Spring Cleaning

April 3, 2009
The Current Economic Climate Has Many End Users and Engineers Realizing They Now Have Time for Non-Traditional Improvement Projects
This article was printed in CONTROL's April 2009 edition.
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Near the end of every winter, there comes a slightly warmer day when things thaw a bit, and you can smell the earth and spring again. Though this happens earlier as you travel south, up in northern North America, it occurs in April or May. Closer to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, of course, spring is less about defrosting and more about drying out. California, Arizona and Florida might as well be other planets closer to the sun, which explains their popularity.

Timing and temperatures aside, however, the common impulse is to escape that old cabin fever, open windows, shake out rugs, get outside, ride bikes, fire up the grill and maybe see what damage winter inflicted on the house and local infrastructure. It’s time to climb out of the recliner/cocoon and shake off some old, flabby, entitled and stiflingly bad habits along with the winter’s snow, rain and gloom.

This impulse is intoxicating in the spring of any year, but it can be especially useful now. The U.S. and much of the world is still reeling from the biggest waste and theft of financial resources since the Great Depression and perhaps ever. And, despite the shaky bailout and stimulus props lawmakers have inserted to soften the blow, consumption and production in a wide range of industries have slowed, and some economic growth indicators have actually reversed for the first time in decades.

However, like any problem, the recession presents some potentially helpful opportunities. Certainly, most plant and process control applications already employ stringent maintenance, repair and upgrade schedules. However, with many facilities and process applications idling a little or a lot due to the economic climate, many end users and their engineers are finding they now have some time for a few non-traditional improvement projects. So, if you have some unanticipated time on your hands, or can just cheat for a bit of breathing room, there are a few improvement activities you and your team might want to explore.

First, walk your plant or facility, but this time visit places and examine applications and equipment that you don’t usually have time to check. Write up or add to your maintenance list and also try to identify some new areas for improvement that you hadn’t considered before. In fact, you can kill two birds with one stone by checking components and getting in some extra aerobic exercise to begin shedding that tin of chocolate-covered Christmas pretzels you inhaled during the holidays. 

Second, revise or draft your risk-assessment plan and then do the same for your performance objectives to reduce the risk of incidents. Because existing process safety standards remain largely non-prescriptive, and U.S. government rules still focus only on post-incident enforcement, it still falls to users to adapt safety standards to their unique applications. Fortunately, a thorough risk-assessment and mitigation plan that’s consistently implemented should provide even better justification and liability protection than simply complying with over-generalized standards.

Third, examine how to adopt a few workable green and sustainability projects. To me, these topics are equivalent to overall efficiency. Whatever the label used, however, implementing better power-monitoring capabilities or installing variable-speed drives (VFDs) in a few new settings could save lots of energy.

Fourth, look into finally implementing some better industrial networking. A good fieldbus, Ethernet or even wireless solution doesn’t just mean less cabling than old point-to-point hardwiring, but they also mean far less maintenance, troubleshooting and headaches.  

Some engineers are already undertaking non-traditional improvement projects, so they can be ready when the recovery ramps up. As a result, several system integrators, consultants and suppliers tell me they’re busy fielding calls and scheduling projects. So you should get moving too because it’s likely your competitors are doing it. They’ll be ready. Will you?