I attended an IET event organised by the Manchester Branch on Automation Trends at Chancellors Hotel & Conference Centre this evening. It has been awhile since I attended an IEE event, and this was the first event I attended after IEE changed their name to IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) to reflect the importance of "Technology" in engineering. Catalyst for the name change was the merger of IEE with IIE on 31st March 2006.
Unfortunately, I missed the first half of the seminar given by Duncan Botting, Head of Technology at ABB on "automation in the energy sector", and Arthur Charlesworth, Validation Consultant at ABB on "setting the scene for automation trends". The second half was concluded by Steve Royston of Process Engineering at ABB, demonstrating "DCS and future trends". There were two other speakers: Paul Dubar of Jacobs Engineering (missed this one as well) on "the EPC prospective on control systems" and David Lovit, MD of Prospective Engineering on "advances solutions".
For those who does not know, I commenced my career as a control and instrumentation engineer and then as a SCADA engineer. So the topics covered were of familiar territory, and it was great to hear what the latest trends were. It seems that ABB and others have packed so much functionality into process controllers, that there is not much more they can do to improve the operations at the local processor level other than to miniaturise them . Instead, the concentration is now on value addition through asset management and maintenance, and other advanced functionality. In addition, more and more systems are being integrated with ERP systems to provide management information as well as improve overall business effectivenes. This is the new frontier for automation product manufactures and solution providers as they are having to acquire new skills in order to retain any competitive advantage they have. In the short term (could well be for long term), this is addressed by teaming up with ERP specialists.
Now think about the following scenario:
- The smart temperature transmitter detects signs of potential failure of some functionality in the very near future.
- Through the 4-20 mA analogue channel, it reports the potential future failure to the local processor, perhaps over the HART protocol.
- The local processor reports to the central system through SCADA.
- Appropriate alarms are displayed on the GUI and maintenance crew is notified of the issue.
- The Asset Management System reports this to the ERP.
- ERP checks for spares and if sufficient spares are not in stock, starts placing an order for replacement parts
- ERP generates the necessary paperwork and wait for typical paper based approvals, collection by royal mail, etc etc.
Up to item 6 can be automated by integrating various in-house systems. Beyond item 7, the company is having to interact with supplier(s). In most cases, the traditional paper based processes are followed. This can significantly delay response times and the benefits achieved by automating functionality within plant environment may now be lost when overall processes are taken into consideration.
Now think about this scenario (I am using ABB as an example – this can equally apply to Siemens, GE and others):
- ABB wins a contract to equip a new plant with process control systems.
- Client demands that their SAP is integrated with the process control system to feed senior management with vital information in addition to scheduling, inventory control and order processing.
- ABB hires the company who maintain and support the SAP system to help them integrate ABB’s process control system.
- ABB begins to work with ebdex at the same time to integrate SAP’s ordering and invoicing modules with suppliers systems through ebdex Document Exchange.
Now consider how powerful this integrated solution is. Other than the client, three companies are involved:
- ABB are experts of process control.
- The company who maintains and supports SAP system are experts of SAP systems
- ebdex knows how to handle transactions (purchase to payment)
Will above not increase the competitive advantage ABB has even further? Can ABB achieve the same by undertaking all three? I doubt it. But they can manage the whole process as a turnkey contractor (ABB is good at this), and increase their margin for the extra risk they take by working with two other players. Isn’t this a WIN WIN for all parties? This shows that opportunities are endless. Its a matter of identifying one’s strengths and focusing on them to deliver a superior customer proposition.