Best Practices for Implementing Automation

In this last installment in our four-part series on increasing the return on automation investments, experts share advice on how to keep your project from derailing.

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You’ve identified where your plant faces its biggest risks and potential rewards. You’ve built a modernization plan to focus time and money where it counts most, and your budget has been approved. This is where the rubber meets the road.

It’s no secret that too many industrial modernization projects end up taking longer and costing companies more to complete than was originally anticipated. The bigger the project, the greater the risk of failure seems to be.

“Today, in the process industries, 65 percent of projects worth more than $1 billion and 35 percent of projects under $500 million fail, where failure is defined as at least 25 percent over budget and/or late by 50 percent,” reported Jim Nyquist, president of Emerson Process Management’s Systems and Solutions business, at last year’s Emerson Global Users Exchange in Denver. “Budgets have increased, but expenditures have increased more, especially on larger projects.”

According to Nyquist, the reasons for these failures range from the large size and complexity of many of today’s projects to their remote locations where the availability of roads, power and people are real obstacles. A perhaps more significant contributing factor is changes that occur during a project.

The result is more custom projects where uncertainty and complexity lead to cost and schedule overruns. “Automation has not been the major cause, but it can make a big difference, and it’s on the critical path during startup,” Nyquist said.

Changing that dismal record by making project completion more predictable and reliable, he says, will require new processes and methodologies to reduce project cost and complexity and better accommodate the changes that are inevitable.

Though the record in discrete manufacturing might not be as dramatic by virtue of smaller budgets, there’s no doubt that many projects get derailed for similar reasons. Projects often fail because promises are made to executives before a detailed project scope is defined, resulting in unrealistic budgets and schedules.

Eyes on the goal
When project teams run off the tracks by overspending, this invariably means trying to cut costs in the last half of the work, when the automation component is on its critical path. By cutting corners then, you can end up building a racecar with only half an engine, which means you’re never going to reach the finish line.

“Instead of preserving the integrity of a system designed to achieve their productivity goals, project managers often try to get the automation done as quickly and at the lowest cost possible,” explains Randy Otto, vice president of business development for ECS Solutions, a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). “When you’re trying to create software that will help improve business agility and productivity, cutting corners here can sacrifice optimization goals and the ability to make future changes more easily. The ultimate losers in this scenario are the company and its engineering team, which will miss out on opportunities to reduce costs and improve performance in the future.”

Stay reality-based
Starting with a realistic budget and schedule, or reducing the scope of a project to fit the parameters you have to work within, can keep a project from spinning out of control.

“The numbers are often pulled out of the air and schedules are more optimistic than are achievable,” explains Steve Malyszko, president and CEO of CSIA member company Malisko Engineering. “We call it the ‘pregnant lady syndrome’ because it’s like insisting that three newly pregnant women together deliver a baby in three months.”

It’s important to realistically determine how much time must be allocated for the different parts of a modernization effort and do the project in phases if necessary. To minimize production downtime, for example, it’s a good idea to get things like cable installation out of the way before a project starts.

Don’t wait to integrate MES
Companies that insist on adding a manufacturing execution system (MES) after the equipment has been installed miss out on big opportunities to avoid bottlenecks and identify problems beginning at startup.

Mark Sobkow, vice president of manufacturing solutions at CSIA member company RedViking, relates the experience of one automaker that used to field large launch teams armed with clipboards and stop watches to start up new production lines. Launch delays invariably ensued as team members tried to locate problems manually. Connecting to the MES after installation always became a retrofit project that caused disruptions to production.

“Post-recession, and with a much-streamlined launch team, the company insisted that the MES be fully qualified before the equipment was shipped,” he says. “The MES becomes part of the launch because it’s all integrated and validated with the equipment purchase. Your launch is much smoother and your quality is better because you have the right information from the beginning.”

This approach, adds Rod Emery, vice president of operations for RedViking, “means the MES is on site providing maximum value when it’s most needed. It’s a constraint and throughput analysis tool. Costs are minimized for both the launch and the MES integration because it’s being delivered as part of the base system and not as a bolt-on after the fact.”

Testing every physical device before startup is another important best practice, adds Lisa Sobkow, executive director of MES for RedViking. “When one of our customers is in their pre-production build events and they've got some downtime, they'll have us physically go out and manually test every potential down event—every pushbutton, every light screen, every safety gate, so that we can pre-qualify as much of the system as possible,” she explains. “That way, they don't work through those issues during production.”

Design model for control software
A software framework that uses object-oriented programming, standardized control libraries and an architecture that can accommodate change and expansion in the future is the key to optimizing control system functionality and future plant flexibility, according to Will Aja, vice president of customer operations for CSIA member company Panacea Technologies.

“Object-oriented programming makes it easier, especially for new engineers and users, to program and decipher the structural framework of the control system’s design,” he says. “A standard library for programming simplifies training and use because it’s easier to trace the code. It’s also useful for future system expansions because it provides a good, flexible design structure. A client-server architecture is also essential. Security is much easier and you can use it to log into the system from any screen. In many ways, thin clients are similar to how things functioned with mainframe computer systems.”

Tag-based rather than address-based programming systems provide greater functionality, according to Steve Barriger, regional services solution consultant for Rockwell Automation. “Where possible, you should try to leave the I/O wiring alone, but it’s still essential in any modernization program to verify that all the I/O is properly wired,” he says. “It’s also important for data collection that you determine whether you have discrete or analog I/O and whether any indirect addressing is going on.”

Trainer in a box
Training that allows a plant’s staff to become familiar with the capabilities of a new control system is an essential aspect of any modernization project.

To help customers get quickly on the path to harnessing their system’s potential, ABB has designed a suite of packaged services that include the required software and licenses, along with an expert in the field to install and set up the system at the customer’s site.

“One of the most important aspects of these services is the built-in coaching sessions, which provide an opportunity for a customer’s engineering staff to take ownership of the advanced solutions,” explains Steve Burt, business development manager for DCS lifecycle services at ABB. “These relatively inexpensive and short (one week) service engagements produce valuable improvements immediately.”

Check your connections
In any control system modernization, it’s essential to determine everything in the system is connected before you start work. “You have to pay attention to the details in the planning stage, and what systems your controls are tied to, or you’ll have to address them after the fact,” says Robert Darling, group migration specialist for Siemens. “Control engineers may not be familiar with peripheral systems and, in the rush to get it done, crucial connections like logistics can be overlooked.”

Standardize plant HMI
You can make life easier for operators—and your processes safer—by standardizing human-machine interface (HMI) systems plant-wide. “Operators often have to operate multiple types of equipment across the plant,” Darling says, “so it’s important to have a common standard for HMIs, such as screen design and how alarms work. You also need to structure the PLC code so it can automatically generate HMI screens out of the program. There should be a clear structure and layout, including type sizes and colors, so an operator can go to any machine and operate it. It’s also essential to add diagnostics into HMI displays.”

Understanding the principals of high-performance HMI, such as using color against a plain background to bring attention to the things that need attention, is essential. “The downside of model graphic schemes, however, is that they can be too monochromatic and boring,” cautions Ryan Smith, general manager of system integrator Calcon Systems. “HMI design requires a certain level of artistry to do well, which includes understanding the actual process and how the operator needs to react to it. Showing the process on the screen is crucial for troubleshooting. Being able to see things in real time gives the operator confidence in the information.”

It’s not the technology, but the knowledge
Though a lot of great technologies exist, problems arise when the person responsible for applying it does not have the required knowledge and skillset.

“A number of integrators and plant personnel haven’t caught up with technology yet, even though universal standards exist to provide guidance. They might assume they’re smart enough to just figure it out, but that can be a disaster waiting to happen,” Malyszko says. “There’s also a huge education gap at the client level between IT and OT (operational technology) practices and the ramifications of how following office practices can be damaging to plant-floor operations.”

He recommends using the best practices set forth in the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPWE) design and implementation guide to create robust networking systems for manufacturing automation applications. The manual provides guidance on key aspects of network design, such as segmentation, hierarchy, security and scalability.

What extras do you need?
Define your objectives before you start your control upgrade, because just installing a modern control system is often not enough.

“Migration is not justified if you don’t gain more value. You need to understand what improvements will come automatically from a modern control platform, and what other capabilities you may need to add,” says Stefan Werner, marketing manager for factory automation at Siemens. “You have to put in place a complete system, including hardware, software, communications and field devices, and determine what extra benefits you want from modernization, such as security, diagnostics, faster changeovers, uptime or lower time to repair.”

Managing your assets
Harnessing the power of technology within control systems to achieve operational excellence can maximize operational asset performance while lowering maintenance costs. A well-executed asset optimization strategy can reduce unnecessary maintenance and downtime, track causes of failures, identify repeat offenders, provide root cause data and fault diagnosis, and recommend actions. It can help detect failure conditions in advance, eliminate manual actions, handoffs and paperwork, and reduce latent time between problem identification and resolution.

“Simple strategies like counting motor starts and hours of operation can provide the needed boost to transition from periodic maintenance to condition-based maintenance,” explains Umesh Chitnis, operations manager for ABB Consult IT. “Asset monitoring of IT devices (servers, workstations, switches, power supplies) and field devices (transmitters, valves, actuators) can provide round-the-clock insight into asset conditions. This enables asset maintenance to be achieved in a predictive rather than a reactive way. Integration with maintenance management systems can help close the gap between operations and maintenance crews.”

Dealing with the human factor
The physical aspects of applying technology are usually pretty straightforward, but managing the human variable is often the most challenging hurdle involved in an automation project.

“A lack of understanding of the process that needs to be followed, particularly at mid-market companies that do upgrades infrequently, sends many projects off the rails,” says David McCarthy, president and CEO of CSIA member company TriCore. “You need to find a partner—the adult in the room—who is able to understand what it will take and who can control the behaviors at an organization.”

Access the other installments in this 4-part series on the value of automation:

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