My plant is running just fine

Please don’t talk to me about technologies and work practices that can improve my plant performance. I can’t stand the idea of disrupting my current situation with anything new even if it is better.


fineadj. – Satisfactory; acceptable

“So, how is the plant running?”

“Just fine.”

With all of the progress we’ve made in technology, process engineering, safety and abnormal situation management, we have little to show for it in the process industries. Where did we go off track and what can we do about it? How do we insist that “satisfactory; acceptable” is not good enough.

Engineering workforce

Not too long ago, production companies had buildings full of engineers who were working tirelessly on new techniques and new ways to optimize their processes. This required a lot of investment, but, as a result, many plants ran beyond what was thought capable, and experienced truly great operations. Fast forward to today where we are on the backside of a recession that cut to the bone and are experiencing a demographic shift as those engineers retire. We now have a lot of engineers and facilities in merely a “break/fix” mode. Keeping the plant safely running and making product is the goal. A plant that is running just fine means you keep your job. There is little bandwidth for worrying about how to make the plant run great.

HMI techniques

In addition, we have a shift in HMI techniques that could exacerbate the problem. I’m a huge proponent of Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) guidelines and some of the newer high-performance graphics methods, but we’re dangerously close to going overboard, especially at the highest Level 1 graphics. By definition, ASM only highlights abnormal and dangerous situations, but how do we highlight inefficiencies and suboptimal operation in the process?

Let’s say a really good operator is able to improve process performance by a couple of percentage points, which translates to a lot of money for the plant. Would the operator be able to see and quantify that improvement, or would it simply be lost in the noise of the bar graph?Take an example of a Level 1 overview of the process illustrated. This dashboard is meant to highlight any dangerous conditions the operator needs to address, but that’s really all it shows. Let’s say a really good operator is able to improve process performance by a couple of percentage points, which translates to a lot of money for the plant. Would the operator be able to see and quantify that improvement, or would it simply be lost in the noise of the bar graph? The information presented by this dashboard is no better than what an operator would have seen 30 years ago on a panel board. That’s progress? We must ensure that the difference between running fine and running great is clearly presented to the operator, and that’s not going to happen through a series of bar graphs or radar plots.

Advanced process control

The APC industry has added to this growing problem as well. In an effort to build the bigger and better APC engine, we’ve created tools that continue to improve on the mathematics, but continue to lack widespread acceptance in all industries. Bigger and better on paper does not necessarily translate to better on the plant floor. Facilities that cannot afford the upkeep and manpower for dedicated APC packages choose to not implement them instead. Having said that, there is a move toward more user-friendly and lower maintenance APC solutions including DCS-resident MPC, and advanced regulatory control. I have yet to see a facility that could not be improved by some sort of APC technique, so we must continue to make APC approachable, implementable, understandable, and affordable to all process facilities.

I challenge engineers and operators alike to re-think the idea that just fine is the new normal. Gone are the days of buildings full of senior engineers dedicated to unit operations, and instead we have a much leaner and nimble model. Let’s always look for additional opportunities to improve the process, and ensure that we empower operations consistently to have plants that run great.

This post was written by Chad Harper. Chad is a senior director of technology at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from industrial cyber security to HMI systems design and remote facility management. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.

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