In a plug-and-play automation world, domain and business expertise come to the forefront
By Paul J. Galeski, PE, CAP
Think fast: How many radios are in your smartphone? Between cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and who knows what else, there are probably more than you realize. But you do not have to know the answer to use your phone, because as far as you are concerned, it just works.
Industrial automation is not quite to that point yet, but it is getting there. Due to open systems and standardization over the past few decades, ease of use has increased greatly. As a result, from a purely technical standpoint, installing or upgrading an automation system today is far simpler than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.
It is now a lot less about writing custom code to interface two controllers, and a lot more about figuring out how to squeeze another 2 percent of production through a given process unit. Project objectives aim more at larger business outcomes rather than technical minutia. It is still important for the people implementing automation projects to be technically competent, but now they also need some measure of business acumen. As I like to say, an ideal process automation professional is half process engineer, half business consultant, and half control systems engineer.
This evolution has changed the nature of projects and the questions we hear from clients in our role as an automation solutions provider. Our clients used to ask us if we could handle working with a distributed control system from vendor A or a programmable logic controller from vendor B. Now it is more about finding ways to do things like reduce unreacted feedstocks in the process unit. It is also about finding new ways to improve business outcomes through upgrades to not only the automation system-but also to the asset management, enterprise resource planning, and other higher-level computing platforms.
Answering the old questions was relatively easy. We either did or did not have engineers conversant with given platforms or networking protocols. Now things are more complex. Improving profit margins, safety, or regulatory compliance requires far deeper knowledge of what is happening in the process, and within the client's overall business.
Clients do not have the time, nor the inclination, to educate an automation solutions provider, so providers must make sure their people possess the requisite knowledge and expertise. If they do not understand their clients' processes and overall business objectives, the clients will call someone else. If providers propose a solution, they must know how it will affect production, safety, and the bottom line.
Perhaps you are considering an automation upgrade project. How do you know if a given automation solutions provider has this kind of domain expertise and practical help?
First, talk to them, on the phone or in person. You know your business, and figuring out if someone shares enough of this knowledge is usually straightforward. If you make beer and the automation solutions provider asks what a mash tub is, maybe you should be talking to someone else. Or on second thought, maybe you should run! Your automation solutions provider should be conversant in the nomenclature of your industry, and know the critical challenges facing your business.
Read the automation solutions provider's case histories, which should be on its website. A provider with the required level of experience can provide case studies of projects. Read them for technical detail, but also for nuances. How does the provider define success of a project? Does its view of success reflect what you want to see from your project?
Meet as many of the provider's people as you can, either in person or via a conference call. Make sure the team assigned to your project has technical depth and can communicate effectively, because soft skills are just as important as hard skills.
Talk business, not just process. Does the automation solutions provider understand how you make money? If the answer is no, you could end up with a technically elegant solution wholly impractical from a cost/benefit standpoint.
When selecting an automation solutions provider, you are putting important parts of your business on the line. In essence, your automation partner "holds the brains of your process" in its hands. You should take the same care in automation partner selection as you would when selecting a brain surgeon. Would you look in the yellow pages to find a list of brain surgeons and then choose based upon low cost? I think not . . . .
The costs of a failed project can be enormous, so selecting the right partner must be done carefully, thoughtfully, and sensibly. A little extra time and effort in the selection process will pay huge dividends throughout the project, and during the entire life cycle of the new automation system.