Commentary: You can lead a horse to automation…

Many companies simply don’t seem to see the point of adding appropriate extensions to automation systems in day-to-day operation. Is it just personal inertia, or really not seeing a value? Shouldn’t the recession change the analysis?


Two years ago, I wrote a blog posting in response to various technology providers suggesting that the availability of transmitter devices made under the new Wireless HART standard would prompt more plants to use the diagnostics available from HART enabled devices, and maybe even larger asset management systems (AMSs). I asked if that was likely to happen, because it seemed that there were enough ways to do that without wireless. Was there any reason to think adding wireless capability would encourage people to make the move to a higher level of sophistication?

Two readers responded to that posting, one quite recently. Both made the point that many plants don’t use HART diagnostics because their people simply don’t see the value. The writers suggested a certain cynicism about getting plant management and operators to change their thinking.

One said, “I worked for a large oil company that put HART AMS in three or four chemical plants, using HART muxes. Some plants had good success stories to tell (I believe one was‘HART Plant of the Year’), but most saw little improvement. I think they kept doing what they always did, which didn't involve using all the HART capabilities. I suspect if you gave these plants the same info via wireless, the result would be about the same.”

And another said, “I guess the major question I have is what is the information extracted from HART devices used for? Does it hold the ability to increase operations that drive value? Does it limit risk? Can it increase efficiency? From the prior comment, it seems like it can add value if implemented and utilized, but as he also articulates, this seldom happens.”

While I’ll admit that part of my reason for being here is to help advance technology within our subscriber industries, there are times when I have to ask what the point is to some new capability. For example, it is difficult to argue that an operating plant should replace large populations of hard-wired instrumentation with a fieldbus, assuming that instrumentation is performing reasonably well. On the other hand, when proven improvements can be made at relatively low cost and without disruptions, why do so many companies seem resistant?

Using HART data is a prime example. If you have devices with HART connectivity, you can gather that information easily using wired or wireless devices, and not disrupt your existing operation. The ability to gather and use the information can support significant improvements in asset management and maintenance practices. That has been demonstrated time and time again.

However, some look at the evidence and refuse to act because it requires behavioral change at some level. They look at the situation and decide they do not want to see a value, so they don’t. Maintain the status quo . End of discussion. Now, what’s for lunch?

While our current economic downturn has mitigated many of the resource cost increases of last year, it is dangerous to think that this reprieve will be permanent. Globalization—with its relentless competitiveness—is here to stay. Resource demand and costs will climb again. A recession is a time to make all the efficiency improvements you can, and that includes improved automation. Successful companies will be those that can continue lean production practices when business recovers. Look again for efficiency. Expect to find value and you probably will.

Read earlier articles:

Wired HART techniques

HART via wireless

—Peter Welander, process industries editor,
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