The Golden Age of Control

Dr Peter Martin,
Vice President - Business Value Solutions Schneider Electric
The term industrial automation involves automation of processes related to manufacturing, quality control and materials handling. Automation offers multiple benefits such as saving labour, saving energy and materials as well as improving quality, accurary and precision. This article presents before you the concept of industrial automation based on having one centralised ‘brain’ to facilitate production.

Real-time process control has been effectively applied across industrial operations to improve operational efficiency for decades. The primary purpose for automation systems is as delivery vehicles for real-time control. I find it fascinating that as the number of control engineers has been in decline as the number of automation engineers has been on a continual increase. That is, there are more engineers focusing on the technology of the automation platforms while there are less and less focusing on the functions automation systems provide – realtime control.

To this point in time, most process control, whether manual or automatic or whether feedback or predictive, has been applied to improve the efficiency of industrial operations. Efficiency improvement is important but is only one area in industrial companies requiring real-time controls. As the speed of industrial business has continually increased over the last decade, triggered by the deregulation of electric power grids, a number of business variables that had been stable for months at a time have started to demonstrate realtime variability. Traditional approaches to try to manage the profitability of industrial operations on a monthly basis just do not work anymore. Improving the profitability of industrial operations is a real-time control problem requiring good, business-oriented, control engineers.

Automation projects are often categorised as greenfield – new automation systems going into new plants or plant expansions, or brownfield – new automation systems going into existing plants to update or upgrade existing systems. The value proposition for greenfield automation projects is pretty clear and significant. The automation system is simply required to get the plant or plant expansion up and running making it essentially a binary value proposition. If the plant is operating, the automation system has done its job and the company is making money. If not, and the automation system is the cause, the negative value is huge. With this in mind the primary value proposition for automation systems in a greenfield environment is to minimise the risk of on-time delivery of a working system and an operating plant. The value proposition for brownfield automation projects should be focused on the incremental value the automation system provides. In fact, when industrial companies are trying to justify the capital expenditure for an automation system upgrade they typically have to project an expected return on investment (ROI). If the projected ROI is above a threshold limit set by the company’s financial management team the capital investment has a reasonable chance of being approved. This focus on ROI would seem to imply that the industrial company would evaluate the different potential automation solutions on the basis of which of the alternate solutions might maximise the ROI by driving the most incremental business/ financial value at the most reasonable cost.

Profitability is one of a number of industrial domains that had been effectively managed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis 10 years ago, but require real-time controls today. Other domains include reliability, safety risk, environmental risk and security risk. All of these domains, including efficiency of course, require the skills only found in control engineers. This situation presents a huge problem for industrial companies and industrial automation suppliers. Industrial companies are typically not getting the value they should, and could be realising from their automation investments. Automation suppliers find themselves in the position of having a hugely valuable capability that is perceived as providing little of no value. This may be one of the reasons that industrial companies are waiting longer and longer to upgrade installed automation systems. Why would you update a system that is working pretty well if the new system offers little or no incremental value. This may also be the reason that automation systems, which can provide value, are becoming commodities at an ever increasing rate. Automation systems are simply not seen by industrial executives as adding value.

This has to change! Industrial companies can benefit greatly through the effective utilisation of automation technologies, but, for the most part they are not benefitting to the degree they should be. Automation systems can be highly valuable if applied and measured effectively. Perhaps it is time to question the traditional business processes and perspectives that are diminishing the value of automation.