Management and process control: a permanently open loop?

01 November 2006

Process control engineers need to raise their visibility in the plants where they work.

Hardly any function in a manufacturing plant receives as little attention from management as process control. Operations and even sometimes engineering or services managers hardly know what the
instrumentation and control folks are busy with and why—except when they come and ask for large sums of money, e.g. for replacing their DCS. In particular, plant leaders are not aware what the contribution of automatic control to the economical success of the plant can be and actually is.

Being kind of a white spot on the manager’s asset map, no wonder that process control typically gets little
support from the top—sometimes with dramatic results: Quite a few plants have drastically reduced process control staff over time and some have even outsourced that function—actions that are totally in contradiction with the need for ever higher plant performance. Thus, although some control folks actually like their ‘splendid isolation,’ the situation is far from ideal, both from a total plant perspective as well as for the individual players involved.

The information gap
Many, if not most reasons for these weak interactions between management and process control are related to information deficiencies:

....Lack of experience. Although most managers have held positions in different fields during their career, in
design, operations, product planning, the majority have no hands-on experience in process control. They do
not really understand this discipline. It is alien to them.

One reason process control is so unfamiliar to them is that the discipline requires a certain specialisation. It demands a longer ‘residence time’ on the job, which of course attracts (and produces) specialists rather than administrators or managers. To make things worse, most companies do not have an adequate system in place to harmonise the recognition and the financial compensation between specialists and administrators. In the end, being in a specialist position is often harmful for career and income; those ambitious to climbing the career ladder carefully avoid it.

....Lack of direct information:
Management receives little input on the status of plant automation and the resulting consequences. Very
seldom meaningful performance measurement and reporting mechanisms are in place. Therefore, simple (but certainly not stupid) questions like ‘What percentage of the controllers is permanently on manual, and what are the consequences’ become pointless. My guess is that in over 95% of the plants the first part of the question cannot be answered, and forget about asking the second part! So it is not really surprising that
typically little effort is made to improve the performance of the controllers, although process control folks keep complaining about that.

If it were brought to the attention of the operations manager that there are some loops or control schemes
that, when properly functioning, could bring a couple hundred thousand Euros every year, but are suffering
from low service factor because the involved analysers are poorly serviced and unreliable, then he would
certainly take actions to ensure that these credits do get captured.

....A language barrier. Control professionals do not make it easy for others to understand their subject: They love to use their own terminology and language which is hardly decodable by other technical folks, let alone management. Management is (and should not) be interested to learn that a certain loop could be smoothened by a novel combination of fuzzy logic, neural nets and reduced gradient based optimisation. What they need to know are the old three figures any investment is based on: The expected income, the cost and the payback time. And, they need to understand how performance improvements lead to overall, tangible and measurable benefits, they need to understand the mechanisms, not the technical details behind them.

Why do we want to close the loop?
Although quite a few control engineers are happy about their situation (‘I enjoy my work most when I am left alone’), we do need management attention and active involvement because there are issues that cannot be solved within the process control organisation alone.

Also: Today’s manufacturing plants are not just engaged in making products but also in an economical war. The survivors will be the ones who apply the right strategies and make the best use of their resources and ‘weapons.’ Any function in the plant can be regarded as an (economical) weapon and the leaders should know what’s in the arsenal and when and how to apply it. Missing out on just one could be decisive.

Let us focus again on process control: First off, we need management to establish the proper organisational structure, a fact that is surprisingly often missed: In many companies the ‘old’ structures persist; control activities are handled by the ‘instrument group,’ which is usually busy with short–term troubleshooting work, or with hardware projects.

Now and then situations arise where they need to do some ‘true’ control work. A strategy must be defined, the control scheme designed, implemented and tuned. This, however, requires longer term effort—work that cannot be done properly when always interrupted by urgent requests to fix this or that immediately. This incompatibility should be recognised by management and any operations improvement related work should be strictly separated from daily ad-hoc activities.

Even worse, we sometimes come across constructions that, by design, cannot work at all. I once visited a plant where one group, manned with experienced control engineers, was responsible for the design of advanced process control (APC) applications. Yet another group, manned with system engineers without any control background at all, was in charge of implementing these applications into the DCS. Worst of all, that second group had the authority to decide if a certain application was to be built or not—despite their obvious lack of competence. Needless to say, the result of this ‘co-operation’ was disastrous.

Apart from these fundamental actions, we need management involvement in any longer term work to
ensure that it is fully in line with the objectives of the plant and the company. We need assistance in the daily work as shown by the example with the analyser problems above. And we control engineers want recognition and rewards for our achievements—and who else but management could give us that?

So, how can we get the loop closed?
From my personal experience, a key prerequisite is to give management better information on the objectives, possibilities and benefits of process control, about our actual achievements—in their language—and also about the still untapped potential. Thus education and information are the key words here.

1. Education
Non-technical staff need to learn how process control can improve operations and the profitability of the
plant. We need to tell others what ‘improved control’ means, and what the final impact on the production will
be. This is not at all obvious to outsiders.

Unfortunately, this is a topic that most control folks do not know themselves and, surprisingly enough, show little interest. We offer a very successful seminar on the economics of APC and organisational aspects: Every participant so far has afterwards taken the initiative, stepped up the control activities or even set up a new APC function. Yet, when we ask our process control contacts to invite their bosses to the seminar, 99% of them see no rationale for managers to deal with these topics.

2. Information and involvement
Process control needs to do a better job of informing management what it has contributed (and still could
contribute) to meet the plant’s operational objectives. When I was APC manager in an oil refinery, for every major application we produced three pieces of documentation: First a technical one, then one for the operators, and finally one for management. On one page or less we explained the motivation, the purpose, and any special features or achievements of the APC strategy and the associated credits.

The last item deserves some more words: It is best when we report our success in monetary figures. This tops every perception and opinion. I was fortunate to be with a company—the only one to my knowledge—where every APC manager had to calculate the credits his applications were delivering. This, along with some other specialties, is certainly a key reason why this company was, and is, the leading beneficiary of APC.

Consultants have estimated that, as a result of APC, it gains between one and two dollars per tonne more than its competitors. This is a nice sum even for a mid-sized refinery that processes five million tons per year!

Keeping management informed about our (substantial) contributions was worthwhile. The APC organisation
always had eight or nine people in the group, and this in a plant of around 200 employees. The group
concentrated on APC applications, not with daily problems and projects. This manpower ratio is hardly found
elsewhere. We also had a hardware engineer from the DCS vendor permanently on-site. This was horribly
expensive but we could easily prove hour response time would cost us more because of the lower service factor of our control applications.

The size of the APC organisation and our special arrangements were only possible because we gave the
decision makers both sides of the equation: We gave them the cost but also, and more importantly, we gave them the resulting outcome (or better: income). Besides, we enjoyed another status as well: the APC team became a prime address for help and advice by all levels of the organisation.

Clearly, management should understand process control just as much as any other key discipline in the plant. One could also argue that by now every plant manager should know the results of such landmark studies like the one by Solomon Associates in the late 1980s showing that the two statistically most significant success factors for the profitability of the investigated plants were a) the education level of the staff and b) the degree of the use of APC. And one could argue that management should know by now that only monitoring the dynamic performance, not just average values, will tell them about the true state of the plant.

But, there is a gap that prevents better co-operation, a gap that management cannot fill by themselves and where process control needs to help, with education and especially with information—just as any control loop needs adequate input to function properly. As the examples have shown, the return of this effort can be substantial for process control itself and also the plant as a whole will benefit from closing that loop.

(Some more aspects of APC can be found at, look for ‘Tactics.’)

Hans H. Eder; that a contract with the typical 5-6

Print this page | E-mail this page