Recalling the very first automation project I worked on, we were all very eager to deliver a solution that was exactly what the customer wanted. In this case the customer was very vocal in communicating his desires and, during factory acceptance testing, he demanded more changes. We gladly accommodated him. In the end, we delivered the system just as the customer described.
It did not take the customer long, however, to realize that some of his demands left no room for flexibility. Plus, as new controls engineers, the design we created did not easily accommodate the required changes. While the control system performed exactly as the customer wanted, it was not able to accommodate the dynamics and unforeseen events that happen daily in production.
When a system integrator partners with a manufacturer or OEM to deliver an automated controls solution, the integrator not only has to understand the needs of the customer but should consider: standards, industry best practices, and experience. The integrator can then help the customer make well-informed decisions, weigh alternatives, and work in the best interest of the customer with a goal of being recognized as a trusted advisor. The systems created in such a partnership typically have greater performance, lower cost of maintenance, increased flexibility, and a longer service life because they can more easily adapt to process changes and incorporate new technologies.
The Revelation of Standards
It’s hard for me to believe now, but there was a time when I sat around a table with very well educated and experienced engineers discussing—for hours—the function of the “stop” button. Would it function as an immediate stop? Complete the batch then stop? Could we resume production? If so, how would we actually stop the process if we did not want to resume production?
This was my introduction to standards.
Later, as a new manager, I remember mentioning the word “standards” to a controls engineering group. They went silent. It felt like I was tossing a wet blanket on the fires of innovation. Many engineers believe standards will tie their hands. In reality, standards allow you to more easily address the routine parts of a process, rather than spending six hours debating the meaning of “stop.” With the help of standards, you can focus on the more complex aspects of the system, which have the potential to generate more value for the customer—all while reducing the overall development time.
Like standards, industry best practices have been developed over time with proven technologies and supported from major vendors. When engineers and developers ignore these best practices, they begin to limit the ability to support the solution and make it more difficult to incorporate advancements in new technology. This places a strain on integrators and engineering departments and increases the cost of system upgrades. It may even result in alienating vendors who are unwilling to support the implemented controls solution.
Of course, there are few instances where proprietary controls are the best fit for a project. However, the majority of manufacturing processes and machine control applications are well covered by best practices. Adopting industry best practices allows you to leverage support from your vendors, increases your hiring pool, and makes the customer less dependent on the solution provider giving them a greater sense of independence. There is a difference between having your customers “depend” on you versus having them be “dependent” on you.
Standards and best practices are the best place to start on any system integration project. The critical role of experience comes into play in the evaluation and application of those standards and best practices. To simply ignore experience is a mistake; to totally rely on experience is just as big of a mistake.
Larry Asher is director of operations at Bachelor Controls Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls visit their profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.