Subscribe and listen to AW’s podcast!
Subscribe and listen to the Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered podcast!
Listen Here

Automation Takes On Facilities Management

With the drive to go green, plant managers are finding they’ve already got what they need within their production control systems to automate their facilities and trim costs

{mosimage} In 2005, Ellis Hospital, in Schenectady, N.Y., had a big problem with the control system running its boilers. An engineering study found that the boilers were in great shape, but the control system was producing multiple nuisance alarms every day. Plant managers couldn’t ignore the crying-wolf alarms. After all, if the boilers actually stopped making steam, the operating room would shut down.

Clearly, an upgrade was needed. Plant managers reviewed numerous proposals from control vendors and decided to upgrade the existing human-machine interface (HMI) with Siemens tools, while keeping the existing APACS+ controllers, including input/outputs (I/O). The new HMI would filter alarms to reduce or eliminate nuisance alarms. They also discovered that the new HMI could help cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital operating costs, while also ending the annoying alarms.

The engineers took their proposition upstairs. “We made the presentation, explaining that we would save about $250,000 by keeping the APACS+ controllers,” says James Dean, director of facilities management. The team got the go-ahead in 2007. After the upgrade, the phony alarms stopped and people were freed up to do other tasks. “The upgrade allowed us to move around the plant without babysitting it 24/7,” says Dean.

But one of the most significant advantages in the upgrade was the system’s ability to look at plant data. “They made the decision to upgrade without knowing all the features they would have,” says Ken Keiser, migration manager at Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga. The data had been available in the past, but now it was easier to access. “They could see the data in different formats. They would look at reports and trends and they used it to save money.”

Specifically, they used the data to track energy use—and misuse. “We are better able to track our energy usage and trend out what time we are brushing up against our peak load,” says Dean. “The data identified the areas where we were getting close to our peak load.” By making changes, Dean was able to take some of the energy costs out of the system. “We were able to slow down some of our heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment to achieve efficiency so we were no longer running 100 percent all the time.”

For years, plant engineers couldn’t care less about energy savings. Energy was cheap, and the bigger concerns were uptime and availability. “One customer had a system for five years before they figured out they could use it to make their blower more efficient,” says Keiser from Siemens. “They had all the data and all the control to turn on blowers and slow down blowers. Once they were on a mission to save money, they looked at their system and found out it could give them everything they needed.”

The rising cost of energy—coupled with a growing interest in environmentally responsible business practices—has led plant managers to take a closer look at managing their facilities for efficiency. Many are finding that they already have the tools in their control systems to cut energy and grab significant savings. In many cases, those tools are in the automation that runs the production equipment. Plant managers are connecting the production control systems to the buildings to manage HVAC equipment.

Energy mantra

Energy conservation has become a new mantra for plant managers. That savings you get from careful energy use goes straight to the bottom line. Investments in conservation give back year after year. Once production is tuned to run efficiently, many control engineers start looking at the potential savings they can get by automating the building itself. “The pricing of electricity is more based on peak periods, so it’s screaming for people to use their building energy more efficiently,” says Ben Orchard, senior engineer for automation vendor Opto 22, in Temecula, Calif. “And it’s not a one-off savings. It continues to save you money no matter how you change or expand.”

The old adage that you can’t control what you can’t measure is important in controlling the cost of running the facility. “With facility automation, there is a lot of focus on reducing energy costs, but you can’t manage what’s not measured,” says Ivan Spronk, product manager for AC Drives and Softstarts at supplier Schneider Electric, in Palatine, Ill. “When you automate things, you can measure them and see where energy is being used. Then you can think about what you can do to reduce that use.”

Many of the tools used for facilities automation are relatively new. “Typically, in older systems, there was much automation for facilities. You turn the lights on when you get there and turn them off when you’re done,” says John Bishop, industry manager for vertical industries, energy and facilities management at manufacturing software supplier Wonderware, an Invensys company in Lake Forest, Calif. “It got a lot more complex with the software. Now you can read information about how the facility is operating, and you can optimize the chiller and boilers.”

Glowing Green

Much of the push for energy savings is touted as a move toward green. Even if the true motivation is to take savings by conserving energy, those moves come with the public relations benefit of green responsibility. “Energy management is really about saving money,” says Orchard from Opto22. “But it also gives the appearance of going green, and it can be done relatively cheaply.”

Ultimately, there is a difference between cutting energy costs and implementing an overall effort to reduce the carbon output of a plant. “When a plant tells me they’re going green, does that mean keeping the lights off in the data center, or is it removing the carbon footprint?” says Simon Jacobson, senior research analyst at AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “Only 35 percent of plants are taking significant steps toward reducing their carbon footprints.”

A comprehensive green program usually includes a range of initiatives beyond just energy savings. A green program can include waste management and alternative energy use. “We see sustainability as holistic. Automation touches on machine safety, process safety and a facilities plan,” says Marcia Walker, program manager for sustainable production at vendor Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee. “We look at not just the facility, but what goes in it as well. We even look at the landfill next door to see if we can use the methane for energy.”

One for all

One of the best ways to make the facilities run efficiently—and improve the plant’s green profile—is to measure usage and look for ways to trim that usage without sacrificing comfort or the required temperature and humidity for production. Plant managers are finding out that the control system running production just happens to have tools that can measure and control energy consumption. “The building is an extension of the automation,” says Rockwell’s Walker. “Too often, facilities are managed independently of production. The building is an integral part of the production.”

Using the production system to run the facility also makes data acquisition and analysis easier. “It eliminates the need to get data from different systems, so it’s easier to manage,” says Walker. “We have pre-engineered modules for control of the HVAC and boilers and it uses a common platform.”

Companies that put a big emphasis on green initiatives are particularly interested in using the plant’s production control to manage the facility. The production control tends to be the home of very sophisticated automation tools. “The New Belgium Brewery Co., in Fort Collins, Colo., is using our equipment for their brewing process, for the washers and brewing,” says Orchard of Opto22. They’re also using the same hardware to run their water management, facilities and lighting.”

Fear breeds conflict

When plant managers hook up the facilities to the production control system, sometimes the maintenance staff gets nervous. Running new networks through the building can also wake up suspicious information technology (IT) personnel. “The people who are traditionally responsible for the building are not necessarily the same people who are in charge of the plant floor,” says Walker. “Yet the biggest energy user in the plant may be the heating element on the plant floor. So, to get cost savings, people have to collaborate with maintenance.”

In some cases, automation engineers simply ignore input from the maintenance team. That’s not a good strategy, according to Orchard at Opto22. “We’ve seen some conflict between maintenance and control,” says Orchard. “Initially, it was easy to just steamroll them and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ But then we took a step back and integrated them to get more feedback. We wanted to run the system so it works at its best.”

Like most conflict, the source of tension is usually fear and lack of knowledge. “I’ve seen fearfulness between automation and IT. There’s a reticence from IT because they don’t know a lot about machinery, valves and motors,” says Orchard. “The fear on the automation side is they don’t want their process equipment subjected to a corporate network that has burps on the road.”

Some engineers refer to the building as the “skin” around the production operations. The skin is now viewed as part of the overall cost of producing goods and materials. The control system can then be used to control that consumption and cut energy use.

Related Sidebar - Whither the Weather? WeatherBug Helps Plants Adjust
To read the related sidebar accompanying this article, go to
Barriers to Cyber-Attacks
How to apply defense-in-depth cybersecurity strategy to protect your company. Learn from your peers in industry.
Download Playbook
Barriers to Cyber-Attacks
Revealed: Sensor & AI Secrets
New report features peers and pros on how machine vision, smart instrument sensors and AI can improve manufacturing.
Download e-book
Revealed: Sensor & AI Secrets