In the automation world, we touch so many different industries, platforms, technologies, and standardization's, that it is important to know the most up-to-date, relevant information to help our clients get ahead. Whether it is industry-specific information, the most pertinent practices, or just looking to increase your knowledge, there are a number of places to look. Below is a list of the top four places to seek information to help you reach your automation goals:
Automation World is a magazine, newsletter, and website that offers a multitude of controls information. The magazine has their metaphoric hands in both factory and process worlds, and their knowledge base regarding products – from controls and drives to energy management, is extensive. They offer information about engineering, IT, and operations, making Automation World a news outlet worth subscribing.
International Society of Automation (ISA)
ISA is a global non-profit organization that helps standardize, educate, and certify the automation industry and its professionals. They host conferences and exhibitions and strive to help their members through networking and training. This is a great way to link up with other professionals in the industry and learn what they have gained through experience.
Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)
CSIA is a community of system integrators that pool together their experience and expertise, creating a library of best practices that is shared through extensive networking. Through CSIA you can attend webinars and podcasts, get certified, find integrators, and attend conferences, all to increase your personal knowledge while helping to drive modernization in the automation industry.
Avid Solutions Consultant
Sometimes, the best way to find information is by just asking an expert. Here at Avid, we have a wide variety of expertise and industry knowledge that literally spans a millennium. We offer automation solutions, information solutions, and managed services to drive industrial processes and reach our client’s needs. What’s better, we are just a phone call or email away. Our consultants can take your processes further and help you run better.
I majored in International Studies and Chemical Engineering in college. This odd combination was born out of a natural ability in the sciences, coupled with a lifelong fascination with history and culture. My career, obviously, was driven far more by my Chemical Engineering degree, but I am often grateful for the humanities education I received.
I first worked abroad in college when I had the opportunity to intern at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Even without a language barrier, there were differences in the work environment that caught me off guard. For example, in my lab group at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, giving a presentation was a serious affair. At the end of my time in Australia, I was prepared to give a presentation to the group and arrived well-dressed with a formal presentation laid out. I was quite embarrassed when my Australian colleagues remained seated and simply spoke about their research instead of presenting a long PowerPoint presentation. For once, over preparing was not the right call. Australian culture is very, very laid back and I really should have extrapolated that the workplace environment would mirror that. My business casual outfits laid in my suitcase unnecessarily packed.
Based on my past experiences and my college credentials, I jumped on the opportunity to work abroad representing Avid Solutions in Frankfurt, Germany. While I had a great experience working there with many capable people, it reminded me that working abroad is quite a different experience than working in the U.S.
Before heading out to work abroad, there are a lot of things to consider. Most of the advice I have here might be considered obvious, but, unlike Australian presentations, my best advice is that adequate preparation is the key to being successful.
Just Living Life
A handful of essentials are necessary before studying or working abroad. First and foremost, research the electrical plug situation in the country where you will be traveling. Be very careful to get a voltage converter and not a plug adapter. As engineers, we should know this, but I discovered that the distinction is not always so clear when I plugged in upon arriving in Sydney just to fry my phone. Having access to all our electronics is part of life these days and certainly part of being successful at work. I suggest you make a list of what you need to have plugged in at any given time and be prepared. For laptops, most chargers serve as converters as well.
If travelling to Europe, be aware that they are much more “green” than we are in the U.S. and that needs to be respected. In every German household, there are at least five different trash varieties for various recycling. It can be considered quite disrespectful and a blunder to toss trash away into the incorrect bin. Another European quirk involves Sundays, when many stores are closed and most people spend time with their families. As far as I could tell, there’s no Amazon Prime or other quick delivery service, so make sure you’re prepared. A great thing about most European countries, though, is that the tax is included in the price. The price you see on the shelf is exactly what you’d need to pay at the register.
In Germany, cash is still very much king. I found this incredibly annoying as, like any good millennial, I rarely have cash and prefer credit. If travelling there or places more near eastern Europe, be sure to have plenty of cash. While working in Germany, my debit card was frozen for suspected fraud, so I had to scrimp and save before my new one could be shipped over. This was very frustrating and I wound up having money transferred to me through the German post, which was quite a hassle. It would have been much better if I just came over with enough cash to get by.
Politeness in other Languages
In any work space, social norms are important and serve as markers of respect and courtesy. The problem with working abroad, though, is that politeness is expressed differently by different cultures. A little research and selective stereotyping can be very helpful. For example, it’s a long-held stereotype that Germans are punctual. While obviously one cannot generalize about an entire country of people, for the most part, this one is true. It is considered quite rude to be late, although it is possibly considered even more rude to be early. When trying to foster a positive client relationship, punctuality is important in Germany.
It’s also important to be cognizant that others will likely have stereotypes about you based on your country of origin. In my experiences, I have been asked numerous times if I owned a gun and asked to explain my country’s political choices. Try to avoid being the loud and rude American since that is a frequently held stereotype. Remember that when encountering new cultures, nothing is good or bad, just different. Don’t read too much into stereotypes and be cognizant of the culture.
Getting the chance to study or work abroad is a wonderful opportunity. I am lucky to work for an employer like Avid where it is a possibility to work in other countries. It allows me the chance to grow both personally and professionally. I would recommend traveling to other countries to work and study as long as the proper planning takes place so that you are adequately prepared.
In the United States, 94% of plants miss their scheduled start date after a process control systems upgrade. When schedules slip, expenses add up quickly. For plants operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a single day of lost production can cost $600,000 or more. At that rate, the price of a delayed start-up will surpass your capital investment within a week. Fortunately, with some advance planning, you can ensure a timely start-up and avoid such losses.
We collaborate with clients to identify, design, and implement the best industrial automation solutions. We also provide the installation and commissioning expertise you need to “Get Your Plant Back Online, On Time.” Based on that experience, we’ve compiled the following start-up guidelines for a successful automation system upgrade:
Because a process control systems upgrade is a significant investment, you may find yourself looking for ways to reduce start-up expenses. But, outsourcing your start-up project to your install contractor or trying to manage it in-house comes with risks. Working with a dedicated start-up specialist, on the other hand, allows you to foresee and resolve issues that could threaten your project timeline.
Quality is a critical component of any project. Automation integration projects are no exception. We've all heard about projects that deliver less than the expected results - what was designed on the front end was not necessarily what was delivered on the back end. Obviously, the goal is to go into the commissioning stages of a project with a high level of confidence that everything will perform as expected and function as designed. Here’s the secret: executing a rigorous quality testing plan is the key. Quality testing should be a fundamental practice for every integration project.
If you're wondering what a quality testing plan looks like – you’re in luck. The key components to integration project quality checking are:
1) Project Design Documents
A quality testing plan should begin with a solid set of design documents. Imagine trying to build a house without blueprints. It would be almost impossible to know if something is wrong with the house. There would be no design documents to check against.
In an integration project, the design documents might be detailed design specifications, schematics, data tables, etc. These design documents should capture the desired functionality of the system and serve as the roadmap for configuration of the integration project as well as the standard to which the various components of the system are tested.
It's important to note that often the first draft of the design documents is created early in the project before all variables are known. However, it is typical for the design of the system to change, even slightly, throughout the project execution. Therefore, it is critical that the design documents be treated as “living” documents and continuously updated.
2) Quality Checking Schedule
The frequency and timing for when a quality check should be executed during the project lifecycle varies by project. Often, there are several quality check events scheduled. Some projects will utilize a single quality check event to ensure quality before a Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) or system release to the customer. Typically, it is a good idea to perform a quality check activity during the early stages of system configuration. Catching errors early on can be a great way to increase efficiency while reducing costs. In the end - regardless of many quality checks there may be - it is essential to perform the final quality check after all of the configuration has been completed.
3) Quality Checking Resource
It is critical that the person(s) performing the quality checking be unbiased. It's considered a best practice to use someone who was not intimate with the design or configuration of the system. The perspective from someone outside, who did not significantly contribute to the design or configuration can be fresh and insightful, often illuminating errors that would not have been seen by someone who has been immersed in the development of the system.
4) Quality Check Documentation/Process
During the quality checking it's important to have the latest copy of all applicable design documentation. These documents provide the standard to which the system will be tested.
Some additional tips:
Including these four steps in your next integration project will help to ensure a top quality project that always meets - and often exceeds - expectations.
Part of the manufacturing of integrated circuits requires laying down a layer of conductive material that connects the various devices that have been created on the wafer. Since the dimensions of the components on the wafer are extremely small, any extraneous particles in the conductive material can be detrimental, causing a significant reduction in conductivity and final part quality, and therefore, removing the particles is imperative.
As part of an automation project for a chemical company that makes products associated with these conductive materials, one of the more challenging requirements necessitated creating a method to get data from a Liquid Particle Counter via a standard port into the company’s DeltaV Distributed Control System (DCS).
Since the Liquid Particle Counter didn’t use an industry standard communication protocol, a custom solution to acquiring the data was needed. Although several options were explored to get data from the Liquid Particle Counter into DeltaV, the eventual solution took into account Avid Solutions’ process of Outcome-Based Engineering (OBE).
One method that was considered, was to develop custom code that would run in a serial module in the DeltaV rack. Although this would have been satisfactory in this unique application, investigating the customer’s future needs showed that a more flexible solution was needed. The solution that we implemented, involved using the Kepware U-CON driver, running on a DeltaV application station, which provided the tools to communicate with the Liquid Particle Counter, and any future devices that might also need to be pulled into the DCS.
Since the distance from the DeltaV application station to the Liquid Particle Counter exceeded the maximum distance for a standard port, we installed an Ethernet converter from Digi International. It looked like a COM port to the Kepware driver, but could send serial information over the control system’s existing Ethernet infrastructure.
Prior to this automation, the client relied on an operator to transfer data on particle counts from the Liquid Particle Counter’s custom software application running on a standalone PC. Now, by continually monitoring the particle count in the DCS, the system can immediately adjust to correct high counts, thereby ensuring a high quality finished product that meets the end user’s needs. Also, the particle count for each batch is now saved and historized in the company’s Historian software, providing the ability to show that the batch meets the end user’s quality requirements.
The success of the Liquid Particle Counter integration into DeltaV via the Kepware U-CON and Ethernet connection, has led the client to request similar solutions in other areas. We are currently gathering data from barcode scanners and additional Liquid Particle Counters. One of the key achievements of these projects is the ability to pull non-industry standard protocols into an industry standard control system. This ability can be replicated not only for this client but also for other industries across variety of areas.
Companies once approved new plant automation systems simply to maintain up-to-date computer and instrumentation systems. But with today’s tight budgets, you now need to define a clear return on investment to win approval for your automation or information solutions upgrade.
Since operations personnel typically own the daily use of these new systems, it’s easy to identify ROI examples from their perspective. When you’re looking for improved cash flows and formulating cost justifications for your next project, use these four variables in evaluating the expected reduced operating costs of new automation systems.
1. Better Situational Awareness Boosts Revenues
Newer graphical control systems typically increase situational awareness. This allows the operator to correct adverse conditions more quickly and improve plant safety. But safety may be hard to quantify. You can calculate more direct positive impacts of improved situational awareness in terms of increased plant throughput. When corrective actions to process conditions are executed faster due to increased situational awareness, plant throughout, and thus plant revenues, are positively affected.
2. New Systems Support Knowledge Retention
As aging workers retire, they take their operations and maintenance expertise with them. Because companies are reluctant to train new employees on legacy systems, that knowledge is simply lost. By updating their systems, operations teams can improve their ability to make changes and systems enhancements. Newer systems also attract younger technical employees who want to work on state-of-the-art equipment. Companies benefit from greater knowledge retention and a more efficient hiring process.
3. Improved Batch Consistency Increases Overall Throughput
Legacy systems often impede batch consistency. For instance, a long and complex manufacturing process that involves manual steps may be susceptible to errors. Or perhaps aging operators have streamlined their individual process runs based on intuition and experience, but younger employees can’t duplicate their success. By implementing a fully automated system with a data historian, companies can improve batch consistency and reduce errors, thereby increasing throughput per annum.
4. Centralized Control Requires Fewer Operators
Older systems may rely on several separate control systems that require numerous operators throughout the plant. Implementing a centralized control system reduces the number of control room operators needed. This frees up manpower for other maintenance and troubleshooting tasks, which in turn streamlines operations and helps combat attrition.
Many facilities run on antiquated and inefficient control systems. This means that maintenance teams often struggle to support the plant’s outdated hardware and software, and corporate engineers have trouble accommodating the disparate legacy systems in use at different sites. When key staff can’t make informed operation and maintenance decisions because the company lacks the systems needed to gather, maintain, and analyze the necessary data - overall efficiency and revenues suffer.
If this sounds familiar, you likely need to write an automation or information systems upgrade proposal. In this new white paper, we’ve outlined the key financial justifications you’ll want to consider and included a formulaic approach you can use to calculate the quantitative ROI of a plant system upgrade.
Demonstrate ROI for Industrial Automation Improvements
Successful project proposals today focus more on demonstrating a clear return on investment (ROI) and less on conveying the perceived benefits of updating to the most current platform. To write effective capital improvement requests, you need to explore and then demonstrate the ROI of upgrading your automation and information systems.
The goal of the project proposal should not be to compare and contrast new systems versus existing legacy systems, but to compare and contrast project investments and their associated gains. In general, these cash flows represent either reduced cost or increased revenue and can center around a number of plant areas, including:
Your Next Automation or Information System Upgrade: Define ROI to Win Approval explores each of these areas in detail, providing both analysis of different ROI scenarios and real-world examples of the ROI benefits that automation and information systems can provide. Written for operations managers, process controls engineers, and corporate engineers, our paper guides you through the process of evaluating the anticipated ROI on your capital improvement project and provides a formulaic approach and actionable steps to help you write a winning project proposal.
“SIs are responsible for system designs, and like it or not, security is a part of every system.”
– Jeff Shearer, Principal Security Architect for Rockwell Automation.
For the last several months, we’ve had the privilege of working with Jeff Shearer, one of a handful of genuine security experts with deep knowledge of industrial control systems. Jeff brings an outlook to security that is very much in line with Avid’s philosophy: it’s not just about avoiding problems. It’s a part of a holistic approach to understanding and documenting all automation assets, an approach that can uncover opportunities to improve performance, save money, and reduce risk of all kinds. You can read more at Automation World magazine this month: Justifying Cybersecurity: 3 Ways That Pay for Themselves. This is a part of the Control System Integrator Association’s (CSIA) guest blog series. We highly recommend the entire series.
We understand the importance of adopting security best practices in everything we do. We must protect our own systems and other assets in order to protect our customers. Just as security does not exist in a vacuum, efforts to improve security are best accomplished as part of overall system design and maintenance. Why not make security a part of a comprehensive system audit? In addition to finding ways to prevent attacks, you may also uncover processing bottlenecks, network loading issues, issues with spare parts, and much more. For the vast majority of system owners, an audit will end up saving much more than the cost. Peace of mind is just frosting on the cake.
What topic would you like to see us tackle in our next Automation World post? Feel free to let us know in the comments below.
A few days ago, we heard a story about solving engineering problems and the tendency to over engineer a solution. The story was along the lines of:
A toothpaste factory was occasionally shipping boxes without the tube inside.
Understanding how important this was to customer satisfaction, management hired an external engineering company to solve the empty boxes problem. Six months and thousands of dollars later they had a practical solution, on time and on budget.
They solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound an alarm whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. An arm would push the empty into a reject bin past the scale. Problem solved!
But three weeks later, the Chief Engineer for product quality mentioned that the number of defects picked up by the scales had fallen to zero. Puzzled, management traveled to the factory to inspect the installation. A few feet before the scales, someone had placed a $20 desk fan on a table and pointed it at the conveyor belt. As they watched, an empty box came down the line, and the fan blew it off the belt and into a bin.
"Oh that," replied one of the workers when queried. "One of the guys put it there because he was tired of hearing the alarm."
Albert Einstein had a maxim that "everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." As engineers solving complex problems, we can forget this very important point and end up with very complex solutions to simple problems. Both Occam's razor, the equivalent of the law of succinctness, and the KISS principle ask that we offer the simplest solution or explanation when we solve problems. The KISS principle, according to the author of the acronym, stands for "Keep It Simple Stupid," with the "Stupid" referring to how things can go wrong when applying unnecessary complexity.
As we solve problems in a high technology field, we want to continue to ask the question, "Can this be accomplished with a more elegant or simple solution?" In the aforementioned story, the engineering company solved the problem with a very high tech solution but missed three crucial steps in their project to arrive at the solution.
Initially, they forgot KISS and Einstein's maxim and pushed forward with a high precision scale solution where a simple fan would have been sufficient. Secondly, and more importantly, they forgot to talk in detail with the operators of the equipment. The operator who installed the fan had infinitely more experience with the process, giving him a much different view of how to solve the empty box problem. Anytime we are automating one piece of a process or retrofitting a complete system, the operators are a key resource for ideas about system improvement, simplification, and optimization. They operate the equipment and processes on a daily basis, giving them a very detailed knowledge of how the system should operate.
Lastly, the engineering company failed to ask the most important question - what is causing empty boxes in the first place? While both solutions keep the boxes from getting to the customer, solving the real problem would do even more for the company by saving the waste generated from every empty box (energy, time, reprocessing, etc.). Don't treat the symptoms, treat the cause.
Our engineering team regularly reviews processes for our customers, looking for optimization potential. Part of this review includes an interview with several operators for their point of view on potential optimizations within the process. We look forward to the opportunity to review your plant processes for cost reductions or production improvements and to interview the experts, your operators.
As is often the case in Pharmaceutical controls, a struggle exists to successfully integrate the recipe systems of the master control system with those of OEM skids. More often than not, this is one of the most difficult areas to homogenize within a given process. When you factor in that a given process line may have multiple skids from multiple vendors, the problem compounds itself even more. This may be a scenario that your facility has had, or is still struggling with.
Although there are an infinite number of ways to integrate the systems, one of the least difficult methods is that of "recipe matching". Recipe matching involves either "pushing" a given recipe down from the master control system or "pulling" a recipe up from the OEM skid and comparing the two electronically. When the recipes are compared, any differences can be either flagged as a mismatch or recorded as a process override depending on your needs and validation requirements. Since this comparison can be made multiple times during the process, it allows for initial preset matching as well as the recording of local field changes or in-process updates. A hidden benefit is that it allows your OEM equipment to run standalone, in a non-GMP manner, for maintenance and testing activities.
When applied in conjunction with a facilities electronic reporting system, recipe matching can be a great way to seamlessly integrate third party "islands of automation" into a centralized and cohesive control system. Strategies like this allow you, the end user, to leverage the most from your preferred vendors while maintaining ease of operation within your facility.
We have the expertise and experience to evaluate and apply these control methodologies as well as others to your new or existing control system. We welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion with you at your facility.