Curt Hastings and Wade Burns have each spent their 25-year careers evolving a new, increasingly crucial control engineering function. But the job is still so new it does not have a formal title. Even so, if the two men were to meet somewhere between their respective Colorado and West Virginia posts, they could confidently execute the secret handshake.
It’s not because they ply their emerging network- and connectivity-driven trade in the same industrial space. Hastings is a plant-floor systems director for Ball Corporation, which manufactures metal packaging for beverages, foods and household products. Burns is an operations electrical engineer with Console Energy, a coal mining and natural gas exploration company.
Even their education backgrounds fail to explain their mutual skillset. Hastings arrived for his first Ball assignment with a computer science degree. Burns entered the Console mines with an electrical engineering education.
Today they each operate at the point where information technology and plant-floor systems have converged to harness intelligent process control, push production performance dramatically higher and move their organizations to a more connected enterprise.
Essentially, the respective computer scientist and electrical or controls engineer have become information engineers for their organizations. This new function is accountable to blend IT and process knowledge, to create production-efficiency solutions that connect the enterprise and to contextualize and disseminate massive amounts of information. These “hybrid positions” in turn, have enabled their companies to make the right decisions around everything from optimized can manufacturing to coal mining.
From Wingtips to Steel-Toe Boots
At the onset of developing a monitoring system to reduce spoilage, increase efficiency and optimize asset utilization across 17 metal beverage plants, information engineering was a relatively unknown task within Ball. “We were doing well with processes, but felt we had topped out in some instances,” said Curt Hastings. “Our objective was to reach the next level of efficiency and asset utilization.”
In 2009, when Hastings moved from corporate IT to the plant side, Ball knew it was right to embed additional corporate resources in the business units, closer to the operations. “But we had yet to explore and appreciate the potential in putting ‘big data’ to work on the challenge.”
Four previous IT “mini careers” during his first two decades at Ball – from managing voice and data networks to overseeing data warehousing and portal development – equipped Hastings with the special skill set to understand business information facets critical to his current role. But understanding manufacturing processes and systems, predictably, was about acquiring a new set of skills.
“I needed to learn the processes and the equipment to figure out how to leverage system data to improve processes on the plant floor,” he said. “Likewise, if you understand databases but not networking, you are still at a disadvantage. Information engineers have to be well-rounded in a number of disciplines in order to stand in the center and pull the data, software and process pieces together to move plant automation and control forward, to connect these plant-level systems with those of the enterprise.”
“The information engineer is key to getting everyone at the company, from the plant-floor worker up to the CEO, connected in to the same communications network with access to the information he or she needs. The plant-floor person gets information on how processes are running, and the CEO gets information on security, robustness and functionality."
This is one value of a connected enterprise, says Keith McPherson, director of market development at Rockwell Automation. "Within the plant – and the enterprise - there can now be a single version of the truth.”
‘Data Management’ By Walking Around
A few years after starting as a plant engineer with Console Energy, Wade Burns took on a regional electrical engineer role with responsibility for 17 mines around northern West Virginia. In the beginning, he was very familiar with several versions of the truth. His perspective on the evolution of information engineering included watching production data utilization graduate from clipboards and on-site, middle-of-the-night troubleshooting to the foundations of intelligent manufacturing systems and remote analysis. All thanks to integrated, information-driven control architecture.
“My job was to walk around with a clipboard where everything was local,” Burns recalled. “When there was a problem in the middle of the night, I hopped in the car, drove out and took care of the issue. A roundtrip could be 20 miles or 200 miles.”
From his hands-on, in-the-ground vantage point, Burns observed both the opportunities and the obstacles related to helping the company jump to digital information and networked systems.
The underground mines are large. In some cases, equal in size to the island of Manhattan, with 15 miles of conveyor belt necessary to deliver coal from several stories below the surface. The dimensions, of course, represented the clear and obvious opportunity. Even a minor interruption in a coal mining operation can hold up production by thousands of tons.
At the same time, mining has been an industry characterized by firmly held convictions on how to properly run a mine. Burns recalls arriving in 1990 to construct a new control room – including the first time Console replaced panel-type items with an HMI – for a plant built in the 1930s.
“Back then, an operator walked up and down a 50-foot-long control panel with two sticks starting up systems,” Burns said. “I said ‘I’m going to build you a control room. It will have air conditioning, and you’ll have four touch screens to monitor your systems.’ His response was: ‘Why would you do that? We don’t want that stuff in here.’ He was good at pushing those buttons. He’d been doing it for 20 years.”
Selling these advanced, interconnected solutions requires translating the science into outcomes that production employees care about and top management can relate to. The ability to speak all these languages is fundamental to the transformation from plant engineer to information engineer.
“To implement a belt monitoring system for all of the conveyors in a mine, I had to talk long and hard about putting fiber in so we could bring data to the surface and show amps and torques,” Burns said. “As we deployed the solution throughout the mine, using a DOS-based server-client system, dispatchers would say, ‘Now we can see if we have a spill on line number five, and we can send someone to the exact point of the problem.’”
Having information you can rely on and readily access "lowers the bar to curiosity," McPherson comments. You're more likely to investigate about aspects of how a piece of equipment is behaving that perhaps doesn't seem quite right. Now you can get the information to find out what's happening.”
‘The Complete Package’
The technical skills that mark the IT-and-manufacturing convergence represented by information engineering differ greatly from pre-merger job descriptions. Control engineers who programmed and maintained PLCs now must understand and deploy server, network and database technologies. IT specialists traditionally focused on data mining now need to integrate with the production process to make information actionable on the plant floor without interfering with actual production.
Judging by the trail blazing experiences of information engineers– the job description is incomplete without characteristics necessary to energize the technology-based control and automation opportunities.
It appears an information engineer also takes the role of:
- Evangelist. Data on the plant floor can be overwhelming. Helping people witness its power, however, inspires the desire to gather more. There is instrumentation here, but not there. Where should we put the next sensors? Showing the cause-and-effect of information integrated with process demonstrates there is a way to run a plant more efficiently simply by allowing operators to see more things.
- Motivator. Not surprisingly, at this early stage of plant floor information engineering, deploying solutions and realizing advances is an iterative process. It’s about empowering engagement to move the organization from one capability level to the next. Once an improvement project achieves version 1.0, an organization starts learning what works, what doesn’t work, and where new ideas need to be improved with newer ideas.
- Integrator. It is critical to work continuously at blurring the lines of demarcation between IT and manufacturing. Information engineers – with the capability and familiarity to walk in the shoes of both user types – are uniquely positioned to merge the two worlds by providing value that is reliable, consistent, easy-to-understand and realistic to adopt.
These are the people that are taking advantage of intelligence that's been built into process control systems, open standards such as Ethernet, and disruptive technologies such as cloud storage and processing, big data and mobility. They are the “information engineer,” even if they don’t’ have the formal job title yet.
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