Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Lessons learned: How to avoid pitfalls and make the best decisions in automation

July 26, 2016
By Treena Hein

Jul. 26, 2016 – Over the past 25 years, many companies in Canada and beyond have learned the hard way that automation must be implemented carefully. Done the right way, it can save costs and optimize processes directly and indirectly, boosting profits and opening new markets.

Poorly-executed automation can cause a wide range of headaches and also create new ongoing issues that never existed before. So, although everyone knows that decisions surrounding the automation of a process — or the upgrading of systems that already exist — must be made with care, what exactly does that mean? Manufacturing AUTOMATION talked to two experts about how best to navigate the minefield and come out ahead.

First, let’s review reasons to automate in the first place. “Yes, automating saves labour costs, but it comes with costs for energy, programming, maintenance and more,” says John O’Rourke, president and CEO of Sigit Automation in Calgary, Alta. “You should think carefully about how you might partially automate or make other changes before you automate that can save you substantial costs.” O’Rourke gives the example of putting the right equipment in the right areas. “In many plants, there are zoned ‘explosion areas,’ and if you can change things in that area, the area can be de-zoned,” he says. “Then you are free to use reduced-costs machines in that section and carry out processes more efficiently.”

Cost savings aside, automation is also put in place when there is no choice — when a task either can’t be done manually, or the quality, repeatability and reliability required can only be achieved with automation.

Lastly, automation is done for safety reasons, notes Christian Schacher, integrated solutions manager at True North Automation in Calgary. “If you automate the monitoring of critical processes, equipment will automatically shut down when it should,” he says. “An operator or even a team of them cannot be constantly checking a process to make sure it’s within limits.” He adds that automation is also used to restrict access to areas or work cells to protect people’s safety.

If the need for automation is clear, here are some factors to consider to make the best decisions possible.

First analysis
“Most customers don’t understand their needs and this is the critical first step,” O’Rourke says. “I’ve seen consultants over and over steering customers towards their own comfort zones and the project ends up being over-automated or under-automated. We can automate anything you want, but is it practical?” He says the first step any reputable automation firm should take is a thorough exploration of the client’s wants and needs, followed by a session where the firm explains that back to the client. “They have to know we are listening and they themselves need to understand their own situation,” O’Rourke explains.

Keep it simple
The solution to meet identified needs should be as simple as possible, in O’Rourke’s view. “Over-automating and over-engineering is a costly mistake,” he says. “We only need to solve the problem.”

Bridging the gap
You just can’t build something and leave, stresses O’Rourke. “Your automation firm has to bridge the gap from engineering to operations and maintenance,” he says. “It’s critical to make sure there will be no gaps at the end of the day.”

Painstaking cost analysis
O’Rourke advises a full exploration of the costs of each automation option. “Design and install is one thing, then there are ongoing costs,” he notes. “For example, once you get into automated data gathering, what are you going to do with the data? What are the costs with data storage and analysis and acting on that analysis? Ongoing programming fixes are another cost. The programming should not be so complex that you only have one person to call who can fix it. This scenario happens more often than you might think.”

Avoid vendor/hardware bias
Schacher points out it’s very easy for an automation firm’s staff to become complacent and simply suggest the control system platform they are most comfortable with, rather than analyzing the situation and suggesting a true ‘best-fit’ solution. “We’ve had clients south of the border relying on us for their control system design, and we were considering hardware that we’re familiar with,” he says. “That hardware was proven in Alberta, but we realized we needed to pick something they are used to there. It’s up to the automation firm to understand how a system that’s best for the client works when we’re not familiar with it. It’s our responsibility to take on that burden, that learning curve.”

Schacher also notes there are several popular supply brands for main automation systems but that there are many specific process situations in manufacturing where there are hundreds of solutions — and the expense of a big brand can be avoided.

Serviceability and obsolescence
Automation systems must also be serviceable by local companies. In addition, parts for older systems will become impossible to purchase at some point in time, and Schacher says it’s another responsibility of your automation firm to know what’s being phased out. “There are systems still in use from the late 1980s when automation was taking off, and they’re obviously very rugged and dependable, but the hardware and software is just so outdated that they’re now being phased out,” he says. “It’s up to us to know these things and forewarn the customer when they only have a few years left with this tech, and ask if they have considered a migration strategy. This is becoming more important all the time.”

Schacher remembers one customer in such a bind to find an outdated replacement component that staff had to try eBay. “What we want to avoid is the failure of a critical component that has become scarce or obsolete, which would result in extended downtime,” he explains. “You need a migration strategy, where you have a planned switchover to a new system. You may be down a week while you migrate, but it’s preferable to having no replacement parts and potentially being down much longer.”

Overall, a migration strategy involves deciding to preserve as much of the original program code and hardware as possible, or starting from scratch. Schacher says this decision is affected mainly by customer comfort level and cost. “It’s up to the automation integrator to demonstrate the tremendous value that can be realized from a complete rebuild,” he explains. “The audit process in preparation for a migration includes the system architecture diagrams, shutdown keys, control narratives, instrument indexes and control system drawings, which are all especially valuable to an older facility where they may have lost confidence in this documentation over the years.”

Schacher usually favours going with a completely new control system because of the way it can help optimize plantwide processes. “New software platforms also allow for more flexibility and easier troubleshooting,” he adds. “And newer systems can interact with a wider range of end devices.”

Modern control systems are also built in a modular fashion, which makes them highly flexible and of course, scalable. “The need to expand is very common, so you want to be prepared to do that,” Schacher says. “With an older system, it’s so much harder to integrate hardware additions.”

Concluding thoughts
In the end, O’Rourke believes the more people you can bring in for their views and opinions, the better. “IT personnel have their perspective on networked systems and integration, programmers have theirs, maintenance have theirs, and so on and so on,” he says. “Getting everyone’s input and perspectives from all angles will go a long way to helping you make the best decisions.”

Schacher agrees. “Integrators (automation firms) need to understand a bit about everything,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to see the big picture. We’re usually the last ones remaining on site to commission a plant, so we need to be able to identify any design shortcomings ahead of time. When not everything is taken into account in the upfront design, we are faced with a lot of decisions, and companies need to understand there is sometimes no way to fix a poor design with more automation. It might have to do with improper sizing of some process component or misuse of a machine function, and simply adding a timer or trying to change the function just won’t help. Sometimes we have to take a step back and have the other engineering disciplines re-look at their design. We have to have that hard conversation.”

Treena Hein ( is an award-winning Ontario freelance science and tech writer.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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