The Factory of the Future

July 1, 2004
What will the factory of the future look like?

One amusing anecdote goes like this: The factory of the future will be run by a security guard and a dog. The security guard—to keep out intruders—and the dog—to bite the security guard if he touches anything.

This vision of a lights-out factory first emerged in the 1960s, with the invention of the industrial robotic arm. But the premise that machines would take over, never quite took hold. The reality is that humans are still very much involved in the monitoring and control of manufacturing operations, but our role has changed over the past decades. Rather than moving materials and parts from point A to point B, we now move ideas.

The changing role of the operator was discussed at a special interest session during the recent Honeywell Users Group Symposium, held in mid-June in Phoenix. In the session, titled “The Process Plant of the Future,” users discussed emerging trends, and barriers to moving to the future state.

Different skills

The new role of the plant operator requires a different skill set than in the past. Said one attendee, “Decisions on how to run the plant will still be made by humans. But the new operator will need to make decisions at a higher level, because lower-level decision making will be taken over by automation.”

The drivers in operating the plant of the future are governed by business, people and technology needs, and it’s these same factors that pose the most common barriers to getting there.

On the people side, manufacturers must address organizational behavior, training needs, leadership and FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt.

On the business side, manufacturers need to examine lifecycle costs and quantify tangible benefits. In capital-intensive industries, in which raw materials and asset costs are high and relatively fixed, companies need to address areas where they can make an impact, such as maintenance and asset management. And plant managers, who traditionally have looked at control systems as something you put in and don’t touch for 20 years, except for routine maintenance, need to change their organizational behavior and view automation systems as assets to be optimized on a real-time basis.

And finally, on the technology side, with so much new technology available, manufacturers need to sort out what they should use by determining what will give them the most value. Attendees spoke of the large amount of inadequate technology that’s installed in the field. Said one, “The average pump efficiency is less than 40 percent. Historically, we have over-specified the pump to allow us to add more capacity with bigger pipes. We’re going to review these systems to optimize asset performance.”

Instability and tweaking

Added another attendee, “There are a lot of control loops in manual mode because the components are not sized properly, and systems are not stable in automatic mode. An oversize valve can cause other problems downstream.”

Cautioned another, “Get away from tweaking. Let the control system tweak the process. Have the process engineer work with others in the plant to ‘define the edges’ of stable control and push the boundaries of the plant.”

Operators have been compared to pilots. There are hours of boredom and then minutes of sheer terror. Efficiencies come about through steady-state operation. As one attendee put it, “There has to be a balance between putting a creative person in front of a terminal and not have them mess around with the process, while still making the job interesting.”

Many manufacturers are finding that the key to achieving this balance is through measurement, analysis and prioritization tools. With an investment in system design and proper operations tools, manufacturers will see big payoffs.

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