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The World's Largest Economy

July 14, 2010
In China, Manufacturing is Still an Honorable Profession

By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

There is ferment, excitement, energy and directedness in China. I had been to China before, but this trip clearly showed me that something was fundamentally different between what is going on in China and what is going on in the West.

In China, manufacturing is an honorable career path, and automation is an honorable profession.

It's Alive!

In China, young people flock to manufacturing and automation as key professions. I attended the Rockwell Automation on the Move event in Beijing in May. I was truly amazed at the energy and attendance at the event. Remember, this is a regional event, which Rockwell moves from city to city over the course of a year. There were over 1000 attendees—customers, partners and media. And the average age of the attendees was about 30. Bob Eisenbrown, Rockwell's vice president of global channels and marketing, was also in attendance, and he told Rockwell's John Bernaden that he wished he could transfer some of this high-energy event back to the U. S. automation industry. Bernaden noted "it's clearly a much different customer base. These younger Chinese customers love to learn about new products and applications by surfing the Internet. Industry analyst GongKong gets more than 10,000 viewers a day to its website while U.S. industry analysts may get that much traffic in a month."

[pullquote]There's that ferment. There's that excitement. It even is affecting young Westerners who are electing to live and work in China instead of taking a more conventional career path. While in China, I had the opportunity to attend a party given by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, one of the largest PR and advertising firms in the world, and I met several young Western expatriates who had come to Beijing to be a part of the growth and change in China. They were excited about China, and China's economic growth. I found it interesting that none of them said they'd had the same opportunities at home they'd found in Beijing.

We Would Still Be Trying to Get Permits

There's both good news and bad news about a command economy, as the Chinese do it. We usually hear about the bad news. Yet, it is difficult to see how we in North America can do some of the things the Chinese can do.

In 2006, the Chinese government agreed to shut down the Capital Steel plant in Beijing because it was a high contributor to the air pollution of the Beijing area. This was done as part of the Beijing Olympics bid. This wasn't a good thing for the Chinese economy though, because Capital Steel was the largest steel plant in China.

Walt Boyes and John Bernaden from RA at the new Jin Tang Steel plantSo the Chinese Government sent the plant 220 kilometers east of Beijing, to a specially reclaimed island in Bohai Bay called Caofeidian. Caofeidian is a planned industrial city that the Chinese call an "eco-city." It is intended to be much more energy-efficient and less polluting than traditional Chinese cities. The plant, now called Shougang Jing Tang Iron and Steel Union Company, was designed, built and in operation making steel by the middle of 2009. Currently, there are two blast furnaces with continuous casting processes and a rolling mill. These are both 5500 cubic meter furnaces—making them among the largest in the world, with a production rate of 11000 TPD.

Rockwell Automation received the order for control of the blast furnaces and the concasters, while Siemens received the order for the rolling mill. Such split deals are common in China because the Chinese do not wish to be locked into a single source of supply. By the end of 2011, two more furnaces will be in operation, doubling the output of the plant. One was scheduled to be in operation later this year.

The plant is as modern as any steel mill anywhere. In a departure from the traditional Chinese emphasis on production at any price, the new Jing Tang plant is designed to have minimal pollution. An article from Xinhua News Service shows the new plant will ensure 99.5 percent of the solid waste and 97.5 percent of wastewater are recycled, while air pollution will be reduced equally drastically.

The automation systems are also designed, as Wang Chang Shui, Iron Department Equipment Manager explained, to provide the ability to make much higher quality iron and steel. "This means we are more profitable," he said. In the old plant in Beijing, over 1000 mostly unskilled workers, working in much tougher environmental conditions, manually controlled the blast furnace processes. In the new plant, the Rockwell PlantPAx system allows a small force of 100 degreed automation engineers to control the entire plant from a state-of-the-art control room with a video wall showing live images from critical areas in the plant.

At JiDong Cement, operator at new workstation, with obsolete panel wall in the backgroundBuilding a plant from less than scratch (they had to build the island on which it is situated first) in the short amount of time they had, Wang said, "caused lots of challenges for commissioning and whole plant integration."

"There are 13000 I/O just for the furnace, and raw material intake and the sintering plant have even more," Wang said. "Getting all the vendors working together was a challenge, but all of our design objectives have been met."

Now that the plant automation system has been brought up to world-class, Wang can concentrate on things like asset management and advanced process control—quite a jump from 1000 wrench turners and knob tweakers just four or five years ago. He can also look into things like environmental monitoring systems like Rockwell's Pavilion Technologies.

Wang was very forthcoming about why they chose Rockwell and Siemens over other vendors. Rockwell's system, he said, was much more open and user-friendly and did not require the purchase of the same vendor's field devices to ensure compatibility. Siemens, Wang said, was similar, although he noted that Rockwell's in-country support was somewhat better. There were potential downsides, however. Yokogawa, he said, had the application down, and Rockwell had not yet produced a system this large in China. It could have been a career limiting move, he admitted.

"We're not number one in China yet," Wang said. "Bao Steel in Shanghai is bigger…so far. But we hope our KPIs will be better than Bao."

Working Together

One of the interesting things about Chinese manufacturing is how seemingly disparate companies work together. Wang mentioned that the clinkers and fly ash his plant produces and no longer just dumps or sends up in the air now go to JiDong Cement in Tangshan, several hours drive East of Beijing. Interestingly, we had visited JiDong Cement the previous day, meeting with Zhang Chunhua, the deputy general manager of the plant.

JiDong is only the third-largest cement producer in China, but even so, they are capable of 100 million tons of cement production every year. And judging from the activity and the number of JiDong trucks on the roads, they must be at maximum production. JiDong is now a public company, Tangshan JiDong Cement, which enabled it to raise capital and acquire loans from the government to upgrade its automation systems and expand the plant.

Mr. Zhang described the value-add of the multimillion dollar control room upgrade he'd just finished using PlantPAx. "We've had Rockwell PLCs in the plant since 1995, so it was natural to go to them for the upgrade," Zhang said. "We opted for more sequential control very early, and we make one product very well."

Zhang became somewhat strained, though, when he discussed the "political" goals he has to achieve. He is under lots of pressure from the provincial government to improve energy efficiency in his plant. After all, cement manufacture is a hugely energy-intensive process. He feels that he can probably achieve some level of sustainable manufacturing, but he is concerned that the goals he's been set are what we would call "stretch goals." "We are looking at a pilot project with Pavilion Technologies this summer," he said. "We'll see how it does."

Operator using new workstation while obsolete old panel wall sits behind him.Zhang also commented on what his key requirements are for automation systems, with the understanding that Rockwell had met them. Service, he believes, not necessarily price is what JiDong requires. "It is the reliability of the system that is important to us," he said repeatedly.

His team of automation engineers and technicians started with five people in 1995 when Rockwell first started installing PLCs. Today, he has about 400 automation professionals and a control room with roughly 40 control stations each with operators on duty. "We've even experimented with fieldbus," Zhang said. "We decided to go with the one from Siemens." A little questioning revealed that it was Profibus, which apparently in some parts of China is considered semi-proprietary to Siemens.

Leaving Beijing, we flew to Xi'an, which has a fabled and very long history. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road for nearly two millennia and was the capital of China for 1000 years. It is the home of the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who, until his tomb was discovered in the early 1950s, was considered almost a mythical character in Chinese prehistory.

We visited the system integrator Rockwell purchased two years ago, Xi'an HengSheng Industrial Automation Co., Ltd (www.heng-sheng.com). They made it possible for me to visit two universities and a major power systems EPC.

Major Universities and Automation: The Four Great Inventions

At the universities, I discovered huge differences between Chinese academia and the West. At Xi'an Jiaotong University, founded in the 1880s and one of the oldest technical schools in China, I visited with Dr. Xu Yang and several of his professors. Xi'an Jiaotong University has a school of Electrical Engineering. Within the School of Electrical Engineering, Dr. Xu is dean of the Department of Industrial Automation, with several hundred students. Now contrast this with my own alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz, where the engineering department doesn't even offer industrial automation or applied manufacturing courses at all.

Dean Xu pointed out a large sculptural setting in one of the quads of the Engineering School. It shows, he said, "the four great inventions of China. These are the great inventions that China has given to the world." The inventions are the compass, the art of papermaking, the invention of moveable type and printing, and the invention of gunpowder. Western writers from Francis Bacon to Karl Marx have commented that these inventions did much to create the modern age. In China, they, along with many other seminal inventions, are used to show how ancient China's technology base was.

Dean Xu was among several people who commented that from around 260 BCE to 1850 CE, China was the largest economy and one of the greatest technical civilizations in the world. The Chinese fervently believe that this came to an end with the Opium Wars, in which the Western powers, especially Great Britain, forced the Chinese government to permit them to sell opium in China. "This destroyed our economy," Xu said. "In 1949 we began rebuilding it, and we have a national goal to become once again the world's largest economy and technical powerhouse."

Both Dean Xu and his counterpart across town at the Xi'an University of Technology, vice dean of the college of automation and information engineering, Liu Han made much of the academic partnerships with commercial enterprises that are common in China. These partnerships benefit both sides, including the individual professor, who generally receives an additional stipend for managing the program. One such program is the development of a large silicon billet caster at Xi'an University of Technology so that the Chinese electronics industry can advance in its goal of being self-sufficient in chip making. The quality required to make this project work points out that the generally accepted belief that Chinese can only produce poor quality work is a stereotype and generally untrue.

Diversity is Ahead in China

Getting back to HengSheng, I learned how fairly large (roughly $10 million/year) system integrators operate in China. They have very close partnerships with end-user companies and the EPCs, like the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute, which we visited in Xi'an. HengSheng is concentrated in the "balance of plant" portion of electric plant controls, but it also does water/wastewater and is expanding into other automation verticals. One very interesting thing about the company is that approximately 60% of the engineering staff is women, and the general manager, Han LiQing's wife, is the engineering manager. So not only does China have quality system integrators, but may well be ahead of the West in diversity issues too.

R&D + EPC = Design Institute

The Northwest Electric Power Design Institute (www.nwepdi.com) is like an EPC, but is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of China Power Engineering Consulting (Group) Corporation and acts as much like a combination research and development facility, such as the U.S. government's national labs, as an engineering and procurement contractor. There are six of these design institutes in China, NWEPDI being the coal-fired electric power plant specialists. The hot spot for it is electrical power plants from 20 to 1000 MW. According to newly promoted director, Li Ya Zhou, NWEPDI sees steady growth with many new projects in the next two to three years. While they have been an R&D facility, creating new applications and winning innovation awards, NWEPDI is today focusing on implementing projects. "We have, though," Li said, "been working on an innovative R&D project for a cooling system for nuclear power plants."

Not only does China have quality system integrators, but may well be ahead of the West in diversity issues too.

HengSheng has welded together a very close partnership with NWEPDI. Most of the NWEPDI projects that are let use HengSheng as the BoP (balance of plant) integrator. From HengSheng, NWEPDI is interested in acquiring fieldbus technology, optimization software, environmental protection and emissions monitoring. The other part of the plant, the BTG (boiler, turbine, generator) usually goes to a large vendor like ABB, Emerson (the former Westinghouse), Foxboro (Invensys) or Siemens. Like any system integrator, even though owned by Rockwell, HengSheng provides best-in-class for every project. If the project requires a Siemens or a Modicon PLC, HengSheng will provide it. As far as Allen-Bradley controls are concerned, the drivers are references, technology, price and seamless integration with Emerson's Westinghouse DCS. Of course, Mr. Li noted, if all the technical requirements are met by all the vendors, price is the most important variable in selection. Mr. Li's two deputies, Bi Jianhui and Wang Furong, are both senior engineering staff and are again among the very large contingent of women in automation in China.

Pharmaceutical Quality

The last plant I visited is a joint venture between Zejiang Huayi Pharmaceutical Company (ZHP) and Esteve Pharmaceuticals (www.esteve.es) a Spanish company. Esteve Huayi Pharmaceuticals (EHP) is a contract manufacturer and API manufacturing plant. One of its trains is a continuous process train into which some procedure-controlled automation has been incorporated, and the other, just across the street on the plant site, is a fully batch system, running RSBatch, including validation and record keeping. I met with Yuan Hong Liang, the manager of the engineering department, and his boss, Jin Xu Hu, the general manager of both Esteve Huayi and its Chinese parent. Both trains were spic-and- span, well-instrumented with even some fieldbus (mostly HART) connectivity. The control rooms were well-designed. It could have been a contract manufacturing facility anywhere in the world. Currently, the plant produces 200 tons of API materials. When it is fully operational, it will produce 600 tons. The second phase, to complete the second and third set of trains, is scheduled for 2012, with the third phase scheduled for 2014.

"Of course," Mr. Jin said, "that is going to depend on market demand. Our domestic sales are growing very fast, while our export sales are not growing as fast. Partly because of the fact that the United States and Japan have higher quality, can command higher prices and are certified."

You must understand, Jin went on, "automation is not to reduce costs, it is to improve quality, reduce variability and improve performance. And safety and quality are equal in this company."

The safety rules are posted on huge signs several places in the plant, as well as right by the front gate. "The safety rules," Mr. Jin said, "are very clear. The question is how to enforce the rules. We do it by a regular recurring system of training, inspection, investigation and examination, recursively so the particular injury or damage doesn't happen again."

Jin takes this so seriously that he does all the interviews to communicate the company safety culture to his new hires. Why? Unlike his counterparts in the West, Mr. Jin is personally legally responsible for what happens in his plant, and he doesn't want any chances taken. After the scandals of the last few years, Mr. Jin is devoted to the reputation of ZHP and EHP, and well he should be. "To make the customers happy is the highest intent," Jin said.

In every manufacturing vertical I visited, from steel to cement, to power and to pharmaceuticals, the refrain was the same: "We need to improve our quality so we can improve our profit, and at the same time be energy efficient and sustainable."

In China, it is the energy, the ferment and the drive to again become the world's largest economy.

It would only be fair to thank John Bernaden and Ricky AuYeung of Rockwell, for sharing 11 days with me. I also want to recognize Dunham Yang Yang, of RA, and Huifang Wang and "Linda" Tang from HengSheng, who made logistics easy. There were many plant and RA personnel who made my tour of the process industries in China effective and effortless. Thanks to you all.

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