#PlantLife—What Would You Say You Do Here?

Nov. 26, 2018
Though perhaps not as absurd as the ‘Chocolate Factory’ scene from I Love Lucy, there are all kinds of factory scenarios that could use a good control engineer to simplify operations.

My mom always says that the first thing she thinks of when she hears me talk about my job at manufacturing sites is the famous “Chocolate Factory” scene fromI Love Lucy. You’ve probably seen it: The job starts out manageable, with just one chocolate truffle coming down the line at a time. Lucy grabs it, wraps it and moves on to the next truffle. She’s able to handle the candy wrapping just fine. Soon, however, the machine begins pumping out chocolates at a much higher volume. Lucy quickly becomes completely overwhelmed and desperately eats the chocolates or hides them in her shirt.

Come to think of it, my mom isn’t completely off base with her idea of what I do for work. Let’s run through theI Love Lucychecklist.

Have you ever:

  • Felt overwhelmed at the plant?
  • Thought you had everything under control before the process changed suddenly?
  • Accidentally dumped product on the floor?

If you have spent enough time on the production floor environment in a control capacity, more than likely, despite your best efforts, all of these have happened to you. However, we don’t actually “wrap the chocolate.” Much of our job at Avanceon is to make the jobs of the Lucys of the world more manageable—to take the frustrating inefficiencies and help make them efficient.

As control engineers, we are constantly looking to upgrade or fix flawed processes that we see as plant inefficiencies. Though thisI Love Lucyscene is comedic, when I watch it, the controls side of my brain screams, “What? No pull-cord e-stop? Where is the photo eye to detect missed chocolates? What kind of training did she get? Why, when the manager finally comes over, is she unaware that only 2 percent of the raw materials are turning into finished product while the other 98 percent is unaccounted for?!!”

There were so many ways we could have helped. Situations where I’ve had to solve problems like these have led to some of the most memorable moments of my career—especially when problem-solving ideas have come to me while working directly with an operator. It really makes me feel I’ve accomplished something when I can help solve a constantly recurring “pain in the neck” problem through software that is already installed.

Here’s an example: Years ago, a customer was having an issue with metal detections. After the operators detected metal, they removed the product from the belt by hand and placed it into a container. I saw the operators doing this every now and again during the testing phase. I asked if it would be more helpful for me to just reverse the belt and dump the product into the container automatically upon detection. I was able to program the process and set up a quick demonstration of how it would enable the customer to sift through the contents and not worry about contaminating any product by restarting the line too quickly. It was really a minor change—but done throughout the year, it ended up saving hours of production time.

There are few things that give me more satisfaction than solving a customer problem—whether it’s a simple solution like the one in the previous paragraph or something more complex. I think it’s why I like being an automation engineer. I bet you have similar “quick fix” stories.

Find more information about how Avanceon approaches problem solving.

Robert Herman is a program manager at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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