At the end of the day, a process automation project is measured by how it delivered the unit of production – or in many processes, the “molecule” – to the client. I know, we hang our hat on a lot of other metrics, such as improved asset utilization, better selectivity, increased throughput, higher quality, less waste and whether our neighbors can live around us. But all of those have to do with the molecule. Corporations put a lot of money, time and effort into dressing up their molecule so their neighbors know they’re safe, Wall Street knows they can deliver, and clients understand that the uniqueness of their chemistry and patents are filed and protected. It is, like I said, about the molecule.
In a typical capital project, there’s a lot of planning on what to deliver, where to build the facility and how to design it, not to mention a myriad of other engineering, marketing and EH&S issues and studies. On large projects, design build is typically done using a large EPC; the OEMs provide the process control equipment and operating systems; and engineering companies, like MAVERICK, partner to complete the process automation engineering. This last portion of a typical CAPEX project is less than 10 percent, yet it’s the most critical component and deliverable. With all the shiny new equipment in place, the new control room contains the latest flavor of equipment graphics and interfaces. And when the time comes to press the button and start the plant, there’s great excitement and anticipation!
When the process automation solution is developed by professionals who understand the process and process automation, there’s very little angst over the results. When the process automation solution is developed with tools instead of experienced, intelligent people, you have a right to worry. Tools and IT solutions are no replacement for minds like these. They’re just tools that solve for part of the solution. The molecule does not care if the dollars per unit of measurement – I/O, CPU, etc. – are low or high. Leave that for folks in charge of the numbers and budgets. What does matter to the molecule is safe manufacturing that meets production and quality needs – that comes to life through engineering enabled by process knowledge.
In the U.S., universities graduate less than 7,000 chemical engineers a year, and the demand outstrips the supply. This creates pressure to find “better” or “different” ways to deliver the molecule, hence the focus on offshoring, high-value engineering centers and other names that describe IT tools-focused solutions. The molecule is not impressed. It will start in one form as a physical state, travel through the process designed by process engineers, in equipment obtained from certified suppliers, using algorithms run by the OEM software, using their hardware, until it leaves the process as the desired molecule, and is shipped to a client or transported via a pipeline downstream as a derivative. Along the way, it is shaped by physics and chemical principles and not by the color of the OEM equipment or the corporate signatures on agreements to support one another. In the end, it is the process automation engineer who knows and understands the process, and who knows how to use the tools that make up the control platform, who makes the difference and delivers the molecule.
This CAPEX project paradigm needs new thought around it and new ownership in the process automation space. Engineering companies like MAVERICK are better placed early in the EPC process. They focus not on tools but on process automation solutions – the solutions that deliver the molecule.
Bill Stewart is the vice president, corporate planning and strategy at MAVERICK Technologies. He also directs and manages MAVERICK’s Business Development Group and is the global industry business leader for MAVERICK’s chemical and oil & gas business segments. He concentrates on the strategic value proposition for each client and on partnering for success to meet short-term tactical and long-term strategic goals. Bill joined MAVERICK in 2009 after working nearly 35 years in process automation at The Dow Chemical Company as a people, technical and global leader.