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Collaborative process control: The Dow/ABB story

Nov. 1, 2006
This article discusses what was involved in building a close working relationship with a vendor and the elements that are essential to starting and sustaining any collaborative relationship that yields results.
By Maggie Walker, Ed Sederlund, Jerry Gipson and Eric Cosman, Dow Chemical Co.

Over 30 years ago, The Dow Chemical Company embarked on a project that over time 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 available commercial offerings, we developed several proprietary solutions, including a process control system known as MOD—“Manufacturing Operating Discipline.” With the MOD 5 System, Dow was the very first company to certify a process automation system with logical separation of the control and safety function for SIL 3 applications. Our development approach served us well for many years…but we reached a point where developing and supporting our own system was no longer cost-effective.

After a thorough review and selection process, we chose ABB to provide the technology solutions to take our operating discipline forward. The formal selection process had concluded, but the really hard work was just beginning. We needed to lay the foundation for a true collaborative relationship and, at the same time, let go of our own sole-system development mindset.

From the very beginning, continuous improvement has been at the heart of The Dow Chemical Company and is the essence of its stated mission today: “To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology.” To achieve this, we are committed to the principles of sustainable development. As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, "The MOD Squad: Process Automation at Dow," this underlying philosophy has been an instrumental driver in our process control journey from the start.



>>The MOD Squad: Process Automation at Dow
>>Process automation at Dow: Part 2

The roots of our 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 is important to be able to operate facilities the same way every time to achieve consistent high quality, process reliability and best practices repeatability.

Of course, safety performance 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, and 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 redeployable as well. All of these elements made up our operating discipline.

At that time, commercially available process automation systems did not provide us with the capability that we needed. For nearly 30 years, we had enjoyed continued success in practicing our operating discipline with our proprietary MOD System series. It had grown from an analog system at one site in the 1960s to a globally deployed standard process control system with 1,500 instances installed throughout Dow by the year 2000. Over the years, the MOD series system had delivered tremendous productivity benefits to Dow.

However, in early 2000, we realized continuing to invest in proprietary hardware and software systems would not be cost-effective. For a number of reasons discussed in Part 2 of this series ("Process automation at Dow: Part 2") it 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. After we agreed on our strategy to go commercial, we engaged an objective third-party consulting firm to work with us in the initial evaluation and selection process. It also helped us define our requirements—no small challenge because after all our team had achieved with the MOD System series, our expectations were much higher and our wish list far more detailed than that of typical automation customers. But we knew exactly what we wanted.

Based on our detailed list of 400 requirements we defined 32 high-level criteria—affectionately referred to as “The Crown Jewels”—and our consultants came back with their recommendation about which vendors to approach. A very short list of candidates was presented. We did an extensive onsite evaluation against our requirements for each of these recommended companies, meeting with their executive management, technology officers and development teams.

The Chosen One 
ABB was one of the companies on the short list. After numerous presentations and discussions, ABB showed us its IndustrialIT technology—the heart of its Extended Automation System 800xA—and at that point we knew that we had found the commercial solution that would take us forward. The alignment with ABB’s direction and ours meshed nicely.

We had found the commercial technology that could accomplish our goals moving forward and meet our “Crown Jewels” criteria. We could use this platform to leverage our experiences and lessons with the MOD System services and take them forward. But while the technology is a necessary ingredient to make conversations happen, much more was needed to take relationships forward.


During one of the first team meetings between Dow and ABB, people were asked to draw their vision for the project. Afterwards, they talked about their drawings. The process was crucial to getting all the team the same page while having a little fun along the way.

In subsequent meetings with ABB, we mutually discovered that we had a shared vision of automation—its vision was completely compatible with our ongoing quest to practice our operating discipline. ABB was very open with us on the topic of system strategy and very willing to capture our safety control philosophy and incorporate it into its commercial offering. It also had the dedicated resources for system and technology development that we could not possibly have as manufacturer, as well as centers of excellence for safety, bench strength in systems engineering capability and the willingness to adapt its development program to accommodate our desired capabilities.

The technology vision and the ability to successfully execute and productize combined basic process control and safety in one integrated system, with the logical separation  control and safety, was of utmost importance. We did not want another proprietary solution developed exclusively for Dow. We wanted the rest of the industry to have the opportunity to benefit from what we had learned with our unique approach; therefore, we had to have a solution that ultimately would be commercially available in the marketplace.

Beyond the formal development agreement with ABB signed and announced in 2001, we forged a true collaborative relationship that consisted of four key elements: our shared vision; trust in each other; open communication; and perhaps most important after the shared vision, a willingness to confront each other.
To get things started, we laid the foundation for our collaborative relationship in a series of initial team meetings. Dow is accustomed to engaging in joint development relationships when it makes sense to do so. So when the time came to work with ABB, we had some successes on which to build a strong foundation.

First and more important than anything else, in order to proceed with this relationship, we had to have a shared vision. We began by doing some of the things you might expect: We developed guiding principles, defined roles and responsibilities, determined who would do what and how they would be accountable, formed teams, allocated resources and identified the risks of failure and the rewards of success. We set milestones. We understood there would be change, accepted it and set our actions and priorities accordingly.

So those are the things you might have expected us to do, right?

Working With the Unexpected
But what about the unexpected? This is how we made it happen; how we really achieved a true shared vision, one that set our relationship apart. True partnership has its roots in a true shared vision, and we worked for months to be clear about our shared values. We knew we needed to move from a traditional customer/supplier relationship—with limited interaction and major focus on price—to one embracing  true collaboration.

So during our first meetings, we went around the room and asked each person to describe his or her vision for the project. But we didn’t just ask people to describe their visions—we asked them to DRAW their vision. After we drew, we talked about our drawings. We gained a lot from this exercise, and it was critical in getting us all on the same page and ensuring that our visions were aligned.

It also allowed us to begin to practice the kind of dialog we needed to have in order to create a balanced relationship involving analysis, feedback, evaluation and problem solving.

In our work on building a shared vision, we also began to address the second element—trust. Building a basis for trust and continuing to work on it is essential. We did this by simply getting to know each other.
Third, we understood the importance of communication. ABB and Dow realized early the need to engage each other regularly, so much so, in fact, that we included a clause in our contract that required regular meetings.

Think about that for a moment—a clause in the contract that forced us to interact. That single action told members of our team that communication is so inherently important that the deal would fall apart if we failed to communicate with one another.

We also had to make sure  we were communicating with other stakeholders inside ABB and Dow. We had to work within each of our organizations to maintain alignment and focus on our shared vision.
Now with all this open and honest communication, there were bound to be  differences of opinion. We did have some challenges along the way; which brings us to the fourth element—a willingness to confront each other.

The initial foundation of the Dow/ABB collaborative relationship was a series of team meetings and activities.

Conflict Management
In any relationship, confrontation, conflict management and resolution are hard work many people would rather not do; in fact, they may avoid it at all costs. There are two keys to working through conflict; the first is to begin with your own issues. The second key is to embrace the conflict. Not only is conflict inevitable, it is also necessary.  It provides the energy that fuels creative solutions—but only if you let it. Unattended, conflict creates a huge drain on energy, and ultimately, sustainability; but, when approached and treated as “learning,” conflict can spark ideas and generate value!

You can do  all the team-building you want or can stand, but collaboration is really about bringing together different points of view, working together to confront each other so that action and change take place. Our teams successfully did this.

Frank Duggan, senior vice president, group account management at ABB, says, “It is clear that both sides badly needed and wanted this relationship to work. This gave us a good starting point. I believe the people from both sides who were key and critical in the early incubation period of the relationship quickly got to appreciate and like one another. We employed some good tactics as a joint leadership team to engage people deep down in both organizations.”

Mutual Respect
This successful collaboration required tremendous organizational commitment from all parties. In addition to our strategic alignment, we found that both of our organizations had similar cultures that fostered the mutual respect for each other and trust that must happen before you can truly collaborate. That culture of respect and trust was pervasive throughout the organizations, from the executive level management to the development teams to the field engineers.

“From the outset, there has always been a culture of transparency and honesty between us,” Duggan recalls. “This has been significant in getting the relationship to succeed. This will always give a strong platform for future positive results. As in all relationships, you cannot take things for granted. You have to continue to work at them.”

This culture of mutual respect and collaboration is ingrained within and throughout our respective organizations. Even in some of the early implementation projects, our technical and engineering teams worked so closely together that sometimes it was difficult to tell who belonged to Dow, and who belonged to ABB, unless you happened to know the people from previous meetings. The synergy was that great. It made for as good a transition as one could hope for when handing over the reigns of a project you’ve nurtured for close to a lifetime.

That’s not to say that there weren’t growing pains, conflicts and disagreements along the way. That happens in any close, collaborative relationship. We did have some delays and missed milestones, as all projects invariably do. We had differences of opinion. But we used these experiences and the conflict as learning experiences, which ultimately strengthened our working relationship and our deliverable.

Now that we had found the right commercial solution and supplier relationship to take our operating discipline forward, we had to see what kind of results it would deliver throughout Dow’s plants worldwide.
We had said that MOD 5 would be a tough act to follow….could ABB provide a worthy successor? The next article in this series will discuss the results and future direction of this collaboration.

  About the Authors
Margaret R. Walker is vice president of engineering solutions forDow 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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