Best practices in technology deployment and human relations distinguish manufacturing’s masters of automation.

Robotic capabilities are embedded in a new motion logic controller from servo drive and motor supplier Rexroth. Source: Bosch Rexroth.

The most basic best practice in automation is finding a standard and sticking to it. Unfortunately, that simple solution can be a complex challenge.

Scrapping legacy systems and choosing from an array of standards are major stumbling blocks on the path to standardization, controls engineers agree, but even more fundamental obstacles exist. “Everyone needs to know,” proclaims Tim Clark, director of automation for Jacksonville, FL-based Stellar Inc., “that there is no standard.”

More precisely, there is no consistent standard, even within a given organization. “Every time a company starts a new project, engineers say, ‘This is the new standard,’ ” explains Clark. Certainly, there are some exceptions. He cites Nestlé’s new 880,000-sq.-ft. Anderson, IN flavored dairy drinks facility as a controls-implementation model. But for the most part, automation projects continue to suffer from miscommunication problems.

The Anderson plant standardized on Rockwell Automation controls and networks and Wonderware MES, “and they’re doing a great job of sticking with those standards,”  according to Clark. “They’re actually doing the interface between MES and ERP, and the blending of manufacturing systems into ERP systems represents a quantum leap.”  But for most manufacturers, standardized automation remains elusive.  Whether it is the mindset differences between controls engineers and IT personnel or the varying performance measures between operations, maintenance and project management, “there’s not a lot of communication going on,” he says. Cost reductions drive automation projects, but all too often, standards result in “plants nobody actually wants to run.”

There is a surplus of standards for motion, logic and communications, which is part of the problem. Another is their complexity.  “I’m an ISA guy, but its S88 (for batch processes) and S95 (for continuous) standards are overkill,” asserts Rich DiBernardo, director of project engineering for Lecron Inc., Secaucus, NJ. “Projects that apply them never reach completion.”

“It’s very top heavy,” agrees Dean Ford, director of food & beverage automation solutions at Maverick Technologies, Columbia, IL. “For a company with many, many plants, building a [reusable code] library and templates and investing in an ISA standard make sense. But for the one-plant shop, I struggle with recommending the standard.” 

Good intentions surrounded the S88 standards effort by the World Batch Forum in the early 1990s, DiBernardo recalls, but too many agendas had to be satisfied. To ensure the functionality they had built into programs for specific clients remained intact, technology vendors lobbied for specifications that can be cumbersome and unwieldy when manual processes are executed.  “A lot of steps in a batch process aren’t worth automating,” DiBernardo says, and simple sequencing changes to rescue an out-of-spec batch can be impossible with many automation systems. To address those issues, his firm developed BatchMetrics, which Lecron promotes as “S88-compliant (only if you want your application to be).”

Commercially available since 2003, BatchMetrics had its genesis in 1999, when Jerry Ciaurro of International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) sought a flexible software system to run a multi-stage dispenser he had developed for the Hazlet, NJ manufacturer. Most of the ingredients in the company’s recipes were automatically metered into the dispenser, but micro-components that were individually scaled required onerous amounts of key entry by operators, recalls IFF’s global automation manager. He needed software that could capture manually scaled ingredient weights and relay them to an ERP system for inventory tracking.

“I use S88 as a concept; it’s not in stone,” says Ciaurro. A simple, modular batching system is a better approach to automation, he believes. IFF uses basic elements of S88 and disregards functions that are irrelevant to its plants. Besides eight US facilities, the company operates in 37 countries on every continent except Antarctica.

Ciaurro would like to standardize on PLCs from GE, but his programmers coexist with a patchwork of Allen Bradley, Siemens, Honeywell and GE controllers.  Legacy systems still operating in some plants pose a bigger obstacle. “There are single controllers tied to DCS, written in Unix code and difficult to understand,” he laments. “Compared to that, the PLC is one of the great advances in controls” in the last quarter-century.

Global automation village

Fierce competitors are gradually becoming technology “partners” in recognition of the interoperability needs of their international clients. Most likely, those end-users have Siemens PLCs in their European plants and Allen-Bradley in North America, and they insist on a common look and feel so factory harmonization can occur at a reasonable cost and with minimal pain. Exponential growth in standards and the need for cooperation between automation vendors was a key message at last fall’s Manufacturing Perspectives conference sponsored by Rockwell Automation.

Those efforts are paying off. “The code for a GE PLC and a Siemens PLC is a little different to write, but the logic of all the major controls is very close now,” states Ciaurro.

Partnerships necessarily involve both direct competitors and related technology firms, points out Charley Rastle, marketing manager-food & beverage industry at Milwaukee-based Rockwell. “You can’t be a major vendor and not be very active in all the standards committees,” he says, citing S88, S95 and OMAC’s Connect-and-Pack initiative for packaging line integration as examples.  “Whenever you can get reusable codes and other intellectual property, you get value and lower deployment costs.”

Removing people from the process has long justified automation spending. “It doesn’t really get you anywhere if you replace two workers on a line, and you still have three other people collecting data,” Maverick’s Ford says, making the case for automated data collection. On the other hand, he allows that a willingness to rethink the fundamental steps in a process distinguishes the most successful automation projects.

Glenn Leask, president of Newport Beach, CA-based Competitive Capabilities International (CCI), takes issue with the belief automated data-collection is part and parcel to effective automation projects. Keeping machines running and ensuring the process is under control are the essence of process manufacturing, he says, but “simple techniques like run charts can keep the process under control.” Consequently, investments in automated data-collection may actually be counterproductive in the quest for world-class manufacturing.

Leask’s firm consults with SAB Miller, Fonterra and other highly automated food manufacturers that have found, no matter how much automation they put in place, many of the same problems remain. “Forget about the buzzwords like lean, 5-S and the rest,” he says. Those systems have value; in fact, CCI helps its clients use those tools when they are appropriate. However, ongoing and long-range change that addresses equipment breakdowns, poor OEE and product defects requires the kind of “foundation practices” espoused in CCI’s TRACC system.

TRACC provides a logical, stage-by-stage road map to unlock, as Leask puts it, “the latent capacity in the equipment by running the machines better, rather than investing in new automation equipment.” Organizations can be characterized by five stages:

  • Chaos and firefighting. No best practice exists.

  • Stabilization and awareness. The biggest problems and opportunities for improvement are recognized.

  • Shop-floor ownership and accountability for performance, maintenance and quality. By this stage, the organization has a good understanding of the capabilities of existing processes and equipment and the bottlenecks in overall manufacturing.

  • Refinement of improvement efforts and improvement of process capability. Only after the process is stable and fully understood are additional automation and capital investment appropriate.

  • World-class manufacturing. Continuous improvement becomes the way the business runs.

    Learning to crawl

    The tension between man and machine is never more apparent than in a plant automation project. “If you don’t show people how they can succeed with an automation system, they will make sure it either fails or is not as successful as it should be,” cautions Maverick’s Ford. The most successful automation projects hinge on staff involvement. “The best success occurs when the client takes people off the floor, involves them in the process and then has them train their peers,” he says.

    Breweries have pushed the automation envelope further than other segments of food and beverage manufacturing. The key to greater productivity, however, is in unlocking people’s potential, not in indiscriminate spending on automation, believes Iain Clarke, director of global manufacturing excellence at Molson Coors Brewing Co., Golden, CO.

    For the last three years, Clarke has used the TRACC methodology from CCI. TRACC is a manufacturing-improvement system that involves shop-floor associates and leadership in best practices such as TPM, lean, six sigma and people systems, and change management.

    Continuous improvement hinges on staff involvement, and until human potential is unlocked, automation investments can produce less-than-expected results, he says. “It’s about delaying technology investment until processes are in control, and bottlenecks and current process capability are fully understood.”

    Performance, process/best practices and people are inextricably linked, and addressing any one element in isolation is unlikely to result in sustainable performance improvement, Clark says. “You can’t just work on the culture. Culture is a result of organizational design, which includes strategy, process, structure, people and motivation/reward. “Changing strategy or processes affects people and the awards structure. A holistic and systemic approach to manufacturing improvement is absolutely necessary for sustainable improvement,” he concludes.

    A holistic approach might benefit from a willingness to adopt automation practices already in place in other industries. Unfortunately, food and beverage firms often believe their processes and problems are unique. “Your problem has probably already been solved on an oil rig, in a power plant or some other place,” points out Ford. Other industries have wrestled with the same unique mindset, adds Rockwell’s Rastle. Automotive firms had their own networking standards for years but finally recognized “a paint room is a paint room,” he says. “Whenever you can get re-usability, you get value.”

    Rockwell has developed a standard controls system for operating a brewhouse, permitting re-usable control modules. “Beer makers are leaders in automation and in re-using automation in different facilities,” says Rastle.  “This helps them get more value.”

    Standards about-face

    For process equipment, multiple communications protocols and networks exist to link machines and field devices. For packaging equipment, standards are more straight-forward, with most electronics companies embracing the IEC61131-3 programming standard and PLCopen. Efforts to extend standardization to motion and logic control have not progressed, however. Since the OMAC working group for packaging machinery standardization was absorbed by ISA, interest in the effort has flagged, notes Rick Rey, business development manager for the packaging industry at Bosch Rexroth Corp., Hoffman Estates, IL.

    The need for uniformity has driven some suppliers, particularly makers of high-speed robotics with vision systems, to focus on proprietary controls. “The open standards can’t give you the performance you want for the line speeds you need to achieve,” maintains John Dulchinos, president of Livermore, CA-based Adept Technology Inc. Robotic systems for picking, placing and palletizing can’t function with “a generic software product,” he says. Adept recently unveiled a software package that bundles robotic vision and conveyor tracking with a compact controls platform.

    Rexroth avoids proprietary programming for its new IndraMotion MLC (motion logic controller) with embedded robotic capabilities. Speed is the issue, Rey explains: Motion controls in robotic applications have to communicate with the drives within 26 milliseconds. The control platform uses an Ethernet-based SERCOS III interface, “our favorite bus,” he says.

    However, it isn’t necessarily the favorite communications bus of other technology providers. For the manufacturer striving for best practices in automation, that reality adds resonance to the observation by Stellar’s Clark: “There is no standard.”

    For more information:

    John Dulchinos, Adept
    Technology Inc., 925-245-3501

    Rick Rey, Bosch Rexroth Corp., 847-645-3750,

    Glenn Leask, Competitive
    Capabilities International,

    Rich DiBernardo, Lecron Inc., 201-617-7727,

    David J. Blaida, Matrix
    Technologies Inc., 419-897-7206,

    Dean Ford, Maverick
    Technologies, 443-876-5217,

    Charley Rastle, Rockwell
    Automation, 303-517-8914,

    Tim Clark, Stellar Automation Group, 904-899-9242,

    Best practices in integration

    Systems integration is the most costly, time-consuming and riskiest element of large plant-automation projects. To reduce the likelihood of failure, Electrical Engineer David J. Blaida of Matrix Technologies Inc., Maumee, OH recommends this road map of best practices:

  • Clearly define and state the automation requirements before a project is assigned.

  • Document a complete, detailed functional specification for the system.

  • If a systems integrator is used, make sure the vendor has successfully executed similar projects in the same type of manufacturing environment.

  • Require system simulation and thorough testing. Put the system through its paces before it is installed on the plant floor.

  • Include operations, maintenance and engineering personnel in the planning and evaluation to make sure it meets their needs and requirements. If staff feels a sense of ownership, the odds of a successful implementation are increased.