Striving for Perfection Through Workflow-Instruction Technology

Sept. 1, 2011
Managers at Chivas Brothers and elsewhere are using software to capture and disseminate the expertise of their star operators.

Nobody is perfect, so it’s a fact of life that mistakes will happen from time to time. The problem is that mistakes can be costly, especially at Chivas Brothers Ltd., a 1500-employee Scotch whisky and premium gin producer based in Paisley, Scotland. “If, for example, we were to put three-year-old whisky into a vat of 30 year-old whisky, then we couldn’t sell it as 30 years old anymore,” explains Stuart Banks, lead control engineer at the Chivas Brothers’ Kilmalid facility in Dumbarton about 20 miles outside Glasgow. “It all becomes three years old, and we’ve lost 27 years of maturation.”

Because mistakes like this can cost Chivas Brothers a lot of money, operators must follow strict procedural guidelines to maintain the integrity of the company’s premium products. For this reason, the Kilmalid bottling and blending site has been among the ranks of facilities relying on workflow-instruction technology, a form of automation that “digitizes” procedures in a workflow. Using these encoded procedures, workflow software then prompts operators, guiding them through standard operating procedures (SOPs), verifying their compliance, and checking for mistakes.

At Kilmalid, operators rely on help from an application called FactoryTalk ProductionCentre software from Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation. Blending a 50,000-liter batch of Ballantine’s whisky, for example, begins with entering the brand, quantity, and the final alcohol content. Based upon the master recipe, the software then computes the ratio of high-strength malt whisky, high-strength grain whisky, and demineralized water that will be necessary to reach the target quantity and strength.

Communicating with the programmable logic controllers (PLCs), ProductionCentre performs a number of checks throughout the process. For example, it permits the operators to choose or type only valid values for the blend being processed. It verifies that the right quantities of the appropriate spirits are going into the vat. “It also ensures that there is enough space in the vessel receiving the spirits and water,” notes Banks.

Having the latest generation of workflow-instruction technology makes it easier for the operators to uphold the company’s quality and safety standards. Before Banks and his colleagues installed Rockwell Automation’s ProductionCentre, Kilmalid was using an old MS-DOS-based system. The upgrade helped in consolidating the hardware in the control room into just one set.

The upgraded software also shrinks the time that it takes to modify the system to accommodate new equipment or new blends. “With our old system, changes would have taken considerably longer because we had to go to the third party,” says Banks. “The system that we have now makes it easy for administrators like myself to integrate changes into our site fairly quickly.” Duplicating software for an existing process from another site to run on the equipment at Kilmalid can take less than a day.

A range of options

ProductionCentre is manufacturing execution system (MES) software—which is often the first tool that comes to mind when people think of workflow instructions. But, the technology actually comes in a variety of forms and can be as simple as instructions given to an operator through a human-machine interface (HMI) connected to a PLC.
“Using a PanelView type interface and some logic in the controller, you can create a simple workflow tool that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” says Mike Gay, consumer packaged goods industry manager at Rockwell Automation. Before the days of MESs and the concept of automated workflow evolved, Gay used to do some scripting in an HMI to create his own workflow engine.

Over the past few years, automation vendors have incorporated basic workflow tools into their products. Gay says Rockwell Automation offers tools for its software at the HMI, batch and MES levels and “we’ve dabbled with workflow in the cloud.” So far, it [cloud computing] doesn’t fit manufacturing very well because the Internet is not reliable enough for real-time computing, he says.

For this reason, Gay does not consider cloud computing to be the most important innovation in workflow-instruction technology for the plant floor to have emerged over the past five years or so. Instead, he gives that honor to the modular, industry-specific workflow software tools that exist today for pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods and other industries. “The first workflow tools required a lot of customization and were very expensive to deploy and maintain,” he explains. “We suppliers have used the knowledge that we’ve collected over the years to create solutions that are 80 percent out of the box.” Because the amount of customization is much less, deployments are not only cheaper than in the past, but also much faster, he adds.

The technology has evolved into an easy way to capture, document and deploy the experience of the best, most experienced operators in a facility. Fred Woolfrey, productivity solutions consultant at Yokogawa Corp. of America in Sugar Land, Texas says, “Capturing that experience is particularly important now when a large percentage of the most experienced operators are either of retirement age or close to it.” Some users see the technology as a way of retaining their experience.

Other users realize that, even without retirements looming, good workflow-instruction technology can make a vast reservoir of knowledge widely available when the operators themselves are not. “It can perform ten or more actions at once and can check multiple process settings and values simultaneously,” says Woolfrey. “It can also remember every step it took and why.” For these reasons, he says, the technology is like always having your best operator in your control room at all times overseeing everything at the same time.

Reducing variability

Workflow-instruction technology can be especially helpful when procedures extend over several days, as Honeywell discovered at its Specialty Materials plant along the Mississippi River in Geismar, La. In the production of hydrofluoric acid and products made from it, operators there must periodically take the reactors offline and meticulously follow a lengthy process for regenerating the catalyst. Although the Geismar plant has always had good quality procedures, results were nevertheless variable.

Check sheets and other methods used in the past were not enough to reduce variability over the lengthy process. “This particular procedure takes place over a number of days, so it isn’t possible for one operator or one shift to follow its entire progress,” explains Tom Williams, program manager for operator effectiveness at Honeywell Process Solutions, the Phoenix-based sister division that provided the workflow solution.

Moreover, because other matters often take precedence when operators are busy, it is not uncommon for the operators to leave the regeneration process alone for a while. During this time, the catalyst regeneration system would sometimes stall while it waited for the operators to monitor the next step. “This wastes utilities and reduces plant throughput,” notes Williams. “We needed a method that would reduce the variability of the whole process.”

The method also had to fit into the Honeywell Operating System (HOS), a strategic program launched by Honeywell Specialty Materials. The goal of this program is to instill greater discipline in the company’s processes in order to improve and standardize workflows. “In particular, the HOS operating discipline relies on the personnel’s understanding and adhering to procedures and using visual charts and tables to track progress toward goals,” says Williams. Even when some refinements depend upon automation or semi-automation to reduce variability in complex procedures, the program stresses keeping the operators in the loop and holding them responsible for outcomes.

Extent of automation

Because reducing variability in catalyst regeneration would have to involve some form of automation, experts at Honeywell Process Solutions recommended Procedural Operation (ProcOp) application. Besides permitting the automation of offline procedures already on the vendor’s Experion Process Knowledge System, it would not only make the various steps of the regeneration process visible, but also alert operators when the system is ready to advance to the next one.

Because the plant had not used ProcOps before, no one knew how automated the procedure should be. “We started off thinking that we wanted the operator to be informed only of the trigger points, and to let the system be as automatic as possible,” recalls Williams. “But since each catalyst has a unique history, we learned that we needed to supply different regen cycle times.”

Geismar’s staff also wanted to be able to look back at execution times, so Honeywell also developed a direct data dump to track trigger point times for each batch of catalyst. “The operators really like the system,” Williams reports, “but we could have made it simpler from the start. When we do this on the next unit, we will simplify the trigger point logic and still get all the benefits.”

Installing another workflow system is in the plans because management was pleased with the results. Although the reduction in power consumption did not translate into as many dollars as the implementation team had originally hoped, the system delivered a bit more than the sought reduction in cycle time and derate penalty.  “We took a complicated offline procedure that was running on a periodic basis and automated the entire process, removing a lot of the guesswork and manual intervention that was previously required,” says Jim Hull, plant manager of the Geismar site.

On the safe side

Besides helping users to maintain their quality standards and increase their yields, workflow-instruction technology can also ensure that safety procedures are followed. According to the Honeywell-led Abnormal Situation Management Consortium, “approximately 40 percent of safety incidents in process plants are due to human factors, and a proportion of these are due to shortcomings in procedure execution,” says Chris Morse, batch product marketing manager for Honeywell Process Solutions.

Not only can workflow-instruction technology improve safety by ensuring that employees adhere to standard procedures, but it also can generate documentation for regulatory authorities. An example is how workflow-instruction technology is helping the natural gas and hazardous liquids industry to comply with the Control Room Management/Human Factors safety mandate. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration accelerated the implementation of these regulations for transporting natural and other gases and hazardous liquids through pipelines.

Workflow-instruction technology is making a contribution here because S3 Development Corp., a technology and consulting firm in Nashua, N.H., has found it to be a good tool for helping its clients to comply. For this reason, it made Proficy Workflow software from GE Intelligent Platforms of Charlottesville, Va. the foundation of its Intelligent Control Room Management solution.

“The workflow software allows companies to capture events—whether a problem in the natural gas system or a problem in shifts—and trigger the workflows to perform the necessary procedures for the right action at the right time,” says Paul Thoman, S3 Development’s chief technology officer.

Using the software, a utility can digitize its best practices into prescribed workflows. During an emergency, for example, the software can use the workflow to prompt several people and controllers to take the appropriate steps in the right order and record the details of each step taken in the procedure. Or at the end of a shift or time limit for taking a particular action, the software will alert operators to tend to any unfinished tasks that need their attention. “This will help bring companies into compliance with PHMSA and reduce the risk of disasters by operating within safe limits,” says Thoman.

A path to perfection

The archiving of steps taken during both planned and unplanned events has uses beyond improving safety and documenting compliance with regulations. It also permits accurate efficiency studies. By analyzing the data in the archives, users can determine where the slow points are in their processes or where significant variation exists in their execution.

“With traditional stopwatch studies, usually one of two things happen,” notes Matt Wells, product general manager for Proficy portfolio at GE Intelligent Platforms in Toronto. “Either operators start performing their work a lot faster, or they start sandbagging. Consequently, you don’t necessarily get accurate data on how your process is working.” Because workflow software collects the same data automatically behind the scenes, it sidesteps this problem.

Similar studies on the data can also help companies to coordinate their activity across functional lines. “Each year, companies create or refine strategic goals and cascade them throughout the organization for execution,” says Tom Troy, director of manufacturing execution systems at Invensys Operations Management, Plano Texas. Then they rely on their senior leaders to develop the tactics and processes in their respective functional areas to support the strategic goals.

Achieving the corporate goals, however, requires a certain amount of synchronization. Troy believes that the analytical tools in workflow-instruction software can provide the technological framework necessary for modeling business processes across functional lines and coordinating people and technology in a more holistic and perfect way.

For more information:GE Intelligent Platforms ( Process Solutions ( ( Automation ( (

ON THE WEB: MES Data via Mobile Offerings. See what’s new with the ArchestrA, Workflow Version 1.1. It now includes integration with a mobile workforce and decision support system. Visit

James R. Koelsch is a contributing editor for Automation World

About the Author

James R. Koelsch, contributing writer | Contributing Editor

Since Jim Koelsch graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he has spent more than 35 years reporting on various kinds of manufacturing technology. His publishing experience includes stints as a staff editor on Production Engineering (later called Automation) at Penton Publishing and as editor of Manufacturing Engineering at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. After moving to freelance writing in 1997, Jim has contributed to many other media sites, foremost among them has been Automation World, which has been benefiting from his insights since 2004.

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