Using Workflow to Bolster Plant Performance

Plants are using workflow processes to improve efficiency, support regulatory compliance and train new engineers.

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At Southern Union Co., in Houston, a major natural gas producer, plant managers needed to improve their regulatory compliance, including audit trails for payments made to vendors. In the past, these business processes were bogged down or derailed by missed or misdirected e-mail messages. The company deployed workflow tools in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to automate these messages and track them for approval. “Employees receive automated notification of payments requiring their approval, which speeds up the flow and enables the entire process to be tracked,” says Craig Hodges, general manager, U.S. Manufacturing and Resources Sector, for software giant Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash. “And later, the process is audited from a central site.”

The Flowserve Corp. manufacturing facility in Irving, Texas, produces pumps, valves, seals and automation services for the power, oil, gas and chemical industries. Plant operators wanted to create a system that would allow them to remotely observe equipment that’s in use at customers’ facilities. Plant operators created a platform using tools from automation software supplier OSIsoft LLC, San Leandro, Calif., that allows Flowserve and its customers to easily observe flow, pressure, vibration, temperature and gas detection through remote monitors.

The workflow tools can analyze the data using custom algorithms that indicate when there is a potential problem—before the equipment fails. “Flowserve can now work with its customers to improve poorly operating systems and optimize facility performance,” says Hodges. “The financial impact for the customers is significant, since the tools cut as much as a third of the cost of combined operational and maintenance budgets.”

The adoption of workflow processes has grown quickly over the past two years. Plants are using automated workflow to guide alarm response, track and report activities for regulatory compliance, and force communication to the business office and along the supply chain. In many cases, the map of workflow processes becomes a de facto set of best practices that can be transferred to other plants.

The concept of workflow is not new. Any operations manual explains the steps that need to be taken when an alarm blows. The difference in the last couple of  years is that plant processes can now be automated and shared, which ensures that the best practices are actually followed. “This is actually a resurrected e-business idea,” says Jim Sinur, research vice president for business process management at research firm Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. “But now we have the technology and we have the infrastructure to support it.” Sinur notes that the workflow map becomes a backbone that can be continually tweaked.

While the workflow idea isn’t new, fully automated business process tools have taken the idea and implemented it to gain efficiencies and standardization that lets plant operators take the efficiencies from one plant to another. “We’ve been working on solutions that have some type of workflow in one form or another for 30 years,” says Marc Leroux, product manager for collaborative production management at automation vendor ABB, in Cary, N.C. “The concept is not new, but the tools have gotten better. Now, plants can use the tools to restructure their entire operations.”

Forced response

Not surprisingly, the recession has motivated plant managers to adopt workflow processes. “The recession forced people to look at efficiency and figure out where their constraints and bottlenecks were,” says Sanjay Shah, chief executive officer of Invensys Operations Management’s Skelta unit, in Bangalore, India. “They improved their efficiency by institutionalizing their processes. If the workflow is standardized on one shop floor, the same process can be used across different manufacturing sites.”

Some vendors contend that users must have measurement tools in place in order to see the full benefit of workflow tools. “You get ROI (return on investment) if you can measure it,” says Pawan Rallabandi, principal with the Product Lifecycle and Engineering Solutions Group at Infosys, a software provider in Bangalore, India. “A workflow safety inspection that saves 20 minutes a day over 20 plants can save a lot.”

One of the first widespread implementations of workflow processes came in the form of forcing a series of measures and steps in response to specific alarms. “Global organizations can automate simple alarm responses in the overall control action plans, and they can also create collaborative workflow scenarios that go beyond the plant floor itself,” says Microsoft’s Hodges.  “When an alarm sounds on a plant floor in India, automated workflows could dictate that the digital feed, along with the system data, be sent to a unified dashboard housed on a collaboration platform accessed by a plant manager in the United States.”

Workflow tools work particularly well in ensuring that plants remain in compliance with regulations. The workflow processes do double duty by keeping the plant in compliance while also creating and managing the audit trail necessary in industries such as pharmaceuticals or food and beverage. “We fully integrate the regulatory and inspection process so it’s fully connected to make quality audits easier,” says Rallabandi from Infosys. “The system automatically validates itself and creates a tracking report for the regulating body.”

Plants are also using workflow processes to train new plant operators. “As new plant-floor employees come on board, or new process steps for a new product are introduced, automated workflow ensures that training and certification levels are achieved before moving forward in manufacturing,” says Microsoft’s Hodges. “This makes sure employees are fully trained before they’re allowed to conduct certain tasks.”

Workflow processes work well in forcing communication from the shop floor both forward and backward along the supply chain, while also communicating with the top floor. “Automated workflows are needed for supply support—not only to activate inventory ordering when supplies are depleted, but more importantly, to ensure that the accompanying processes and requirements are automatically generated,” says Hodges. “Many of the adjunct steps in inventory ordering are manual. So there’s a big opportunity for manufacturers to automate these workflows to increase efficiency.”

Plant in a bottle

One of the most attractive benefits of workflow processes is that they can become a “plant in a bottle.” Best practices at one plant can be transfer to another plant to obtain additional efficiencies. “Workflow becomes a digitized best practice. The ERP (enterprise resource planning) system communicates our workflow for the production order to all the automation systems that need to know about it,” says Greg Millinger, product general manager, Proficy Workflow, at automation supplier GE Intelligent Platforms, in Charlottesville, Va. “The ERP sends the workflow where it belongs and that fires off other workflows.”

One of the goals in deploying workflow processes is to reduce the opportunity for mistakes. The tools can ensure that a new process doesn’t begin until the previous process is sufficiently completed. “Workflow can synchronize the paths into something that is enforceable,” says Marty Bremer, product manager of manufacturing platforms for vendor Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee. “If you have a process with a manual task such as putting five pounds of sugar into the batch, the workflow can make sure the operator puts in the right material in the right quantity before it moves on to the next task.”

One of the benefits of new workflow tools for many plants is the role that Microsoft has played to give workflow both its infrastructure and its wide and easy usability. “We’ve embedded Microsoft workflow tools into our product because it adds value for the user,” says Brian Stein, chief executive officer of ERP vendor Syspro USA, in Costa Mesa, Calif. “Our workflow has a design tool and monitoring tools that are entwined with Microsoft.”

Analysts and vendors alike expect continued acceleration in the adoption of workflow tools. Gartner’s Sinur estimates that 10 percent or 15 percent of manufacturers have deployed workflow tools in the past two years. He expects that percentage to grow quickly. Microsoft’s Hodges also sees fast acceptance at plants. “In the next year, we’ll not only see more workflow processes being automated, but we’ll also see more of the workflow processes being migrated to a single collaborative platform,” says Hodges.

One of the reasons workflow tools are gaining quick acceptance is that they can be applied to existing plant procedures without disruption in the way that the plant operates. The processes can make sure that the plant operates as intended,  with clear audit trails and greater likelihood of reduced mistakes.

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