Globalizing Process Engineering

As we have come into the 21st century, the concepts of globalization and a flat world has been applied to virtually any topic related to manufacturing. One way it has been manifest in process industries has been the extent to which companies have deployed globally. It’s difficult to find a manufacturer of any size that does not have plants on different continents intended to move closer t...

By Peter Welander, Control Engineering April 1, 2008

Sidebars: Customer case history: Dow Chemical Customer case history: Alcoa

As we have come into the 21st century, the concepts of globalization and a flat world has been applied to virtually any topic related to manufacturing. One way it has been manifest in process industries has been the extent to which companies have deployed globally. It’s difficult to find a manufacturer of any size that does not have plants on different continents intended to move closer to raw materials, customers, or labor pools.

“It used to be that there were some closed societies within the former Soviet Union and China,” says Steven Garbrecht, director of product marketing for Wonderware. “Now things are opening up much more with the coming down of the Berlin Wall. It took a while for people to understand what it meant to ‘go global’ but now everything’s tied together. By creating control platform standardization, cross training is minimized as people move from site to site.”

Companies grow organically, by acquisition, through joint ventures, or in various combinations of those. They build new plants or buy existing facilities. While there are many ways to facilitate growth, one truth has emerged: There is a value in creating uniformity in those facilities.

When a process plant changes ownership or receives new management, those responsible for operations frequently find themselves having to accomplish many tasks simultaneously:

Increase, or at least maintain, current production output;

Benchmark existing capabilities, training levels, safety performance;

Analyze production constraints and bottlenecks;

Identify areas for efficiency gains; and

Bring internal reporting structures into line with existing enterprise level structures.

All of these are easier or at least clearer when there are established standards within a company.

From the plant up…

One way to begin the process is to start at the instrumentation and control level. Seeing what makes a working plant tick is the first step to implementing improvements. But at the same time, new owners normally don’t start making changes without good reasons.

“I don’t see a company replacing controls simply for the sake of putting in corporate standards,” says Melissa Smrdel, manager of commercial projects for Rockwell Automation’s process division. “In today’s business world, they would have to have another reason for putting in a project, whether it’s to increase quality, because a system is obsolete, to increase throughput, enable data collection, or some other driver to replace instrumentation or controls. Then, as they replace the system, they change to the standard at a corporate level.”

Do companies always see the benefits of standardization at the beginning? Not necessarily, Smrdel suggests: “Sometimes customers don’t set off to build uniformity on their own. Sometimes we lead them in that direction. Whether we’re leading or they’re pushing, there are a number of things that they’re looking for. At a plant level they’re looking at maintainability, so if they build standard modules in the code configuration or the graphics, and they use those same standards across the plant, it becomes easier to maintain.”

Choosing a point to begin depends on the next steps of the plan. For example, if the new owners plan to bring in experienced operators, the first step will likely be upgrading HMIs so those operators will be able to work with familiar tools. On the other hand, if the first issue is maintenance, the control layer will be at the top of the list.

Once standards are implemented, those areas should begin to see incremental benefits. Smrdel likes the term “reusable engineering,” and says that once parts of a control system work consistently, they are worth using again. “If you have a module for a valve, a pump, totalizer, or PID, you can use those same modules over and over because you know that they’re field proven. When you eliminate issues with individual modules, the start-up time is usually much faster.”

Constellation Energy has deployed Emerson’s Ovation control system extensively throughout its steam and combustion turbine plants in the Baltimore area. Bill Collins, senior control system analyst for the utility, explains what he has seen: “The greatest benefits gained were from the support aspect. A common platform keeps us from having to have single system specialists, which provides a larger talent force to rely on. It also provides a common user interface for operation, so we don’t have to learn how to control a unit with different operator interfaces.”

…or from the top down

Those who watch production from the enterprise level have different concerns. Yves DuFort, Wonderware director of manufacturing industry business development has seen the aftermath of a plant acquisition many times. He explains that when a new owner takes over, it has to deal with whatever control systems come with the facility.

“The issue is to get a common reporting structure normalized so they can have visibility throughout,” he says. “That visibility can be very granular at the equipment level and very aggregated at the planning level. This spectrum between granular and aggregated determines all those integration points. The more integration points there are, the more value there is in standardizing and normalizing the systems.

“The first day after the titles change from company ‘A’ to company ‘B’, they need visibility. The new management will try to deploy its own manufacturing system in the most critical areas first. The first things you look at will be purchase orders to suppliers. Second, internal production orders for manufacturing. Anything in between is secondary.”

Whether bringing uniformity from the top down, the bottom up, or both, the benefit ultimately is designing a framework that facilitates using the best work practices and technological advances, regardless of where they originate. A company can move individuals from plant to plant at any level, for any number of purposes and know that they will be able to perform with minimal training or disruption anywhere within the company networks. Plant operators, instrumentation technicians, accountants, and managers all enjoy the benefits.

The case histories accompanying this article tell compelling real-life stories of companies who have made it work and enjoyed the payoff. It requires a commitment, but the results are proven.

Author Information

Peter Welander is process industries editor. Reach him at .

Customer case history: Dow Chemical

Dow Chemical Co. may not have coined the term global architecture, but it certainly deserves recognition for putting it into practice long before the concept came into currency. The company’s desire to concentrate on safety and exercise “operating discipline” back in the 1960s has guided its manufacturing strategy around the world. Today the company has 156 manufacturing sites in 37 countries and employs 43,000 people. Dow sees its strategy as a stool with three legs: People, process, and technology. While the relative importance assigned to any one leg may vary over time, the three are inseparable.

For many of the last 40 years, Dow’s endeavors to implement this strategy have been beyond available technology, forcing the company to design its own control platforms to support the aggressive vision. This placed a huge burden on its automation teams, since any advances in process engineering had to be matched with appropriate control support, and there were no vendors to call upon for help. It wasn’t until 2000 that Dow adopted commercially produced control platforms when it partnered with ABB to provide its control infrastructure globally.

In the same way Dow led technical developments in years past, it continues to stay ahead of the pack. With technical discipline firmly woven into the fabric, the company concentrates more on people related issues. In a presentation delivered at ARC Advisory Group’s 2008 Global Manufacturer’s Forum, Margaret R. Walker, vice president, engineering solutions, technology centers, and manufacturing and engineering work process, made Dow’s vision clear.

“We want our growing regions to be supported by people from those regions,” she explains. “So when we move to new geographies, we use local resources and that’s how Dow’s been doing business for more than 100 years. With a local workforce you get commitment and ownership with a better understanding of local customs. We use our engineers as a multiplier to leverage our expertise, talents, and skills of engineering, procurement, and construction into the companies and the marketplace. We believe that by maintaining a substantial in-house expertise, we’re better able to collaborate with suppliers and find that prime spot of solutions.”

Walker points out that operating discipline is still part and parcel of day-to-day activities: “Everyone in Dow uses the same laptop with the same software tools. We have a standard automation system: ABB. We also use industry standards where appropriate, like ISA 88, ISA 95 and ISO 15926.” Even so, she makes the point that flexibility has to go hand-in-hand with this consistency. There are provisions for individual operations to request changes and variances when required to conform to local needs or standards.

Regardless of the region, Dow supports its people with very extensive training and state of the art tools. Walker acknowledges that this practice is not without its downside: “We know that we may lose some employees to other companies, but that just gives us more incentive to make Dow the preferred employer.”

Given this desire for consistency and the most advanced tools, what happens when Dow purchases an operating plant or partners with an existing producer? Does it impose corporate control architecture as a first step? “When we buy a new plant and look at how to incorporate it, first we’ll do due diligence on the investment so we understand the current level of practice, technology implementation, and training of people,” says Jerry Gipson, director, engineering solutions technology center.

“We have instances where we have gone through a process of upgrading the control platform, but we have other examples where we have been able to maintain acceptable performance from a Dow Chemical perspective using the control platform that was purchased with the plant. Still, in any situation, we’re going to look at work processes, people, and selected upgrades to the control platform to make sure that we get the safety and reliability performance we are looking for.

“We’re looking at hitting a desired level of performance, first about safety and then meeting business objectives. Once we are sure we can do that, we look to see if there is a return on investment for a larger scale swap-out or replacement. Of course, if there are critical upgrades required to support safety, we don’t argue about those, we do them,” Gipson says.

Safety is built into Dow’s corporate culture at a molecular level. Walker is emphatic: “You cannot compromise safety, regardless of local customs. Personal safety and process safety should be your number one priority, and you should never lose that sight. There are few things more motivating to an employee than knowing the employer is making sure everything possible is being done so that they go home safely and that everyone around them is safe.”

Gipson has seen and lived that culture himself. “My career covers 28 years,” he says, “And that very consistent, unwavering focus on safety performance has been there throughout. It’s always first and foremost. When we start meetings, we start with a safety moment. We try to personalize the message to put in each of our minds the idea of going home safely at the end of the day but also expand it into larger stewardship that we do nothing to adversely impact the community.

“Back in the 1960s when we launched our manufacturing excellence focus and embarked on some of the global standardization efforts, that was driven by the desire to achieve differentiated safety performance. It was safety that got us up and going.”

Customer case history: Alcoa

Alcoa operates nine alumina refineries around the world (Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Spain, Surinam, and U.S.) which were built and expanded from the early 1960s through the early 1990s. All were originally designed and built by Alcoa, except for the facility in Spain.

Alcoa’s practice had been to operate the plants largely independently, but management eventually decided that was not the best approach. The company recently completed a major renovation project dubbed QUASAR (quality automation solutions in alumina refining) that brought all the plants under one instrumentation and control strategy umbrella.

“In the mid ’90s, Alcoa management decided it wasn’t making the best use of technology and the plants themselves,” says Dennis Mason, Alcoa process systems manager. “They launched a number of initiatives, including the one that ended up being QUASAR, to bring the technologies in all the refineries up to the same level. This facilitated leveraging some of the good work done in some plants to the whole group, so we could improve efficiencies, increase production, reduce raw material consumption, and so on.”

Early analysis soon indicated that much of the control and instrumentation infrastructure would need to be replaced. The plant that had been upgraded the most recently only needed 60% of its equipment replaced, while the plant the company acquired in Spain had to be stripped entirely. The others fell somewhere in between. Alcoa’s financial managers required very thorough financial analyses of both costs and potential benefits over the long term before giving the go-ahead. The sheer magnitude of the project precluded any fuzzy estimates.

“At the end of 2000, we had completed the preliminary design and put cost estimates together,” Mason recalls. “What we proposed was a combination of replacement of all the infrastructure and implementation of a whole range of advanced control applications. This included a long-term service contract to make sure that all the equipment, software, and applications stayed in good shape.

“The program relied on leasing all the equipment with a service contract from Honeywell. We kicked off the first site implementation in Feb, 2001. Each site took two-and-a-half to three years, and we completed the last one in Brazil at the end of 2007. At the peak, we had six plants in various phases, with a workforce of about 800 people from 17 countries.

“One of the constraints was that we weren’t allowed to interrupt production in any way, shape, or form, so that made it very interesting,” he adds. “And we actually succeeded. We completed the change out of all the equipment at all the sites, and we didn’t lose one ton of production. It was very carefully planned to make sure we could go in and do the cut-overs hot.”

And what were the results? Mason reports that Alcoa has realized 150% of its expected goals, primarily from increased production and lower unit costs resulting from better feedstock utilization. “The big change was implementation of advanced process control, putting in multi-variable predictive control across our plants,” he notes. “That’s made a big difference in reducing the variability around the plant in flow, temperature, etc. That translates into being able to push the plants closer to the limits. The most profitable way to run an alumina plant is to push it as hard as you can. The moment you back off, you tend to increase your unit costs. The objective is to run it flat-out and keep it that way. These applications have allowed us to do that, and to push it harder than we have in the past because we have significantly reduced variability in the process.

“Having gone to a common platform across all our sites, we’re now finding that we can develop an application in one plant and move it fairly rapidly to other plants so they can take advantage as well. It’s improved our ability to transfer technology.”

Success of a program like QUASAR also has some less tangible benefits, as Mason reflects. “The program has been looked upon very positively by Alcoa management in terms of both the results we’ve been getting and also the relationship with Honeywell. They’ve put a lot of effort into making the relationship work, ensuring that we’ve gotten the benefits out of it all. We were in Pittsburgh last week and meeting with one of the Alcoa business unit presidents. He holds up the QUASAR program as a benchmark of customer-vendor relationships, which is very pleasing to hear.”