Exploring controls upfront is key to profitability

By 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.

By Mark Goldstein and Rich Ryland September 29, 2014

Creativity 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 both 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. We refer to this approach as "thinking inside the box."

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 the following areas:

Profit. Automation systems can directly increase profits by reducing the required labor to complete repetitive tasks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Next, let’s look at 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" not only meant that a pump was running but also meant that a valve was closed. The client was not satisfied with the standard, and therefore, the controls engineer was able to correct such issues in future projects.

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

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) need to also be involved in the automation standards discussion. If not, each OEM’s piece of equipment will be stand-alone and therefore not connected to the information side of automated systems. OEM equipment not connected or integrated properly will likely result in reduction of both profitability and production.

In summary, there are numerous benefits to involving controls engineers in the up-front discussions and programming sessions on projects. Well-designed and integrated automation may reduce manpower/resource loading, increase personnel 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.

About the authors:

Mark Goldstein, P.E. is the Manager for Controls and Automation for Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, Inc. (BWSC). He received his Chemical Engineering degree at the University of Missouri – Rolla. Barge Waggoner is a multi-disciplinary engineering and architecture firm that provides services to industrial and building markets. The automation and controls group delivers industrial automation controls consulting, design, programming, and commissioning services to clients in diverse industrial markets including tire manufacturing, food processing, chemicals, aluminum and steel production. Goldstein can be reached at mark.goldstein@bwsc.net 

Rich Ryland is a Sr. Account Manager with Rockwell Automation serving complex and large industrial accounts in the Chemicals, Paper, Carpet and US Government business segments. He received his Mechanical Engineering degree at the University of Texas Tech located in Lubbock. Following his graduation, Ryland joined Square D Company in Lubbock, TX and transferred to Knoxville, TN later in the same year. After three years with Square D, Ryland joined Rockwell Automation to pursue a career in industrial automation sales and continues to this day consulting and working with industrial customers. Ryland can be reached at rfryland@ra.rockwell.com