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Control engineers are back in charge

Who makes the automation decisions in your company? Is it the plant manager, the control engineer, the process engineer, or the manufacturing engineer? Or is it the MIS department, the IT department, or even the ceo?A growing number of automation suppliers are telling us that more automation decisions are being made in the board room, at the highest levels of the company.

By Jane S. Gerold, Editorial Director November 1, 1998

Who makes the automation decisions in your company? Is it the plant manager, the control engineer, the process engineer, or the manufacturing engineer? Or is it the MIS department, the IT department, or even the ceo?

A growing number of automation suppliers are telling us that more automation decisions are being made in the board room, at the highest levels of the company. Automation systems are becoming integrated with companies’ business strategies, from production and inventory control to asset management and the corporate intranet.

While integration is a good thing, it begs the question, are we in danger of automating from the top-down, rather than from the plant-floor up? “When IS reaches down to grab data from the plant floor, it’s a mess,” says George Sarney, president and coo of Siebe Intelligent Automation. “Rather, companies are realizing that the real-time world is the foundation for automation and ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems.”

This is good news! Rather than being the last to the party, control engineers are called to provide real-time data as the backbone for business optimization systems. Feeding data from the bottom-up, rather than top-down, ensures accurate, timely information delivery to process and business systems.

The odd couple

The challenge comes about in trying to get all parties involved in the automation decision to work together and speak the same language. As Dr. Sarney puts it, “Often, IS and the control engineer come to the party as the odd couple.” Since control engineers “own” real-time data, their expertise is necessary in framing the overall manufacturing and business architecture for the enterprise.

Control engineers need to recognize how this data can be used to meet the enterprise business goals. These goals, as outlined by Dr. Sarney and other leading experts, include developing systems that:

  • Increase productivity;

  • Speed throughput;

  • Maximize availability;

  • Improve quality:and,

  • Increase asset turnover;

You may be asking yourself, “How does a PID loop or a well-executed logic program translate into increased asset turnover?” At last month’s ISA Expo in Houston, process automation suppliers demonstrated systems that link plant-floor control and business systems. Solutions include everything from a turnkey Year 2000 “tune-up” kit, to asset management systems, to distributed “control-in-the-field” instrumentation.

These solutions employ technologies based on commercial standards, such as Ethernet, TCP/IP, PCs, Microsoft platforms, object technologies, and the Internet. Here, at last, is common ground with IT folks. Commercial information technologies provide control engineers with means to move real-time data seamlessly throughout the enterprise. Automation and business systems will soon use the same interfaces, maybe even the same objects, to share data and information.

Improved interfaces, in and of themselves, do not make better control, but they do make better business systems. And the newest wave of fieldbus solutions, in which control functions can be distributed among controllers and field instruments, have the potential to improve the control strategy itself.

Whether you work in a Fortune 500 company or a start-up manufacturing plant, your business depends on real-time data. And as the old adage goes, garbage in…garbage out.

Author Information
Jane S. Gerold, Editorial Director, jgerold@cahners.com