Explore controls up front to improve profits

Exploring and defining desirable controls early in a project cycle, more time is afforded to take advantage of creative ideas, thereby enhancing both productivity and profitability while reducing potential for errors that could jeopardize both. Controls are critical to any project in six main ways.

06/12/2015


Balancing productivity and quality with the labor and unit cost is the key to improving profits in an engineering project. Courtesy: Mark Goldstein and Rich RylandCreativity is the fulcrum point of what design control engineers do. By exploring and defining desirable controls early in a project cycle, more time is afforded to take advantage of creative ideas, thereby enhancing productivity and profitability while reducing potential for errors that could jeopardize both.

While the engineering staff decides on the building, utility system, access, and other aspects, control engineers remain focused on the project's "controls" needs. Why? Controls are critical to the operation and profitability of any process or manufacturing project. This approach is "thinking inside the box."

Top-down approach to a project cycle

The approach should be both top-down and bottom-up. The first step in a top-down approach is to consider where automation systems can impact the production system. Automation systems, in general, will impact the production system in six areas:

  1. Profit. Automation systems can increase profits directly by reducing the required labor to complete repetitive tasks.
  2. Productivity. Automation systems can boost productivity by increasing the throughput of the manufacturing system through the optimization of each section of the manufacturing process and maintaining a consistent throughput.
  3. Quality. Automation systems can improve quality through more consistent manufacturing processes with more repeatable control limits, which will reduce out-of-tolerance products and help to maintain production goals.
  4. Regulatory compliance and reporting. Automation systems can help to automate the data collection required to meet regulatory compliance and reporting requirements and can dramatically reduce the time required to submit a report in the event of a compliance issue.
  5. Security. Automation systems, when designed correctly, can provide a secure environment to share information with the benefit of integrating all aspects of the manufacturing process.
  6. Safety. Automation systems properly integrated with safety systems can significantly improve employee safety without sacrificing production, productivity, or profitability. Since manufacturers are held liable for providing a "safe working" environment, automation is often a huge plus in improving industrial safety.  

Bottom-up approach to a project cycle

In an example of a "bottom-up" approach, a controls engineer had a discussion with a client on establishing a human machine interface (HMI) color protocol. The discussion revealed that "red" meant that a pump was running and also that a valve was closed. The client was not satisfied with the standard, and the controls engineer corrected such issues in future projects.

A second bottom-up approach example involves a very large (>$500 million) greenfield project. An HMI standard was written to ensure all of the equipment manufacturer's screens followed the same protocols, regardless of which HMI software was used. Items such as equipment tag names, colors, screen types, abbreviations, fonts, login procedures, and other parameters were addressed. This process involved hours of collaboration with the client's 10 stakeholders with such details as how tag names were to be configured. Using this approach saved many hours of project rework and helped ensure safe plant operation.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) also need to be involved in the automation standards discussion. If not, each piece of OEM equipment will be stand-alone without connection to the information side of automated systems. OEM equipment not connected or integrated properly will likely reduce profitability and production.

These are a few of the benefits of involving controls engineers in the up-front discussions and programming sessions on projects. Well-designed and integrated automation may reduce personnel and resource loading, increase industrial safety, and produce items that could otherwise not be made without it.

Traditionally, greenfield projects are designed with priority placed on the high-cost items such as steel, concrete, utilities, roads, permitting, and large pieces of OEM-supplied equipment. Often the last item addressed is the automation or process control system design. Automation is generally less than 15% of the capital project cost yet has an 85% to 90% impact on the success and profitability of the manufacturing plant. An improperly designed automation system will ultimately add labor and time to correct such shortcomings. Since the largest single cost to manufacturing is often labor, this may significantly impact profitability of the project. Early exploration of the automation system provides the greatest opportunity to reduce the staff needed for the production process.

Proper control system designs impact projects from construction to the cost of operation and maintenance of the plant and throughout the entire production life cycle. Control engineers would be negligent to not offer their controls expertise at the onset of any project where the benefits are greatest and most advantageous.

- Mark Goldstein, P.E., is the manager for Controls and Automation for Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon Inc. and Rich Ryland is a senior account manager with Rockwell Automation; edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, digital project manager, Control Engineering, asamarxhiu@cfemedia.com

Key concepts

  • The top-down approach in project lifecycle is to consider where automation systems can impact the production system.
  • Well-designed and integrated automation may reduce personnel and resource loading, increase industrial safety, and produce items that could otherwise not be made without it.
  • Proper control system designs impact projects from construction to the cost of operation as well as maintenance of the plant throughout the production life cycle.

Consider this

What do you take into account when designing controls for a project?

ONLINE extra

View Control Engineering's 2014 System Integration study, which indicates that system integrators should be involved earlier in the project lifecycle.

- See related stories on increasing productivity and profitability below.



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