Process Automation—the View from the Factory Floor

Source: ABB Automation - Control Products
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ABB Automation - Control Productsast week's AMR Conference, "Strategic Manufacturing and Automation," (Boston, Sept. 9-10) was billed as having a strong orientation to automation on the plant floor. And while there were numerous testimonials from industry users to the value of manufacturing execution systems, distributed control networks and other modern automation technologies, the overall picture that gradually appeared was how truly painful the current situation is for vendors of hardware and software for process control systems.

During a panel discussion among representatives of <%=company%> , Aspen Technologies, <%=company%> , Honeywell and Foxboro, there was a general consensus that the number of leading vendors (currently around a dozen) would probably shrink to five or six over the next five years. (That one of those vendors, Elsag Bailey, is currently on the block was not overlooked.) The panel discussion also highlighted the uncomfortable position of these vendors as being between the small, software-based control specialists that offer the latest in control technology, and the large vendors of business systems for enterprise resource planning (ERP) that are garnering an increasing share of the industrial automation sales dollar. "We sometimes wish that we could get the same attention from upper management [among users] that the ERP vendors do," lamented Martin Muller, VP of systems for Honeywell Industrial Automation (Phoenix, AZ).

Even while all this is going on, the control vendors find themselves dancing to the tune being written in Redmond, WA, by Bill Gates and Microsoft. Having moved from proprietary systems (many of which still need to be supported) in the 1980s to Unix or various flavors of "open" systems in the 1990s, most of the vendors are now scrambling to install reliable versions of Windows NT, or at least to make their systems as accessible as possible to NT calls. The situation demands that someone—possibly the control vendors themselves—step forward as the integrator of the various software packages and hardware systems. But while many of the leading control vendors have set up such implementation services, says Leif Erikson, a senior analyst with AMR, "the concept has not taken off. Users are concerned that the process automation suppliers have the necessary project management experience, and that the vendors might lack the necessary objectivity" to install competitors' products.

Still, the process automation business has moved very far, very fast, and many users can look to new potential in the products and services that are being offered. Larry Evans, CEO of AspenTech, noted that "we look at the ERP system as the manager of a production strategy, and the control system as the executor of that strategy. But for the ERP to be a successful manager, it needs good information about how they system is working now. This can be obtained from the kinds of model-based control technologies that we offer."

Jim Nyquist, president of the Performance Solutions Div. of <%=company%> (Austin, TX) noted the value in adopting to the Foundation Fieldbus communication standards for control instrumentation, in that this standard will open up the plant floor to best-of-breed choices in hardware, and streamline the delivery of plant data to whatever corporate business systems need them.

Zafar Kamal, Director of MES program at ABB Automation (Rochester, NY) noted that his company is succeeding in providing an automation system that combines data management over the product life cycle (from initial development to fullscale production) and management of the asset life cycle (providing the data needed to maintain a plant).

And Peter Martin, a VP at Siebe Intelligent Automation (Foxboro, MA) noted that with his company's recent acquisitions of Wonderware and Simulation Sciences, along with existing capabilities as an SAP alliance partner, customers now have a rich array of offerings from one vendor. Martin says that Siebe is also well along in migrating from a product orientation to a services one.

The Repac Model
Bill Swanton, director of research at AMR, offered a new synthesis of the process automation business, one that tries to pull together the disparate trends occuring in the field. Called the Repac (for Ready, Execute, Process, Analyze and Coordinate) model (Fig. 1), the model builds on the two flows of information in an enterprise—up from the plant floor, to the execution level, to the planning level—and across the supply chain—from supplier to plant to customer.

Fig. 1: The New Model of Manufacturing Business Processes

The key to this model, says Swanton, is that plant owners can choose what business systems occupy what parts of the overall process. A company with "centralized ERP" (that is, ERP being handled mainly at headquarters) could choose not to implement ERP at the plant level, and to keep planning and scheduling a corporate IT function. A company with "plant-centric ERP" could seek to integrate ERP modules on the plant floor, and to tightly link production and planning. "Set an architectural direction for your plant," Swanton advises, "and then buy products on the basis of their fit with the architecture." Swanton adds that this model guides the user to integrate various systems only as necessary to meet business goals.

By Nick Basta