Process Control and Automation in 2020 and Beyond: A Hands-On Consulting Approach

October 24, 2019

Process Control and Automation

There is a troubling trend among consultants in industrial automation engineering today. Many consultants seem to lack the willingness and desire to truly get to know the process they are brought in to work on.

Any consultant you’re bringing in should be as curious about the process as they are about the problem. Unfortunately, there is a big subset of people in this industry who are purely system oriented. They want to deal with designing a system, the system architecture and the software application. But they don’t want to dig in and ask how the system marries best to the process.

But an effective approach to automated process control necessarily involves a detailed focus on the actual process. It should drive all consideration and decision-making. Understanding the process lets you answer a key question, without which you’ll just spin your wheels: “What is the ultimate goal?”

Understanding Automated Process Control

But before going further, I’ll take a quick step back and, at the risk of preaching to the choir, explain a bit about process control.

Process control is an engineering concept concerned with using control devices to manipulate variables in an engineering process. For example, in chemical manufacturing, companies use variable measurement devices to track factors such as flow or line pressure. Process control in that situation might make use of a control device — a valve, a damper, a frequency drive on a motor — to manipulate the measured variables as needed.

Process control used to be human actuated. But 30 or 40 years ago, automation entered the picture. Now you can put in a smart positioner valve that has electronics and pneumatics, allowing you to equilibrate the pressure in a line into an electronic signal that is sent to a computer-based controller. So the smart devices between the valve and the gauge are now transmitters, and labor-intensive hand valves are replaced by electro-pneumatic actuated valves.

So to answer our question from earlier, the ultimate goal of process control is to make the end product (whatever it may be) on spec, efficiently and cost-effectively. In every consulting relationship, I bring to the table a willingness to do a deep dive into the process, ensuring I fully understand it. Only then can I come up with an optimal hardware-software solution to drive the process to an optimum of production.

The Need for Hands-On Consulting

If you ever bring process control consultants into your facility, there’s an easy way to tell what their approach is and if they’re hands-on or not. With those types of consultants, you’ll probably hear something like this: “Tell me what you want your process to do, and I’ll make that happen.” Saying “Give me your drawings, give me your logic diagrams, give me your control diagrams, and I’ll build it” might sound good to a facility owner or their representatives, but it can also be a great way to get stuck in the mud.

The better approach, which Percipio takes, is to engage with a shared ownership mindset rather than merely look to follow marching orders. If you’re bringing a consultant in, chances are you’re looking for solutions you don’t already have, not just someone to implement your ideas. We won’t disregard a preestablished plan; we’ll definitely take time to understand possible solutions that have already been ideated. But we’ll also analyze your process through the lens of our experience and expertise. And if we see a better approach to optimize your production, we won’t be shy about making suggestions.

In our experience, clients looking for industrial automation engineering consultants are seeking deep value that stems from a proven background and experience. Unfortunately, industrial engineering consultants don’t always come in willing to work with clients on design, on actual control design, and audit that and make suggestions and recommendations.

Effective, hands-on consulting balances the client’s needs and expectations with the consultant’s knowledge and experience. If a client wants us to do the design, that’s OK. If a client wants us to come in and audit their design, we’ve vetted a lot of process control systems. If a client wants us to work together to design a new system, we’re on board. But regardless of what we do, if a client wants us to come in and they hand us a planned design, we are certainly going to give our opinions and recommendations on a better way of doing it.

Here’s how I’ve seen that play out.

Turning a Liability Into a Leader

At one past client, there had been three separate entities trying to make a facility work in terms of balancing electrical production and providing high pressure steam to the steam host. For two and a half years, three other consulting outfits had tried to coordinate the steam production and the electrical production. All had failed.

When I came in, I was asked to take what others delivered and make it work. I took a deep dive on what had been delivered, poring over two and a half years’ worth of failed attempts. And nothing had been documented. So over six weeks, I documented the whole system architecture, the hardware layout and, more importantly, the actual software application that had been delivered.

As I was wrapping up that exercise, the owner’s facility representative came to me and said, “So, do you think you can make this work?”

I turned to him with a straight face and I said, “This isn’t going to work in a million years.”

He told me, “Well, I’ve been waiting for two and a half years for somebody to tell me that. I’ve believed that since day one, but people kept telling me no, they can make it work. So now, what do we do?”

I said, “Again, I’ll tell you this is never gonna work. But I tell you what — if you give me the opportunity, I will deliver a solution that will make this plant run hard and fast and purr like a kitten.”

That was what he needed to hear. He gave us the authority, and we proceeded to do what we promised. This high-pressure steam facility had never been allowed to connect up with the refinery because it was such an unstable operation. The folks at the refinery believed it to be too much of a risk — a $200 million event if it caused the refinery to trip off — to let this facility provide steam.

But in 14 months, we got things dialed in to the point that this facility is now the main supplier of high-pressure steam to the refinery — regarded as even more reliable than the on-site boilers. Many people had come in to try and solve the problem, only to fail. What was needed was the courage and confidence to tell the owners that what was provided to them by previous entities was the wrong path to go down. A redo, starting over from ground zero, was required. It’s not an easy message to deliver, but if a consultant doesn’t have the confidence in his or her own appraisal of a situation, you have to ask yourself if they’re worth the cost.

Percipio: Your Process Partners

In industrial automation process control consulting, there are a lot of people who know process really, really well — but they don’t know systems, don’t know automation very well. And there’s another subset of individuals who know the automation platform backward and forward, but they just don’t get the process.

If you want an efficient, effective consultant in this arena, you need someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of both — systems and process. Without that, they’ll struggle to deliver a world-class solution to your industrial automation and process control needs.

You really can’t separate the two. At least not if you want real, lasting results.

At Percipio, we have that critical, in-depth understanding of both sides of industrial automation engineering. Regardless of the situation or industry — power plants, utilities, refineries, power-gen, petrochemicals, food and beverage, bulk material — we can leverage our experience solving complex automation and control challenges to drive optimal results.

Is your installed automation process control solution providing you the benefits you expect? Is it providing you satisfactory results for your production facility? Give us a call; we’ll come take a look and see what we can do to potentially increase production, decrease cost, make you more efficient and help you more optimally run your facility.

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