May 2009

Automation: The pursuit of excellence is the answer

By Stephen Wells

A few years ago, I got tied up on the ISA acronym and the name change, and I forgot about the people and the society with which I am associated.

Automation is the profession that I chose to work in along time ago, not knowing individuals were going to manipulate me into worrying more about a name change then what I believe in and worked hard for.

Automation is all about controlling a process by the most efficient means available. By the process becoming efficient, the system ran better and consumed less energy. I believe this is now called being "green."

So, the process produced a product that was less costly. The cost saving is from the consumption of the least amount of material and fuel (creating a lesser impact on the environment), reduced downtime, and less required maintenance.

This is the automation for which I was trained, and hopefully I did an excellent job within budget and on time.

Applying automation to a process without a complete understanding of the operation and machine parameters will most likely allow some the feeling of job security. It is much like placing acronyms in sentences just to communicate with the in-crowd, leaving the unknowing to ask questions or keep their heads down to prevent embarrassment.

The ultimate goal of automation is to allow the process to operate smoothly through critical events and to prevent disruptions and shutdowns. If the machinery runs smoothly, it will require less maintenance; and with less maintenance, there will be a more positive impact on the system.

To automate a process, whether building anew or retrofitting an existing plant, is much more difficult than some realize. Some may have forgotten the difficulty. Operation and maintenance need consideration in the design of the system. Training on the new system is important too. Operation and maintenance must be in on the design and construction to allow inputs that will provide a safe and efficient means to maintain the equipment. To automate a plant requires a complete understanding of the process, equipment, location, and associated processes and equipment.

Now, if we cannot measure and properly control the equipment, machine, and process parameters, the process of automating the system will not work. Process automation does not depend solely on adjusting the control algorithm and system logic to obtain control of the process. If the process parameter changes, there goes the production. The placement of flow elements, control valves, process transmitters, changing piping configuration to accommodate the measuring elements, and just plain old design engineering will go a long way in assisting in the automation of a plant or process to be the most efficient and productive ever. Automation includes the efforts of all of us.

At my company, we have a set of values we call Southern Style. It includes these principles:

  • Unquestionable trust: Honesty, respect, fairness, and integrity drive our behavior. We keep our promises and ethical behavior is our standard.
  • Superior performance: We are dedicated to superior performance throughout our business. Our priorities are safety first, teamwork, diversity, and continuous improvement through strong leadership.
  • Total commitment: We are committed to the success of our employees, customers, and shareholders, and to citizenship and stewardship in all our actions.

In this spirit, I say ONE TEAM, ONE FUTURE will allow ISA to advance as has Southern Company by promoting integrity, working hard, and bringing a good product to the market with the customer service to back it all up.

The members and staff of ISA deserve the best from each other and a BIG THANK YOU for all of our efforts to keep ISA great.


Stephen Wells is a Senior Life Member of ISA. He is New Generation Instruments & Controls Lead Staff Designer at Southern Company. He received the ISA Section Distinguished Service Award in 1999 and 2003 and the Engineering Council of Birmingham (Alabama) Distinguished Service Award in 2003.