of real problems and opportunities could be the key taking full advantage of “Virtual Plant Virtuosity.”

We need to show that the automation system is the window into the process and the means of affecting the process. Scenarios of missing measurements, controllers, strategies and valves can open people’s eyes and minds when they see what the process is doing versus what they see in the automation system. A virtual plant can do this.

Communication is a two-way street. I think automation engineers need to take short courses on business fundamentals and how to convert automation opportunities into pitches executives can understand and appreciate. We as engineers tend to be too focused on the technical aspects, forgetting that we only get to develop and use advancements if the endeavor is profitable, and that success depends upon many people. What if we could expand our enthusiasm in technical accomplishments to make everyone learn from each other, and feel important and motivated to be a part of an increase in process efficiency and/or capacity from synergy of the knowledge and goals in maintenance, operations, automation, process engineering, mechanical engineering and information technology?

Executives who see the whole picture and realize the real value of empowering and motivating their employees can make an incredible difference. I was greatly impressed with the message from Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, to his employees (paraphrased): “Be positive and optimistic. Great leaders and teams inspire, recognize, appreciate and love their people. Great teams are built on love and trust—not fear.”

Top 10 apps you don’t want on an executive’s phone”

(10) As Cheap as Cheap can be

(9) Bonus or Bust

(8) Quickest Way to Bigger Profits

(7) My Way or No Way

(6) Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

(5) Maximizing Golden Parachute

(4) How to Stop Technical Mumbo Jumbo

(3) MBA Principles - The Total Solution

(2) IIoT - The Total Solution

(1) Head in the Cloud

About the Author

Greg McMillan | Columnist

Greg K. McMillan captures the wisdom of talented leaders in process control and adds his perspective based on more than 50 years of experience, cartoons by Ted Williams and Top 10 lists.