Beyond control…

Paul Gay explains how suppliers of control systems have adapted a strategy to include long-term maintenance and even asset management contracts.

The face of control systems is changing.

The controllers that do the work have matured to the extent that they have virtually become commodities, and the main pressure from the user is now standardisation and economy. There has probably never been so much push on control and automation suppliers to drive down the price of their products.

Fortune magazine recently stated that the process industries in the US could save up to $60bn annually by reducing maintenance costs. Remote repair and diagnostics, said the magazine, offered a way to reduce these massive maintenance costs. It is generally thought that maintenance costs in the process industries could represent as much as 40% of the sales price of the goods produced. The task of cutting such costs is now at the forefront of control equipment suppliers’ minds.

Even before last month’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the pressure was on the process control sector to produce better results and this has dramatically changed its approach to the business.

The economic downturn in the global economies has accelerated this process.

Current thinking from major companies is to provide a more complete service for their customers by managing all control needs and assets and ensuring that plants operate effectively and efficiently. By significantly reducing lifetime costs of running a manufacturing facility, the automation supplier can expect long-term and lucrative contracts.

Partnership and collaboration

In recent weeks, all the main companies have stressed this phase change in their activities. One example is Honeywell. Despite the recent failure of the takeover by General Electric (after being blocked by the EU), the company has been concentrating on partnership and collaboration.

Recent contract wins include management contracts with Alcoa, Sasol, Dupont and DSM. The Alcoa job is a good example of the new approach. This contract spans 10 years and involves nine manufacturing sites. Valued at $300m, it features performance-related pay and encourages best-practice consistency. Another example is work won at South Africa’s synthetic fuel maker Sasol, which is valued at $12m – but has no hardware content.

Although Honeywell issued a profits warning because of the troubles expected in the aviation sector following 11 September, commercial aviation only represents 15% of the group’s $25bn turnover.

Another initiative is the Abnormal Situation Management consortium, a Honeywell-led R&D group focused on developing systems to reduce the frequency and impact of plant incidents. The consortium estimates a potential 40% reduction in operator-related incidents with the implementation of effective ASM practices.

It believes that providing plant operators with solutions to detect anomalies, such as a bearing running hot, before they develop into incidents, like the hot bearing failing and bringing production to a halt, could offer those operators a competitive advantage over ‘traditional’ process automation systems users.

Invensys has also said that it is striving for a lower cost of asset ownership. The company believes that its market is demanding a common architecture for all forms of control: discrete, hybrid, batch and process. Using IT techniques such as plug-and-play, it plans to develop open systems which can integrate with existing systems. The company is keen to stress that this will be an evolutionary process so customers will not have to throw away existing infrastructure and systems.

Subsidiaries such as Baan will look after the discrete business, while Wonderware will handle the process side. Eurotherm, Triconex and Foxboro are set to handle the pure control aspects. A unified and open automation family called Archestra will provide a common framework to accommodate the application components, thereby offering a new business model.

Invensys has identified maintenance, repair and operations as big business for its measurement brands. MRO is dealing with replacement equipment, so the customer knows the product and its application and knows how to install and commission it. So in Invensys’s view there is no need for sales or technical support for this type of business and, by eliminating such costs and through economies such as lean manufacturing and global sourcing of components, the company can sell equipment direct using a website at considerable discounts.

Commodity prices

Its latest offering is a range of pressure transmitters sold under the brand. Although they are manufactured to the same standard and in the same factories as the company’s branded equipment, the transmitters are available on a five-day turnaround at $375 compared to say $1000 for the full-service version.

Emerson, meanwhile, is much more upbeat than its competitors. John Berra, senior vice-president of Emerson Process Management, said at a recent press conference that he was looking forward to ‘a year of a lifetime’ when the division reveals its full year figures. ‘Growth is far faster than the industry’s,’ said Berra. ‘This will be a very good year for us with sales up 10% and profits increasing over 20%.’

Berra made the prediction at the launch of his division’s asset optimisation package, which is intended to help customers improve plant reliability. ‘Asset optimisation is part of a vision that extends beyond a plant’s immediate maintenance and repair needs to a broader view, focused on attaining maximum performance from a plant’s assets,’ he said. ‘The access to accurate, model-based equipment performance data and costs of degradation over a secure internet link is an exciting innovation for optimising assets. ‘It means that on-site personnel can team with experts anywhere for guidance and planning specific to their equipment. Obviously this opens up major performance gains.’

Current users include BASF Petronas Chemicals, which selected EPM’s Performance Solutions Division to support maintenance of process controls and instrumentation in newly-constructed chemical production facilities in Kuantan, Malaysia.

What then of the technologies to look out for in the months and years to come? Pundits such as consulting firm ARC are suggesting that key technologies to watch for in 2001 include thin client human-machine interfaces, XML, Java, wireless and Bluetooth, HSE fieldbus and web application hosting. In the world of motion control we can look forward to further developments in STEP-NC machine tool language and FireWire-based motion control networking. We can expect developments in publish/subscribe technology to play an important role in networking.

For flow measurement, advanced ultrasonic technology will surely make its mark in the process industries – a market up to now dominated by pressure transducers – especially as the petroleum industry is soon to adopt ultrasonics for fiscal flow measurement (that is measuring the quantity of oil or gas extracted from a well for use in calculations of tax liabilities).

So there are plenty of developments in prospect. Coupled with the new focus on cutting the cost of maintenance and asset ownership, it can only be good news for users.