Analysis: Processors living with variability

By Control Engineering Staff December 5, 2007

During a recent visit to Control Engineering’s offices, Jack Bolick, president of Honeywell Process Solutions had a few minutes to record a podcast with our editorial director, Marc Moschetto. While the whole podcast is interesting, Bolick made a particularly interesting point about a new set of problems that he sees process producers facing in all verticals. The two issues are unrelated, but they compound to make life more complicated.

First, he notes that producers are having to deal with higher levels of variability in raw materials and feedstocks. He says an obvious example of this is an oil refinery where many operators hardly know where the next shipment of crude is coming from, or what characteristics it will have. The same issue applies to many less visible industries, including pulp & paper where producers often don’t know what fibers in a given batch will be like due to changing waste streams.

Second, he notes that the nature of demand for finished products is changing with an ever growing range of variations of many products. Others have made similar observations citing food processing and pharmaceutical manufacturing as very visible examples. How many kinds of pain relievers or soft drinks are available today compared to 10 or 20 years ago?

Creating a wider range of high quality products with less predictable raw materials can certainly put a strain on producers, manufacturing systems, and automation platforms. There is little reason to expect that the situation will improve given the massive redistribution of resources and manufacturing throughout the world.

Needless to say, there is no single answer to this problem. The extent of either side depends on a given industry segment and processes involved. One thing is for sure: The role of manufacturing control and supporting automation will only become more critical. Producers that can’t respond and adjust will find themselves under increasing pressure and could ultimately collapse. This may force retirement of older automation platforms that do not feature the necessary versatility or support process optimization. When suppliers and customers are both causing stress, you need an automation platform that is capable of helping you cope, regardless of who supplies it.

Do you see these problems in your situation? Or, do you face a different set of problems? How are you coping with the rapidly changing manufacturing field? Send me an email (link below) and give me your opinion. I’d like to hear what you have to say.


Check out the complete catalog of Control Engineering podcasts.

—Peter Welander, process industries editor, PWelander@cfemedia.com ,
Control Engineering Weekly News

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