Can Data Take a Shift
Given recent advances in data acquisition and analytics, some users and developers are investigating whether better, closer-at-hand information can patch some of the know-how and experience gaps created as veterans are replaced by rookies.
“It’s always hard to find new people to fill the shoes of those with institutional knowledge. This lack hasn’t changed, but the Plan B these days is taking that knowledge and building more of it into controls, and using it and human capital to make operations more efficient,” says John Tertin, sales and marketing director at ESE Inc., a Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)-certified system integrator in Marshfield, Wis. “Even veterans did many procedures they didn’t have to back when controls were more manual. Now, we have automated data and IIoT, and they’re letting us do integration projects that we couldn’t do before, such as inter-company compliance between plants.
“For example, we worked with a natural cheese-maker that uses a very precise process that relies on institutional knowledge and written data, and were able to implement a paperless batch reporting system that gave its operators a lot more time in their day. We also worked with a salad dressing, ketchup and sauce manufacturer with many formulas that needed to integrate its inventory transactions with SAP software, and manage its MES layer and controls down to its pumps and valves. Both manufacturers use the same ControlLogix controls between their tanks and fillers, and we added ESE’s flexible batch engine that combines PLCs and HMI screens developed with Rockwell Automation software, but we also integrated much of their institutional knowledge into their new batch sequences, including issues their experts would look for and procedures they’d perform for the best results.”
Tertin reports ESE’s batch solution includes enough best practices that today’s operators don’t have to be as expert as those in the past. “This can help a user’s workforce at all levels. However, when we train onsite near the end of commissioning, it’s all onscreen and functions just as millennials would expect, so the veterans can be more impacted than the newbies,” explains Tertin. “We try to have clients understand that automation means operators don’t have collect data manually or push as many buttons, but they still have to turn on their controllers to run more efficiently. In this case, one operator that used to run four systems can now run six. Unfortunately, automation still has to deal with the stigma that it causes jobs to be lost, which isn’t true. Automation enables organizations to utilize their staffs in more value-added ways, such as optimizing production, responding faster to recalls or other incidents, and becoming advisors to more artisan-style processes, instead of frantically running around as they did in the past. Plus, digitalizing formerly written data means it’s more accessible, so users aren’t flying blind because they can easily see it on screens or upcoming augmented reality (AR) interfaces.”
To further support its clients, Tertin adds that ESE also recently developed a support gateway edge device, which includes a Microsoft Windows server and VMware hypervisor, which distributes SCADA systems such as Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk View SE to users via thin-client interfaces. “This lets us know if the PLCs and servers are running, and enables remote monitoring SCADA via two Ethernet adapters or a cellular modem, which can take data to a cloud service or send discrete event via email,” adds Tertin. “These functions can help thinly spread staffs, and frees them do more useful tasks instead of just sitting in front of a screen waiting for red lights.”