August 2008

Demonstrate your business value … or be downsized

By George Buckbee

The harsh reality: Your job will vanish unless you can demonstrate your value to the company.

The good news: You can deliver a lot of value … and you can prove it.

As a process control engineer, technician, or other automation professional, you can deliver tremendous, measurable, bottom-line profits to the company.

The control system is like the central nervous system for the plant and improving control system performance reduces operating costs by as much as 2% to 6%.

I have been in hundreds of plants and met thousands of bright, hard-working engineers and technicians. On a day-to-day basis, many focus on the wrong things.

There is a lot of fire-fighting, hardware "upgrades," network updates, and DCS version updates. While these are all noble activities, it is extremely rare these activities deliver actual, measurable improvements to the business bottom line.

To improve the bottom line, you need to improve throughput, reduce energy cost, reduce rejects, improve yields, or improve reliability. Your focus needs to shift toward activities that have a direct impact on these business results.

Measuring the right things

You might think your plant control system is already running well. How do you know? Do you measure it?

If you are like many plants, you have no measurement system for control system performance. See if you can answer these questions.

  • What percentage of control loops are running in MANUAL affecting both efficiency and quality? 
  • Which control valves are 100% at limit all the time and affecting throughput?
  • Which control loops are the root-cause sources of process oscillations, which affect energy cost?
  • Which controls have the most direct impact on the most important quality, throughput, and cost variables? Which are the root causes of upsets in these variables?

The answers to these questions will immediately focus your attention on the right aspects of control system performance.

Your manager wants you to be successful, but often does not know how to measure your success.

When managers ask engineers about their results, they often hear stories about problems that did not happen, or crises that were resolved, or about promising new technologies that are now part of the system. Unfortunately, this information does not help your manager to reward you.

Businesses (and managers) reward people that deliver measurable, documented results. Moreover, in business terms, results translate to monetary terms. When talking with your manager about results, you should always try to assign monetary value to your work. Some real-world examples include:

  • Saved $240,000/year by changing a distillation column control strategy
  • Increased throughput 0.9% by stabilizing a crude processing unit, $900,000/year additional profit
  • Reduced energy consumption by 11% by targeting oscillations and tuning, savings of over $1.2 million/year

When you document the results of your work, you are giving your manager the information they need to make good business decisions, and to support you. You gain credibility for promotions, new assignments, and for funding of your next project.

Next step is to prove it

You are worth a lot to your company. Here are some first steps:

  • Take a look at a few of the key performance metrics mentioned above, estimate the size of the opportunity at your plant.
  • Pick one or two key areas of your plant to get started. Focus on high-value operations-those areas that consume a lot of fuel, use expensive raw materials, or produce the finished product at your plant.
  • Show the financial results to your manager, and formally document the business benefit.

Take these first steps today, and prove your worth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

George Buckbee (gcbuckbee@yahoo.com) is an ISA senior member. He has two degrees in chemical engineering. He is vice president at ExperTune, Inc.