Ensuring Sucess of Automation Projects
Today, the manufacturing industry depends on instrumentation and control systems to achieve manufacturing and business excellence. Industrial firms investing in automation projects need to be aware of the complexities too. The article analyzes the measures to scale up results for such investments. A read on…
We need to be ready to achieve maximum value from investments in automation systems. These include selecting proper automation architecture, using standard communication protocols, choosing right transmitters & actuators, sizing control valves, adopting proper installation & commissioning procedures, and ensuring regular maintenance (including calibration throughout the lifecycle).
In addition, firms must not only invest in automation hardware & software, but also build in-house procedures to design, engineer, and perform other support functions that are inherent subsets of an automation project.
External organizations, such as Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) firms, Main Automation Contractors (MAC), or System Integrators (SI) are outsourced for some services. Yet, it´s imperative for manufacturing companies investing in automation systems to have its own in-house automation team.
The in-house group must be highly skilled, competent, and motivated. It should be able to handle all the aspects related to the automation project- from conceptualization to detailed design & engineering, contracting & procurement, installation, and commissioning. It should also handle routine operation, maintenance, and other automation upgrades.
Generally, discrete industries associated with starting, stopping, and positioning applications typically use Programmable Logic Controllers. On the other hand, process industries, like the refinery & petrochemicals are predominantly concerned with measuring and controlling large numbers of analogue parameters and closed control loops. They use Distributed Control Systems. Also, process industries largely deploy PLC for startup and shutdown operations. Hazardous process plants use Safety Instrumented Systems too.
In fact, the use of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems are wide enough in cases, where operational facilities are geographically dispersed. Examples of this include electric power transmission and distribution systems or water utilities and oil & gas pipelines. Significant similarities exist between these systems. But, they are essentially designed to meet the demands of specific applications.
Investing in Automation Systems…
Why do industries invest in instrumentation and control systems like DCS, PLC, SCADA, and SIS, sensors, transmitters, and actuators? That´s because they want to automate manufacturing processes, manage production costs, ensure product quality & plant safety, and reduce energy consumption.
Automation systems improve the efficiency and productivity of industrial companies. It also helps to ensure safe operation of plants, with minimal operator interventions. For example, they safely start and shut down plant equipment such as pumps, fans, open and close valves or dampers.
Enabling a successful and safe operation of a manufacturing plant requires various associated process parameters. Such parameters include temperature, pressure, level, and flow. They need to be monitored and maintained at their intended values. This is done by automatically regulating them and showing the values to the operator to ensure safe operation of the plant.
Evolution of the Industry
Over the years, the role of instrumentation and control systems have expanded. This trend will continue in the emerging Industry 4.0 era. Initially, automation systems were shop floor enablers deployed to ensure reliable and safe operation of the plant & equipment. With time, they have also emerged as business enablers. They help industrial firms improve plant efficiency and achieve operational excellence.
To achieve this, one needs to leverage the information provided by automation systems. This can reduce operational & maintenance costs, as well as plant downtime, through asset management.
In addition to displaying process parameter values, abnormal operating conditions, and control actions; automation systems automatically generate plant performance information. This includes information about energy consumption, plant efficiency, and other key performance indicators (KPI).
KPIs may be related to environmental sustainability. This includes energy consumption and other resources, for example, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste generation.
Maximizing Returns from Automation System Investments
In order to explore all the benefits of automation systems, they must be conceptualized, engineered, installed, and maintained well. Often, manufacturing firms use the services of external contractors such as EPC, MAC, or SI for this. But at the same time, it´s also vital for the in-house team to be in contact with these contractors.
Not only this, but the in-house team should be also involved in all the activities-right from conceptualization through implementation, and operational & upgrade phases.
Excellence in all activities during every phase is necessary for a successful automation project. For this, the team must own deep automation & plant process domain knowledge. It should also have multidisciplinary skills, besides other professional competencies.
Ensuring Skill Up-Gradation
To successfully implement an automation project, technical and engineering skills, as well as project management abilities are also required. Design and engineering decisions relating to the selection and location of the sensors, transmitters, and actuators, and their installation and maintenance, are critical for ensuring automation systems to deliver their full value.
The selection process involves receiving and sharing data with process & equipment suppliers and project contractors. Then, a firm must work with them. They need to decide upon the type of transmitters, tapping points for sensors, location of control valves and flow elements, etc.
The FEED (Front-End Engineering Design) data may undergo changes during project execution phase. Here, the automation project team must be flexible in their REP (Request For Proposal) document. Making sure to fully leverage all built-in control systems’ functionalities is also crucial to ensure maximum value from automation investments.
These include alarm management functions, historian, asset management, control in the field, etc. Lastly, to reap value from automation systems, one needs to depend on the operators’ skills too. As such, investing in training will yield rich dividends!
Building an Automation Team
The automation team must deal with issues related to technology and management. It should also deal with different areas and disciplines in a team-based work environment. As such, group members should be aware of instrumentation, control systems and process operational procedures. In addition, they should have good communication and soft skills. These skill sets include problem-solving, troubleshooting, and continuous-learning abilities.
Secondly, automation technology is continually evolving and rapidly converging with IT. This means that it´s necessary for the team to stay up-to-date with industry trends and technology developments, both in Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) domains.
The emergence of Industry 4.0, rapid OT – IT convergence, and imminent cyber threats highlights the importance of this. Thus, it´s necessary for the employer to proactively build the team and its competencies.
The future belongs to those companies that recognize the pivotal role instrumentation and control systems play in achieving manufacturing and business excellence. To succeed ahead, a company needs to make significant investments in automation systems and to build an excellent automation team.
In reference to this, ACM (The Automation Competency Model) was developed by ISA (International Society of Automation) & AF (Automation Federation). The model describes the abilities, knowledge, and skills required for automation professionals.