ARC forum discussions reflect changing operations/IT paradigm

Following a day's worth of conversations, a visitor to ARC Advisory Group's 12th annual Orlando Forum might be justified in having concluded: 1) Corporate IT departments have become the “decider” when it comes to plant operations solutions; and 2) the shortage of plant engineering skills is becoming increasingly severe.


Following a day's worth of conversations, a visitor to ARC Advisory Group 's 12th annual Orlando Forum might be justified in having concluded: 1) Corporate IT departments have become the “decider” when it comes to plant operations solutions; and 2) the shortage of plant engineering skills is becoming increasingly severe. In fact, the two developments are quite probably related.

“Companies are managing across regions, and integrating from the enterprise down,” says Jack Bolick, president, Honeywell Process Solutions . “Reasons include variation in available resources on the one hand—switching from light to heavy crude oil in refineries or switching to recycled paper in mills, for example—and variation in demand based on product proliferation.”

For automation vendors serving the process industries, recent times have been good because of expanding international markets. A number of them can point to IT-related initiatives, wireless, and the benefits of integration.

One such vendor, Aspen Technology , says it has emerged from the troubles that plagued it in recent years, including a buying spree whereby numerous associated technologies were acquired but never merged into a coherent product or execution strategy. Gregory Howard, VP of product marketing, says CEO Mark Fusco has made the tough decisions needed to streamline the product portfolio and organizational structure, by, for example, consolidating development centers from 18 to three.

“We're back in the game now,” says Howard, “with 20-percent top-line and bottom-line growth based on 10-percent industry growth. We are providers of integrated process optimization for manufacturing and supply chain.”

The power of integration, says Howard, is best exemplified by Aspen Technology's model-based approach, a rigorous physics-based interpretation that persists as process manufacturers design, operate, and maintain a production process.

In production, for example, the model “interacts” with Aspen Technology's advanced process control systems, allowing comparison of real versus expected results. The model can likewise influence supply chain planning decisions.

Aspen Technology is on the cusp of announcing greater use of Microsoft technology in several areas.

“It's no longer an “engineering cowboy” world,” says Howard. “IT needs to deploy and maintain these products, and a lot of the work we're doing mirrors that, including use of Microsoft virtualization, Vista compliance, and a simulation workbook that extends Excel for our users.”

Gearing to grow

David Johnson, president and CEO of Yokogawa Corp. of America , says he's been tasked with making the company the No. 1 process-industry automation vendor in North America by 2012.

While the growing engineering-skills shortage is a challenge, says Johnson, it's also an opportunity for Yokogawa. Its global resources “can be applied to helping companies make better use of automation based on more than 20,000 distributed control system projects.”

In early February, Yokogawa introduced CENTUM VP, a unified platform for process control, production and information management, and maintenance. A single, real-time database across those functions eliminates the inherent gaps and latencies that result when a patchwork of disparate systems accomplish the same tasks. Change management, for example, can be especially streamlined.

Wireless developments

In the last several years, major automation vendors have introduced products for wireless monitoring of the I/O and field devices used in process control. Just as important, they've introduced solutions for managing the wireless networks that result.

Last year, Emerson Process Management brought forward a solution that combines wireless HART network technology and measurement transmitters with the means for device management and systems integration.

Such self-organizing mesh networks route data via radio-signal pathways that overcome obstructions or interference because each point “passes on” signals emanating from other points, meaning the signal can “go around” an obstruction.

Since then, Invensys Process Systems and Honeywell Process Solutions released their latest solutions. Another vendor, Apprion , which specializes in industrial wireless infrastructure, has come out with a second generation of its solutions.

Perhaps the most challenging hurdle in reducing total cost of ownership (TCO) is a continued focus on short-term cost reductions at the expense of higher overall costs over the long term—an issue not just of leadership, but also of poorly designed performance measurement systems.

Industry veterans at the ARC conference were delighted to note that Mike Bradley, former president of operations software vendor Wonderware , has joined Apprion as CEO. Like Yokogowa's Johnson, Bradley's mandate, he says, is to grow the business, including the “applications, industries, and geographies” impacted by the new possibilities inherent in industrial wireless.

Bradley sees wireless as a way of “bridging” IT onto the plant floor.

“Surveys show that today's biggest challenge in plants is finding skilled workers,” says Bradley. “We're giving them tools to be more productive by integrating existing applications in new and different ways. By means of wireless, asset information, VoIP, and video will be delivered to the plant floor.”

One indication at the forum of compelling interest in industrial wireless was the overflow attendance at an Emerson Process Systems luncheon, featuring presentations on the subject.

Across the board, vendors are stressing the need for plant operations solutions that eschew the last vestiges of things like ladder logic, and use IT-familiar metaphors in their application interfaces. With comparatively expensive engineering skills difficult to hold on to, and IT skills relatively available and affordable, could it really be any different?

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