1 December 2006
Engineers Meet IT
How engineers and IT professionals can coexist and even thrive in the changing world of automation
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
Laptops, Blackberries, and personal digital assistants are key terms in today’s engineering world. The developing technology has opened the engineering door to information technology (IT) professionals, and it has created a need for engineers and IT to work more effectively together to meet production goals. Engineers need to be more IT savvy, and IT professionals need to have a better grip on what engineers are up against.
“Engineers and IT people have existed in different worlds; engineers in process and automation plants, IT people in the office, but with the emergence of MES and enterprise software, the worlds must converge,” said industry guru Jim Pinto. “Those who are isolated will become obsolete. Those who can synthesize all aspects of the needs will succeed,” he said.
Communication is key
It’s important to establish connections between all domains with the manufacturing enterprise, internally to functional organizations, and externally to remote sites, partners, suppliers, and customers, said Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass.
But collaborative manufacturing is “more than connecting the plant floor to business and supply chain systems,” Resnick said. “It is a seamless combination of systems, processes, and technologies that enable a step change in effectiveness of the entire value chain. The move to these technologies is ushering in a new era of encapsulating legacy information while providing a higher level of interoperability from the factory floor to enterprise applications.”
In many design organizations, responsibility for a project is passed on from one group of people to another. “The chemists develop a process and then pass it on to the process design group who blame the chemists for their ignorance of what is practicable,” said Trevor Kletz, department of chemical engineering, Loughborough University, U.K. The project is then passed to the mechanical engineering group for development of the detailed design, while the electrical, and instrument groups add their contributions to the detail. The project then passes to the construction team and finally to the team who will start up and operate the plant. Often these different groups are in different buildings and rarely speak to each other.
Such a “pass the parcel” organization can lead to accidents and operating problems, he said. The way to avoid them is for “representatives of all the various groups to meet regularly as the project progresses. Each group can suggest changes that will make the design easier for them or comment on features, which will increase their costs,” Kletz said. This way, “everyone will gain some knowledge of other groups’ problems. A hazop of the line diagrams should form part of the regular meetings, and similar reviews should take place at earlier stages,” he said.
“There are a number of ways software is changing technologies for the stationary air pollution control industry,” said Chad Whiteman, Institute of Clean Air Companies, a nonprofit national association of companies that supplies air pollution monitoring and control systems, equipment, and services for stationary sources. Air pollution control industry engineers are now using three-dimensional software that allows them to be more efficient and accurate in the design of their equipment. Large air pollution control systems for power plants and other large industrial applications require the integration of complicated mechanical, civil, and chemical systems into tight spaces. Emissions controls systems such as selective catalytic reduction or flue gas desulfurization systems require large amounts of materials and skilled laborers for their construction.
“An SCR system installed on an existing coal-fired power plant would typically require more than 1,000 tons of steel and almost 400,000 man-hours for their construction,” Whiteman said. “Advanced software now permits design engineers to view a computer image of the equipment from various angles, reducing potential equipment interferences, which may be a location where two pieces of equipment were designed to occupy the same space. This software minimizes project setbacks and reduces the amount of reengineering that would be required to reduce equipment interferences.
Ron Monday, president and CEO, Online Development Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn.-based developer of factory automation hardware and software technologies, needed to enable PLCs and PACs to communicate with field devices or other controllers on the factory floor. “Increased global competition and regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and FDA 21 CFR Part 11 make it imperative for companies to mine and manage total enterprise data,” he said. “Those that do it well will succeed; those that don’t will suffer the consequences.”
While process industries have done a good job of tying enterprise data together, the problem today is mainly in the discrete and hybrid manufacturing industries, Monday said. In those industries, such as parts and machine manufacturing, plant engineering and IT have different objectives and operate with different systems. “The plant engineer uses a variety of systems, controls, and devices to maximize productivity and accommodate product changeovers while assuring safe operation,” he said. IT usually operates on one or two platforms to mine and manage enterprise data. “Neither of these systems is inherently compatible.” Monday said his team has seen over its 10 years in business the growing need to exchange data between the plant floor and the business system. “The trick is to be able to do it in such a way that it meets the needs of both the plant engineer and the IT professional.”
Challenges impede progress
Some of the challenges precluding a seamless transition to merge the two worlds could be “people are too busy, perhaps overworked, and have no time to change their perspectives,” Pinto said. “Engineers and IT people are typically linear thinkers and cannot see or understand the lateral needs. So, it often becomes adversarial—us versus them.”
Training aging workforces with new software, so they can better use the “full capacity of new software products,” is another challenge Whiteman said. “For this reason, software designs that are user friendly and use more graphics for their visual interfaces will facilitate the adoption of these types of software by design engineers.”
In addition to design engineers, skilled laborers who are constructing the equipment may also benefit from these types of innovations,” Whiteman said. “Two-dimensional engineering drawings are primarily used by boilermakers and piper fitters for construction, which may provide opportunities for portable type software devices to aid in the construction of major pieces of equipment.”
And with this connecting going on, there’s bound to be an issue with security. “When IT technologies converge with factory floor operations, plant floor systems manufacturing must address the same security issues faced by the IT world,” Resnick said. “Operations will need to develop a security mindset to address security requirements that are changing the way manufacturing purchases, operates, and maintains systems. Security constraints are changing the relationship between operations, IT, and technology and application suppliers.”
Safety and security are also challenges for Monday. “Plant engineers cannot risk having their systems interrupted or changed by an unintended event caused by a virus, hacker, or operator error somewhere in the connected enterprise,” he said. “Likewise, an open system on the plant floor connected to the business system can lead to security problems throughout the entire enterprise. This is a very real and contentious issue between plant engineers and IT.”
Rebecca Gill, vice president of Technology Group International, an ERP developer in Toledo, Ohio, has two challenges: First, get the software engineers to think like a user when developing new code; and second, get the IT staff to communicate their needs and objectives better to the engineers. “Both of these revolve around communication,” she said.
Resolutions offer hope
Gill’s team resolves the problem by forcing the issue. “We encourage direct communication between our programming staff and customer base, thus providing a communication bridge between IT and software engineers,” she said. First, the technical support is also the programming staff. So “they are forced to talk to real users and learn firsthand what people like and dislike about their programming,” Gill said. “We do not have voice mail for this group, so the customer talks to live engineers and the engineers talk to live customers.”
Second, when new customers go live, they usually like to have a technical person on site. “This allows our customer the comfort of having expertise available at go live and it again forces real-life interaction between the engineers and the users,” she said. Being onsite with the client makes the company more personable to engineers. Meeting the staff, “from president to order entry clerk, seeing their operations, and touching their product all helps create an ownership and bond between engineer and IT.”
Third, software engineers and their families travel to a user conference each year. “It is a reward for the software engineers, and it is a wonderful opportunity for the engineers to interact with large numbers of customers, hear their praise and complaints about the software, as well as help brainstorm future development,” Gill said. “Each year the engineers come back with a new respect for the IT staff and new ideas on how they can greatly impact the user community by making small programming changes to make the software more user friendly.”
Resolution also lies in good communications between the groups to ensure they and their fellow co-workers will keep their jobs, Monday said. “Managing and acting on timely and accurate data is the key to survival in today’s global business economy.” Monday’s team has developed a simple appliance to ex-change plant floor data with business systems, a data exchange device that installs in a PLC and can connect to the business system via Ethernet that can’t affect the operation of the PLC or the business system.
Monday’s advice to other companies is to embrace outside support and newer technologies to get enterprise data connected. “We are seeing systems integrators playing a vital role in connecting plant systems with business systems that meet the needs of both engineering and IT,” he said.
One promising advantage pointing to the future of improved communications is “manufacturers are focusing on the real benefits of connecting their factory floor systems to enterprise business systems through P2B architectures and applications,” Resnick said. Manufacturers are realizing “they need real-time metrics from the source, production lines, work cells, machines, and sensors involved in the build process.”
Factory-floor production systems are the key component in the shift to event-driven integration, Resnick said. “This indicates a bottom-up approach where information is accessed from the shop- floor production level to drive higher level business applications. In order to run the factory of the future, it is absolutely essential to have access to events as they happen in real time,” he said. “All of these applications require real-time information to provide the level of visibility and optimization needed for a performance management environment, and to power event-driven supply chains.”
About the Author
Ellen Fussell Policastro is the assistant editor of InTech. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
View the online version at www.isa.org/intech/20061204.
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