September/October 2010

Control engineering and information groups at odds?

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

There have been many stories over the last few years about IT and Control Engineering groups being at odds fighting to keep each other out of their "turf." The use of more computer industry technology by the control industry and the need to integrate control and IT systems has created this friction. Examples include shared Ethernet networks, integration of plant floor information with business systems, and remote equipment monitoring over the internet. The good news is this integration can improve operations, efficiency, and profits for a company.

Based on my discussions with control engineers and observations over the last few years, my feeling is controls and IT people are tending to work closer together. The salary survey reported on in this issue of InTech asked the question, "What is the relationship between your IT group and Control Engineering groups?" Since the question has not been on the survey before, there is no data for comparison. According to the survey, 47% of control engineers cooperate with their IT groups.

The controls and automation industry has always moved forward by leveraging technology and using information. In the early days, it was people making "rounds" with a clipboard to write down data from meters and other devices. Early monitoring systems and later the DCS captured systems data more efficiently saving labor and providing timely/reliable data. Subsequently, there have been a number of refinements that improve plant efficiencies and profits.

Business systems followed a similar path starting with manual inventory and forecasting systems, giving way to Material Requirements Planning (MRP) computer systems, Manufacturing Resource Planning systems (MRP II), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. Today's ERP is an integrated computer-based system used to manage internal and external resources, including tangible assets, financial resources, materials, and human resources. ERP has worked well, except it has been difficult to integrate with real-time control and automation systems. In many ways, this has been like "flying blind" because the ERP system did not have actual data in real time from production. 

Integrating these systems in the appropriate areas can yield big benefits. Rather than fighting the trend of integrating plant and business systems, a more enlightened approach is for the groups to collaborate in the areas that improve efficiency and profits. The application of technology to improve company operations should be exciting to engineers. Consider the possibilities the smart grid creates if IT and automation collaborate to control production based on order demand schedules, instantaneous energy prices, and optimal operating efficiencies. This is an example of control from plant floor through business systems that requires sound engineering and creativity.

Surprisingly, 8.1% of the salary survey respondents indicated the IT and engineering groups have been combined. My hunch is this primarily happens when the groups refuse to work together and management's only alternative is to force cooperation. I talked with the manager at a major company a couple of years ago where they put the controls and automation group under IT. This is a pretty radical approach, and I don't think it is logical because each group needs to specialize in different areas of technology and applications.

My advice is to get to know your IT people and respect their knowledge and expertise. Take them around the plant and explain some of the details of control, so they realize control and automation takes specialized knowledge and knowhow. Then talk about how together you can collaborate to achieve the objective of applying technology to increase efficiency and profits for your company.

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