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Before You Automate, Contemplate

Mon, 12/16/2013 - 8:29am
Todd Brun, Senior Validation Engineer, E-Technologies Group

Faster turnovers, higher line speeds, more throughput, less operator intervention, Big Data, virtualization, “lights out” manufacturing  these are all hot topics in automation circles. Our success as a system integrator depends upon us being conversant in these topics and using available technology to deliver them to our clients.

But before we can jump into delivering any of these solutions, we need to step back and take into account the rapidly changing environment of controls and automation. Case in point, control systems once had a life span of decades, but now the range is between three and 10 years.

Here is a reality check as we look at some comparables of the recent past:

  • I once had a GPS that quickly became out-of-date. Now that function is a free app on my phone with up-to-date maps, including street views and phone numbers of businesses.
  • I once referenced catalogs to select my instruments. Now I search the internet to get competitive pricing and comparative reviews.
  • The company I once worked for is out of that specialty line of business.

Things change.  Embrace the fact and use it to your advantage.

So how do we apply this to automation?

  1. Start by asking yourself the question: “What has changed in my business/industry over the last 10 years?”
  2. Then look ahead and ask: “How must my automation change to give me the same or a more competitive advantage I had when it was first installed?”
  3. Consider the trends. You have the potential to move ahead of your competition by adding the functionality that you feel is significantly important five years from now, (the half-life of the control system). 

Things to contemplate:

Are you thinking outside the box?

“Best-In Class” approaches that have worked for an unrelated industry may have surprising relevance, giving you an advantage over the competition, whose vision is restricted to his back yard.

What functions must your control system deliver?

One big trend we have seen is the convergence of IT and Automation. Seamless connectivity between the plant floor and corporate is a critical function of any effective control system and will only become more important.

  • What information does corporate (or any business layer) have that you depend on to effectively run your manufacturing? 
  • What data does your manufacturing process generate that corporate finds essential for running the business?” 

Do you really understand your processes and operations? 

Without exception, the successful clients we work with understand their processes and operations and strive to document them. 

One downside of automating something is that it replaces the hands-on expertise of operators, thus diminishing the critical role they play and leaving you to rely more and more on automation to fill this void.

  • What steps must be taken now to protect you from losing years of process knowledge as skilled operators leave the workforce?
  • Has your automation kept pace with advances in process and operations?  If not, who has this insight and how can you preserve it?

How can automation support tomorrow’s workforce? 

As your process changes, your control system must change and your workforce as well. 

The workforce of tomorrow will come with different skill sets and values. They may easily adapt to new technology and possess a higher level of skill in some areas, but may lack in other areas of expertise. 

To assess what steps you must take to assure the effectiveness of your workforce, ask these questions:

  • Who is using your control system and what are their skills? 
  • Is your current control system helping or hindering the effectiveness of your workforce? If hindering, what is this really costing you?
  • Should your control system provide greater diagnostics for troubleshooting? (Related to loss of knowledgeable operators.)
  • How much will it cost to get these features? How long will it take to see a return on investment?
  • What type of training will your workforce (skilled operators and skilled maintenance) need when a new control system is installed?

Location, location, location

This is not about moving a business, but the advancements of mobile technologies. Just as tablets, phablets, and cell phones have dramatically affected how each of us do our banking and communicate with our families, they are also challenging the traditional methods the workforce currently uses when interacting with automation. 

Visualization of the process, alarm management practices, and operator intervention schemes are rapidly evolving to allow operators to work more effectively, while not being restricted to a stationary control room. 

  • Would this mobility give you any operating advantages? 
  • If so, what technologies and methods should you adopt? 

Do you leverage what is working well?

Start by identifying your own definition of what “working well” means:

  • Is it easy for new operators to become productive?
  • Is your workforce already trained in the technology? If not, will they embrace it or fight it?
  • What is the mean time between failures?
  • What is the mean cost of each failure?

Evaluate how effectively you manipulate what is “working well”:

  • If one control system works better for you, what would it cost to replicate this technology into other areas of your manufacturing? 
  • Would your company benefit from having a common standard among your sites? 

Is flexibility engineered into your systems?

Your customers will always find ways to change the marketplace, so you need to build flexibility into your equipment and your control systems to adapt and grow.

  • Think about automating holistically from front to back (receiving raw materials through processing, finishing, warehousing, and distribution) and bottom to top (from instruments at the automation to corporate MES at the top).
  • Ask your operators about the pain points they encounter daily.
  • Would incorporating robotics help?

Are you leveraging the available knowledge and skills?

You are an expert in your business, but your business is not automation. Find a partner you can trust, who can assess your wants and needs, and fulfill your requirements.

Challenge yourself. For how many of the above questions do you have answers? Does everyone in your organization agree with your answers? How many of them have been documented and shared so that everyone has the same vision?

Before you start an automation project, contemplate your situation. Work hard to define your direction and scope. Communicate your vision and develop an overall strategy to achieve.

Change is relentless. Change is difficult. Change is sometimes scary. You can’t stop it, but you can embrace it and benefit from it. Prepare your business, not only to meet today’s needs, but for the fast-paced changes to come. Now is the time to take action.


Todd Brun, a Senior Validation Engineer at E-Technologies Group, has more than 35 years of experience designing, implementing, commissioning, and validating industrial automation projects and systems.

E-Technologies, (www.etech-group.com), provides complete automation solutions, including electrical design, PLC and HMI SCADA systems, and integrating manufacturing data into business-wide systems.  Based in West Chester, Ohio, E-Technologies is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), a global non-profit professional association that seeks to advance the industry of control system integration for the success of members and their clients. For more information, visit www.controlsys.org.

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