How to Kick the Tires on Automation Systems

An automation engineer’s most important decision is the automation system. There is a dazzling array of technology and suppliers out there and, in all honesty, virtually all the systems do the basic job well. Here’s advice on how to choose.

John Berra, retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management
John Berra, retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management

An automation engineer’s most important decision is the automation system. There is a dazzling array of technology and suppliers out there and, in all honesty, virtually all the systems do the basic job well. So how do you decide? In my career, I’ve been an end user, an engineering contractor, and a supplier. I’ve been on all sides of this decision. Here is some advice.

Evaluate both the technology and the supplier. One very critical technical issue is how the system handles traffic at peak times, such as alarm conditions during an upset. What happens to controller or highway loading during these upset times? Does the system handle it in stride? Make sure the approach to operator graphics is consistent with your own control room philosophy. The system should have the range to meet your needs. There should be libraries of best practices so that you don’t have to start from scratch. Ease of configuration saves countless hours.

Pay a lot of attention to security. Is it built in or do you need an IT expert to implement it? Devise some real-world tests and make the supplier pass them. Real world always beats theory. Also, make sure that the IT perspective does not overshadow automation. I remember one customer who asked us to remove some security in the name of openness. We advised against this, and the customer moved on to find a different supplier. About a year later, the plant had a shutdown because the training system became totally intertwined with the real system, and training exercises sent commands to the actual process control system.

Most discussions of automation use a pyramid as a model. At the base are field devices. Above the system are various manufacturing execution system (MES) applications that take data from the automation system and do something useful with it. Automation is truly in the middle. Ease of integration, in both the up and down direction, is critical.

As a true overall test, I recommend that you make the supplier do an “out of the box” demonstration. Most suppliers have beautiful canned demonstrations designed to impress. Bring a real-world configuration need to the session and make the supplier show you how its system would implement your configuration. Watch them do it.  See how long it takes and how many support people they need to call in.

The automation decision is not just technology—you are choosing a supplier for the long haul. The evaluation must include company factors. If your project is a global one, you are going to want a strong global supplier for sure. Check project management processes. Also, make sure you check out support at the actual job site.  Local resources must be strong. After startup, those local resources will be the first line of support. Talk to other customers to find out what they think of both the system and the supplier.

Does the supplier have a formal, established way to get input from its customers and act on that input? Most suppliers have user groups, but not many have a formal process of letting the users have input on development priorities. Finally, insist on meeting the supplier’s management. Get the highest level you can.

Companies reflect the personalities of their leaders. An automation decision is really a relationship decision. After all the bits and bytes settle down, automation is really about a supplier and end user working together to make a successful and long-lasting partnership. Your management and the supplier’s should know each other and be committed members of the automation team.

>> John Berra, setpoint.johnberra@gmail.com, is retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management.

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