Starting in automation: 4 steps to success

New adopters can learn from the industry experience

By Chris Marinucci, O’Brien & Gere December 18, 2017

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Smart Manufacturing, Industrie 4.0—all these concepts represent the intersection of data and automation to aid in decision making. These advanced topics occupy the headlines, making it easy to forget about the market segments that are new to automation and its use to drive efficiency and quality.

A recent call from a regional craft brewer reminded me there are always new businesses getting started with automation. In some cases, these businesses have taken the plunge only to find there is a problem they never could have imagined six months down the road. Understanding the fundamentals of getting started in automation will make the process smooth.

1. Know what you own

Many equipment manufacturers and integrators view the software that operates their equipment or runs a process as intellectual property. Some proprietary software solutions are built with compiled or locked code. Pay close attention to the terms and conditions, and ask the right questions such as:

  • What rights do you have with that software?
  • Will the solution provider supply a copy of the PLC program or the uncompiled code to use for maintenance and troubleshooting?
  • Do you have the rights to make changes to the code as your process or system evolves?
  • If the answers to the above questions are "no," who does have rights to make changes?
  • Are there authorized service providers or are you limited to a single OEM or integrator to support you?

Ask questions about how fast they can get online or be present at the facility to troubleshoot the system if the line goes down.

Keep in mind you may be committing to a long-term relationship with a single entity that you will rely on for the upkeep of your system. If that relationship sours, what alternatives do you have for support? If you choose to move forward, lock in long-term rates for support. Locking in hourly rates for the life of the product is the only protection from paying one rate for support in year one and a much higher rate in year three. Allow a reasonable increase in the hourly rate of between 3-5% to keep pace with the rising costs of doing business to aid in building a long-term relationship.

Do not be afraid to ask what happens if the company you are buying the equipment or system from goes out of business. Make arrangements for a copy of the uncompiled or protected code to be held in escrow with an attorney; in the event your OEM or integrator goes out of business you have a safety net. Be sure the code kept on file is updated as incremental improvements are made to the system. If considering a proprietary or protected solution, this choice should not hinder your ability as the user to support your own process and control your own destiny.

2. Obtain as-built drawings

To maintain and troubleshoot your equipment or system, you need accurate drawings. Be sure that an as-built copy of your equipment or system’s drawings are part of the turnover package. As an end user, I always insisted these drawings be turned over in two ways. The PDF format is a great way to preserve a snapshot in time of what the system looked like at the time of final payment. In order to support your own equipment long term, also obtain the native files (i.e., native to the program the drawings were created in).

With AutoCAD designing software, these would be dwg files. The dwg files can be opened in the AutoCAD software package where updates to the panel wiring, field wiring, or terminations can be made as incremental improvements to equipment and process are completed.

3. Get a process description

A written process description and sequence of operation are a must. A process description clearly explains how a piece of equipment or process works. It’s a high-level document that should logically walk through the unit’s operations and features. This document is a good deliverable in helping a new operator or supervisor gain an overall understanding of a process or system.

The companion document to the process description is a sequence of operation. The sequence of operation is much more in-depth; it should have pictures of control screens or pictures of pushbutton and switch panels. These pictures should be referenced to guide an operator on what buttons to push when to accomplish a task. This document should be the basis for operator training in the final stages of a project.

It should be a living document at this stage. As operators are trained, it should be marked up and updated with enough detail so a new user can successfully operate the piece of equipment. This document should not cover how to perform a physical task in the field; this kind of direction can be conveyed in a standard operating procedure, which is a separate type of document and effort.

4. Trust, but verify

Make sure there is a commissioning or turnover document created by the equipment supplier or integrator and verified by you the end user or your owner’s agent. This document can be a simple, but lengthy, Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that lists every motor, sensor, and process step.

This document serves as a place for both the supplier and end user to sign off line by line that things work the way they should. Does the pressure shown on a transmitter in the field match the value on the control screen? Do the units on the transmitter field display match those written on the operator interface graphic? Are the alarm set points adjustable, do they trigger the alarm, does the alarm appear in the correct color on the screen, did it set up the alarm horn? It is much easier to verify operations and make corrections during commission than after your equipment provider or integrator demobilizes.

Technology can be overwhelming, so if this process seems daunting, find an owner’s agent. There are places to find someone who can act as your agent to protect your interests.

Chris Marinucci is senior process and automation manager for O’Brien & Gere, a CSIA Certified integrator.