The Enlightened Plant: How an Automation System Delivers New Insight to Plant Operations
– Dr Peter G Martin & Grant Le Sueur, Schneider Electric

Industry teams today must comprehend and leverage a massive volume of information delivered by control technologies. A process automation system can inform and enlighten plant personnel at all levels with contextrich information. Last in a series of three, this paper explains the new operational insight that can be delivered to plant operations after meeting basic needs for reliable, secure performance.

This paper focuses on how modern, process automation systems can enhance existing control technology. The goal is not just to inform plant personnel, but to enlighten them with context-rich information – delivering new levels of operational insight for operators, systems engineers, project engineers, maintenance technicians, safety team members, and managers.

Information without context is noise. When surveyed, many of today’s process industry engineers and operators indicate that they have all the information they need, but want help in figuring out what to do with it. The best way to filter that noise is to ensure that each plant function has clear, up-to-date information that enables safe, successful operation of the business. Although each job role operates within multiple contexts, automation systems can assist process plants most in the following areas:

  • Increasing production value
  • Reducing costs of raw materials and energy
  • Improving plant safety and security
  • Improving environmental integrity and regulatory compliance
  • Empowering the plant workforce

This paper, the third in a series of three, focuses on how automation system users can adjust to information overload and can incorporate new tools that will help them to simplify tasks in a more complex environment. The other papers in this series include ‘The Future-proof Plant: Impact of Evolving Operations, Technology, and Workforce Changes’ and ‘The Protected Plant: How an Automation System Mitigates Risks to Operational Integrity.’

Operational Adjustments
Plants will continue to grow larger and more complex. Operators will struggle to handle the increased load. More instrumentation will need to be managed, more data will need to be processed, and, as a result, the potential for more human error will grow. Unlike their predecessors, who viewed a panel board to determine at a glance what was going on in the plant, modern operators rely on workstation screens. They access and absorb much more information at a faster speed. More steps are required in order to properly assess and resolve a problem.

Modern systems will be designed to counter this gap between system complexity and human operator capability. For example, new situational libraries based on modelling tools provide operators with the content they need to adjust set points or otherwise respond with maximum speed. Pre-configured templates can improve operator effectiveness, shorten response time, reduce human error and fatigue, and ensure that all actions are consistent with company procedures, policies, and strategies. In addition, critical information can be displayed on smart phones and tablets for operation from almost anywhere, at any time, depending on the process and the intrinsic safety parameters of the devices involved.

Enhanced Engineering Tools
Remedying production problems based on root-cause analysis is a key role that systems engineers play while increasing production value and managing constraints. Their work environment comprises a large variety of systems, each of which may be from a different vendor and each of whose technologies may be changing rapidly. These engineers need to understand those systems well enough to diagnose production problems quickly, and then scale immediately to make necessary improvements. Timing is critical. They no longer have the time to analyse detailed sequential flow charts, ladder logic, function block diagrams, or structured text to determine what is really taking place in the system. These are abstractions of the actual process – and in many cases, abstractions not created by the engineer who encounters them. Intuitive, easierto- use interfaces are required for these engineers to complete their tasks.

One approach that offers engineers a means for addressing these challenges is based on an enhanced version of Scientific Apparatus Manufacturer’s Association (SAMA) configuration tools that are especially popular in the power industry. These tools present a more accurate representation of the relevant proportional-integral-derivative (PID) blocks and data flows. Such an implementation can also include dynamic filters, which help engineers focus more directly on the control mode in which they are working. Users report that the intuitive modelling of such SAMA tools, combined with the dynamism built into them, can reduce engineering workloads by as much as 60 per cent.

Project Engineering Productivity
Project engineers must deliver new and major upgrades on time and on schedule. They need real-time awareness of changing requirements and need to assess the cost of the technology required.

Their productivity improves when they can access an automation system that decouples the configuration layer from the runtime layers, enabling significant portions of the system to be configured and tested in the cloud. This speeds project delivery by enabling engineering in the context of a hypothetical future state. Such a system also supports engineering workbench and project management tools, which can be deployed in the cloud to enable project engineers to work in realtime collaboration with colleagues around the globe.

Downtime Control
Maintenance technicians working to minimise downtime are also challenged with increasing volume and complexity of information. Systems generate an unprecedented quantity of alarms. The systems that the technicians work on are sourced from many different vendors who use multiple protocols to communicate and who provide unique toolsets and instruction manuals.

One solution is a maintenance response centre that can display maintenance alert dashboards comparable to the alarm management systems that operators use. When maintenance alerts sound, the dashboard helps technicians determine where to start drilling deeper into procedures, inventory and other information they need to solve the problem. Integration of workflow management helps maintenance technicians synchronise their activities with others who may be working on, or be affected by, a problem.

Security Enhancement
Safety team members must secure the plant from safety breaches and cyber attacks – and must do so at the lowest cost, but without the slightest increase in risk exposure. As discussed in ‘The Protected Plant: How an Automation System Mitigates Risks to Operational Integrity,’ the second white paper in this series, the role that a modern system plays in maintaining the operational integrity of a plant includes safety.

When a process automation system combines with a safety system, those managing plant controls can work with enhanced information regarding how and where emergency shutdown capability is being deployed throughout the plant. To change these deployments, they go to a separate interface or request modifications from an engineer dedicated to the safety system – but they have the information they need to work in full awareness of the safety protection levels in operation. Dashboards can provide further context on a company’s risk profile and provide users the maximum flexibility of an integrated experience without jeopardising safety.

Managing In Context
For plant executives and managers, the future will demand more on-the-spot decision-making that could have serious implications for plant profitability, safety, and security. Managers will guide the setting of strategies and polices that will make these decisions easier, but they must be confident that the entire plant is executing accordingly. A futureready automation solution must provide an effective perspective across the enterprise, facilitating better and faster business decisions.

A modern system should provide all components necessary to integrate execution of plant strategies at every level. A template of the operator situational awareness library, for example, could display real-time monitoring of performance against one or more of the objectives mentioned earlier, such as reducing raw material or energy costs (see Schneider Electric white paper ‘How Human Machine Interface (HMI) Impacts Business Performance in Industrial Sites’ for more information regarding the situational awareness concept). Maintenance alerts could be programmed to prioritise based on achieving those same objectives. An operator interface could warn of safety risks that might be introduced by changes in operations, and workflow engines could connect all relevant functions.

In addition to the individual productivity improvements that a new system can bring to each function, aligning everyone on the same strategic page yields unmatched competitive advantage to those companies that implement it. Some of the references at the end of this paper provide more detail on how that alignment can be achieved.

Object Model ‘Future-Proof’ Benefits
Many of the applications that will be needed to manage the future have not yet been developed or even imagined, which is why it is critical to build on an open yet secure system platform. Much like the case with smartphone or tablet apps, adherence to common object models means users can benefit from future managing applications still to be developed. The more closely these applications adhere to the standards, the more easily users can incorporate and benefit from them.

In addition to simplifying the delivery of advanced tools and critical run-time applications, a component object-based architecture and layered design can enable easy plug-in of applications built to open computing standards, such as the following:
  1. Simulation, modelling and software, which supports operator training, real-time online optimisation, and multivariable process control
  2. Enterprise manufacturing intelligence, which delivers real-time insight into trends in production and operation
  3. Corporate energy management, which helps management deal with fluctuating energy costs and supply
  4. SCADA applications that are customised for well-field, pipeline, water/ wastewater, and other applications
  5. Enterprise asset management software, which reduces costs through improved diagnostics, inventory management, and preventive and predictive maintenance
  6. Mobile applications, which deliver real-time procedure guidance to field workers and enable real-time reporting

In the final analysis, automation does not solve problems; people do. While a future-ready, future-proof process automation system can deliver tremendous competitive and protective benefits, the real strength of the control system is in its application, not its technology. That application is in the hands of the people who use it.

Automation has traditionally meant replacing human activity. Now, recent advances in automation technology and the demands of the future have moved the industry into a new age. It is an age in which automation is not replacing operational roles or dumping raw data on people in the plant. Instead, it is enlightening plant personnel with the context-rich information they need, and thus helping them perform their roles better, more safely, and with greater gain – for themselves, their employers, and the consumers of their products.

1. Martin, Peter G., Walt Boyes, and Kaoru Maruta, Real Time Control of the Industrial Enterprise, New York, NY: Momentum Press, 2013.

2. Martin, Peter G., Bottom-Line Automation, 2nd ed., Research Triangle Park, NC: International Society of Automation, 2006.

3. Martin, Peter G., “Real-Time Strategic Empowerment for Improved Profitability,” white paper, Invensys Operations Management, 2012.

4. Martin, Peter G., “Real-Time Profit Control: Driving Profitability in the Dynamic Industrial Environment,” white paper, Invensys Operations Management, 2011.