Consistency and Flexibility Top Batch Control Needs

Control Engineering partnered with two prominent companies in the process control industry to conduct the latest research in the batch control market. Of the 1,500 people polled, 30% gave us the scoop on what goes on in the various batch control arenas today. According to the results of the "Control Engineering Batch Control Survey," engineers aren't wandering very far away from the m...

By Michael Drakulich, Control Engineering November 1, 1998
  • Process control & instrumentation

  • Batch control

  • Enterprise resource planning

  • Conrol Software

Control Engineering partnered with two prominent companies in the process control industry to conduct the latest research in the batch control market. Of the 1,500 people polled, 30% gave us the scoop on what goes on in the various batch control arenas today. According to the results of the ” Control Engineering Batch Control Survey,” engineers aren’t wandering very far away from the multiple processes they oversee. They’re clamoring for more consistency in operations, managing more sites, and many are not aware of standards that may make their jobs easier.

Survey goals

The survey was conducted in partnership with Sequencia Corp. (formerly PID, Phoenix, Ariz.) and Rockwell Automation/Allen-Bradley (Mayfield Heights, O.). The purpose was to define the batch market and its users’ needs to influence the development of products and services to help satisfy those needs. The scope is comprehensive, focusing on the subjects most pertinent to the industry’s practitioners. Areas covered were:

  • Industry background

  • Use of ISA S88.01

  • System integrators

  • Automation system(s) used

  • Integration with business systems, and

  • Purchasing decisions

Where in the industry are we?

The survey first established baseline information by asking from where in the process industry the readers were responding. The majority of the survey’s respondents come from the chemical industry (46%), followed by food and beverage (23%), and pharmaceuticals (12%).

The second question asked what the three greatest challenges they face on the job are. The need for consistency, and flexibility in changing products were easily the top two responses. Budgets, safety, training, and validation all nearly tied for the third spot on the list. Validation’s position may be associated with the relatively small percentage of respondents in the pharmaceutical and food industries, where validation is required to meet FDA regulations. Validation is not so prevalent in the chemical industry.

As challenging as their jobs may be, batch engineers remain masters of their domains. Sixty-two percent report that batch automation decisions are made right on the plant floor instead of the corporate level.

Since consistency poses the greatest challenge to our readers, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that 72% of automated batch operations report “considerable/significant operator intervention” is needed to maintain product and operational consistency. Even with an overwhelming need to manually monitor processes, engineers aren’t necessarily falling out of love with automation. The majority of engineers/operators remain committed to automated solutions. One indicator was the previously mentioned desire for respondents to have flexibility with product changeover, which would allow them to continue improving their processes by improving equipment. Further affirmation of automation’s value to batch processes was the 60% that claimed automation has paid off; 10% expressed dissatisfaction with their automation projects.

What we are being asked to do

The processes engineers are monitoring and operating are complex, with 53% indicating their companies manufacture multiple products with multiple grades of each. This demand for versatility has prompted 55% of facilities to implement systems that define specific paths their batches take before they start, but implementing path and unit decision making while the batch is in process hasn’t quite caught on yet. Only 17% of the respondents’ plants have that capability.

Aside from focusing on more complex jobs, engineers have more of them to do. Nearly half (43%) manage processes at more than six sites, with 17% of them responsible for 10-19 sites. And not only are the number of sites increasing, the number of different systems our respondents must manage is high, not surprising since OEMs tend to make products for niche markets within the process industry. Eighty-seven percent say they’re managing two to four different automated systems.

What specific equipment is being used for batch control? For PLC and/or DCS purchases, Allen-Bradley is the overwhelming favorite, while Modicon, Honeywell and Fisher-Rosemount are also widely used (see bar graph). Upgrading equipment generated a wide variety of opinion. Equal popularity exists at both ends of the spectrum. Twenty-eight percent indicate they perform continuous upgrades while an almost equal number (26%) say they only upgrade every five years. The next largest group are the 19% who upgrade every two years.

Adding fuel to the already fiery debate of open vs. proprietary systems, respondents were next asked what type of systems are more likely to need upgrading. Forty-nine percent say open systems are more likely to be upgraded while 38% say proprietary systems are.

With operators having to preside over several different systems, and supervise upgrades, it would be reasonable to expect widespread adoption of ISA’s S88.01 standard. Designed to formulate common practices and a universal language everyone can speak that spans multiple proprietary batch automation systems, S88.01 hasn’t been a huge success with Control Engineering ‘s survey respondents. Surprisingly, 48% of those polled haven’t even heard of the ISA specification, and only 25% believe it is important to them. Even fewer (14%) respondents use the equivalent of S88’s General or Site recipes.

We want automation, but how?

It’s not enough to answer just “what” and “why,” it’s also “who” that’s important, as in “who did the readers trust to design and implement their automation solutions?” Using both system integrators and in-house engineers together looks to be the preferred practice. Only 13% say their companies hired system integrators exclusively. Twenty-eight percent stayed with in-house engineers, while the majority of automation design and implementation projects (53%) are completed using a combination of both. Of no surprise at all is the majority’s criteria for hiring a system integrator, preferring those that are experienced, skilled at develop-ing detailed specifications, provide implementation and testing, and are staffed to provide training, installation, and on-site post-project support. System integrators that have experience in similar-sized projects are also more desirable than those having batch-related skills.

Enterprise system integration

Whether integrating automation systems with business systems is a necessity or not is arguable. While the debate pushes on, business system integration with automation is nevertheless gaining incremental acceptance. An increasingly strong demand for product accountability may have prompted roughly half of all who replied to the survey to say their company will integrate a business system with their automation projects within the next three years. Of the companies planning integration, 54% haven’t yet established an implementation strategy, where 40% have.

Leading the list of most-used business systems is SAP with a 33% share, followed by Oracle (18%) and Marcam (7%).

When it came time to select a ven dor to help with the integrating of business with automation, respondents valued as very important or extremely important batch vendor support and service, followed by batch vendor experience, cost, and interoperablity and openness.

While most incumbent politicians seeking re-election would be happy with an approval rating of 60%, the 60% of batch engineers happy with automation want more consistency from their systems. With versatility and time-to-market two of the most important business factors when getting a product out, consistency plays a vital role in an industry typically fraught with inconsistency. So, the people have spoken, have they been heard?