Design First – Build Later

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Design First!

Sounds simple. It makes sense. But far too many people do not do this. They put together an idea, a process, but fail to take the design to completion before starting to build. Cutting corners always comes at a price. There is an old saying in Project Management, “You can have it Good, Fast or Cheap, pick any TWO”. Cutting corners will bump your cost, decrease quality, or possibly both.

A while ago I was tasked with designing and building a system for groundwater and soil remediation. The science was basic. The groundwater contained multiple hydrocarbons including both light ends and DNAPLs and the soil above the water line also contained volatile hydrocarbons that were creeping up from the contaminated water. We had made many of these in the past, and since. The issue was not the remediation science, the issues were in the complexity of the system and the physical constraints of the project.

I have made countless containerized systems, where you fit the equipment into standard, or in some cases high cube, 40 foot long ISO shipping containers. This is a very effective method as it allows the system to be easily shipped anywhere while providing a safe, robust enclosure for the system to operate. ISO containers are also quite plentiful, and reasonably priced, making the economics of their use is advantageous.

The First Issue

The container needed to be compartmentalized. We were going to be bringing in groundwater that contained various hydrocarbons, some of which were light end and volatile. The part of the container that housed the incoming feed piping from the wells, the oil water separator, and the double wall tank for hydrocarbon storage was a Class 1 Div 1 enclosure. The remainder was General purpose and housed the valve banks, the controls, and an air compressor to run the Sparge Lines.

Noise was not allowed. Seriously, the system was to be used close to a residential area and we had to make it run at below 60 dB. This complicated the space issue. We built a small room around the compressor, and then had to install multiple acoustic attenuators within the container including a Helmholz Resonator on the ventilation fan and on the intake louver for ventilation. Each box was six feet long, four feet high, and two feet wide.

Real estate was at an absolute premium. Which leads to:

The Second Issue

The second issue tying in with the first was the complexity of the system. We needed to control the whole system from within the General Purpose room. Therefore, every incoming line had to pass through the barrier between the two rooms, receive its necessary process controls and be measured, then pass back to the Class 1 Div 1 room. We accomplished this with two separate Valve banks. One on either side of a quarter inch A36 steel plate with full couplings welded into it. The plate was a eloquent solution that was removable for maintenance.

Class 1 Div 1 Valve Bank
Class 1 Division 1 Valve & Gauge Bank

The first picture shows the Class 1 Div 1 side of the enclosure. The operators needed to be able to monitor pressures in real time and have full, instant shut off control of each line from within that enclosure. The solution was simple, robust, effective and practical. It looks simple, and it is, but it is what we had on the other side that makes it somewhat, insane.

controls and instrumentation valve bank
Controls & Instrumentation

And here we have the backside. Each line incorporated both controls and instrumentation. The operators have full system knowledge and oversight from the control room. Being general purpose, the solenoid valves were demonstrably more economical than their Class 1 Div 1 counterparts would have been. Considering the number of them, this saved the Client a small fortune. The blue plate in the first picture can be seen high up on the wall. This was an extremely complex piping spool to build. The secret to the success of the build was the effort put into the design. Design First. Then Build.

And just to be complete, here is the third valve bank in that system.

valves and gauges
Valves & Gauges on Pump Lines

The SolidWorks Advantage

The shear number of components, the routing, the supports, make this virtually impossible to design by hand. Not only did everything have to fit, it must be easy to operate, and easy to maintain. We always design with the Operator and Maintainers in mind.

Using the 3D CAD package, SolidWorks, we were able to complete a full design, and test that design for operational requirements. It is also quite handy that SolidWorks will generate an accurate and complete Bill of Materials to make Purchasing happy.  There are a number of high quality 3D packages out there, I simply prefer SolidWorks.

Moral of the Story

Generally, the later in the Project lifecycle that we make mistakes, the more costly those mistakes are. For example, any work done in the field costs at least three times as much, in both time and money, as work in the shop. It is better to make your mistakes on a computer screen where the correction only costs you a few minutes, then it is during testing when you have to rip out a Valve Bank and delay delivery to the Client.

Design first – Then Build Later. That sounds simple, but many do it backwards, and pay for it. If halfway through the build your tradesmen are coming to you with suggestions of how to better design the system, you have already failed. A good designer will always run his ideas by his colleagues on the floor and get their input while the design is still on the screen. These guys work hands on eight hours a day, five days a week. They know what works and what doesn’t. They are one of your most valuable assets as a Design Engineer. Once completed, hand the drawings to the Manufacturing Manager to be red-lined, then to the Quality Manager for a similar review. Yes it will take an hour or two of their time, but they will invariably catch mistakes, or make suggestions, that will save many more hours and dollars during the build, and may frustrations for the Operators down the road.

Design First – Then Build.


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Communication Stovepipes

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Stovepipes.

Stovepipes at Word
Stovepipes at Work for Decades

This is an old term from the international spy world. It is a Tradecraft term. The idea is to create a medium in which essential information is gathered, filtered and transported up the management ladder. In the spy world it was driven by the paradox of required secrecy and the need to know. It was absolutely essential that nobody knew what information was moving, who was moving it, and where it was going. As such the various intelligence communities around the globe developed ingenious stovepipe mechanisms.

Stove pipes were also completely independent. From the tradecraft perspective this provided security for each stovepipe if others were compromised. Independent actions also allowed for each stovepipe to be massaged to work best for its purpose. Independence gave each stovepipe the ability to be flexible yet highly efficient.

Stovepipes in Industry

Now you might be wondering how tradecraft developed by organizations like the CIA, KGB or Mossad would have any bearing on your business. They are the perfect mechanism for information transfer across multiple levels within an organization. At each level, a participant will be tasked to filter out the information coming to them. Then they will prioritize that information and feed the information upward, or downward as required.

The stovepipe methodology provides a quick and simple path for essential information, while blocking out noise. Today in most industries, especially in email use, noise is the issue. We tend instead to simply copy everyone on everything. This is not only unnecessary, it is highly damaging to your organization. When every person has to filter out the noise from a hundred or more emails every day, and figure out which ones contain important information, then find that information, your organization will grind to a halt. People will tend to simply ignore everything that does not seem immediately important at face value.

So, in our attempts to give everyone all the information we have that we think they need, we simply drown them in noise and they get nothing.

Disconnect

This leads to disconnect. I have seen it in many organizations. Each level of management and operations is filled with good people, honest, hard working people. They try their best and work at hard and as smart as possible. Yet between those levels, and especially when jumping over a couple of levels, there is a significant disconnect.

Each level in the organization will have a different view of what is happening within. Each will behave differently based on these perceptions. There comes a horrible side effect into play at that point. As you travel down the ranks the people will feel unappreciated and ignored. They will feel that senior management simply is not listening and does not care too. They will believe that the boss has no clue what is going on and is horribly mismanaging the outfit. And they are somewhat right.

In an organization that does not have a proper stovepipe system in place, the senior management will not have a clue what is happening on the ground. There will be too much noise rising up and important, vital information either gets stalled or blocked completely. Management does care, but is not getting a clear picture and thus making errors in judgement.

From the management point of view, they will feel as though the people on the ground are dim witted, lazy and insubordinate. The boss will be pulling his hair out because he is not being informed of critical issues until it is too late to economically and effectively mitigate them. What could have been handled by a simple phone call, now requires flying halfway across the continent to fix a problem at a customer’s site.

This disconnect will lead to morale issues, high turnovers, poor efficiencies, high rework ratios, in fighting and office politics and a general poor behaviour within the company. Management will distrust labour, labour will distrust management. It will be “us” and “them” from top to bottom.

One commonly attempted, too common, “solution” is the hold meetings. You sit around for three hours in a meeting where you speak for two minutes and have to listen to an encyclopedia of information that does not involve you. Or, my favourite, when everyone gathers and simply reads off the log. They sit there are read to each other from the paper that they are all holding in their hands. Insanity! Most meetings today could be handled by a one line email.

Decision Disfunction

Do you have a problem in your business where people are always running to management to make simple decisions that should be made on the ground? How about managers that routinely micro-manage everything? How often have you heard the snickers from the floor when someone makes an ineffective or outright wrong decision? And the water cooler talk always centers around how the person making the decision was out of touch with what was going on around them. The person making the decision did not have the proper information, even though seemingly everybody else did.

The people on the ground are up against a wall expected to execute a plan that simply cannot work. The managers are dumbfounded that their plans, which seem perfect, fail. This goes on day after day. People get more frustrated, morale sinks, and the animosity between people grows. Then people start getting fired and don’t understand why.

At this point everyone starts to panic. People become afraid for their jobs and close up. Information becomes less available. Communications break down completely. Fingers start getting pointed. Now, instead of searching for solutions, people are searching for ways to cover their butts and point the blame to others. It is usually at this point that everyone really starts copying everyone on literally everything. The email overflow will grind an organization to a stand still. People will also hide critical information, as an ace up their sleeve, just in case a finger gets pointed at them.

Stovepipe Salvation

What we need are stovepipes. We need to develop organized lines of communication, a hierarchy, a reporting chain. At each level, a person must be appointed to take the position of gathering the information that is coming in at that level, triaging what is vital and urgent, and passing that information upward in a clear, concise manner. They are your Gate Keepers.

Those Gate Keepers will also be tasked with taking information down and disseminating it to the people at his/her level in the organization. We often hear the term lately “flat organization”. This sound nice, but in reality it doesn’t work, especially for communications. Here is why.

When you have two people in an organization, you have one line of communication. When you have three, you get three lines of communication. Add a fourth person and it jumps to six lines. A fifth person and you have ten lines.

The formula is L=N(N-1)/2, where N is the number of people, and L is the number of lines. So an organization of 100 people would have 100(100-1)/2=4950 lines of communication. An organization of 3,500 would have 3,500(3,500-1)/2=6,123,250 lines of communication.

SIX MILLION LINES OF COMMUNICATION!

Now imagine some of the big companies with tens of thousands of people. Can you see why flat organizations exist only on paper and why stovepipes are absolutely essential? It is our only salvation from that unholy mess.

Each Stovepipe must run from top to bottom. It must be a clear, unobstructed line from the Board of Directors, through the CEO down to to lowest individual in each sub-organization. Thankfully most companies already have a tool in place to help. It is called the Organizational Chart. You should be able to draw most of your stovepipes on it. At each junction, and especially at each fork, we need to establish a Gate Keeper that filters the information and transports it as needed. The Gate Keeper must be qualified for that position.

Information will now travel quickly up and down the lines, get to those who need it, and be properly processed. Decision makers will be able to confidently make those critical decisions because they will have immediate access to critical data. Boots on the ground will be free to pass concerns and questions up the ladder and receive timely and accurate responses. Decisions will be executed in an orderly and timely fashion and fires can be quickly extinguished before the whole project burns to the ground.

Stovepipe Decisions

The second salvation of Stovepipes is that they are designed to be the most effective and efficient decision making matrix. In a Stovepipe organization, the person closest to the decision, with the necessary skills to make that decision, is the one who makes it.

People are empowered. They are given a mandate. They are given authority. They are given information. They are given accountability. Each person in the organization becomes a decision maker. Each one works as both a technician, and as a manager. Every decision gets made by the person most qualified to make it. Every decision is made as efficiently as possible, by the person closest to it as possible, and will thus be executed in the most timely and efficient manner.

These ingredients are essential for it to work.

  1. Mandate
  2. Authority
  3. Information
  4. Accountability.

The Stovepipe will provide the tools for these ingredients to mix and succeed.

Go to your Organizational Chart. Update it! Draw your Stovepipes. Assign your Gate Keepers. Develop your communication protocols, whether it be a daily email report, a ten minute meeting, a phone call, updating a log etc. Empower your staff to make those critical decisions at the closest level possible.

Your Stovepipes will streamline your systems and communications, bring everyone into a common understanding on issues, pass information expediently, and get the right decisions made and executed in the most timely and efficient fashion. It will also break down the “us” and “them” problem. Stovepipes are a wonderful tool for reducing confusion and mistrust because they filter the noise and allow for full, direct, concise communication at all levels.


 

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Tribal Knowledge

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Tribal Knowledge

It can be the bane of an organization. What is Tribal Knowledge? It is the knowledge that has been built up in an organization among those with the greatest local experience, that never gets properly recorded. Every company has it, from the smallest Ma and Pa store to the largest most complex manufacturing and processing conglomerates.

How can it be a problem for senior people to carry around vital information in their heads? There are several problems with it. Sure it is absolutely wonderful that those people are the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that they are. It is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing, for there to be a go-to person in every area of your plant, an expert to call on for the most pressing concerns. The problem is, the information is not recorded, not written down, not cataloged.

I worked at a refinery where four men retired at the same time. Between them they had over 100 years of combined experience. These were well seasoned, highly trained, intelligent, hard working, conscientious men. Each man was an encyclopedia unto himself of the areas that he had worked. These were four men that everyone automatically went to with tough questions. These guys always had answers and knew secrets that baffled others. When they walked out the gate, 100 years of combined experience and expertise walked out the gate with them. Literally the first day after they left, they were all sorely missed. Not just because they were great guys, and they were indeed, but because their input was not only wanted, but desperately needed.

Documentation

The medical device industry is one of the most strictly regulated and documented industries on earth. You go into a production lab and you will not find a single sheet of paper that is not an official, signed, stamped document. You will find written procedures, with drawings and photographs for every single operation. It will tell you which serialized screw driver to use to turn which screw. It will detail which numbered bin the screw is in. The documents will even require you to catalog the very lot numbers of each part. The quality control and assurance in a medical device manufacturer would shame virtually any other industry.

Yet, if you go to work in one, you will find even with their extensive documentation and control, there is still a significant volume of Tribal Knowledge. It seems no matter how much we write down, we never cover it all.

This issue is partly caused by the need to be terse. Documentation must have the necessary components without being onerous. Information overload is the danger to be avoided, and the avoidance creates an absence of proper documentation.

Solution: Multi-level Documentation

That sounds simple, and really it is. Institute a multi-level documentation system. Have one basic document for operations. Have a second, deeper document for maintenance, and a third all inclusive document for engineering and design. It could even be done in one document with multiple sections.

This cannot be a static document!

Documents that are not regularly updated become stale and obsolete. I had a vendor email me one day asking if he could use the most up to date codes because the ones in the company standard were obsolete and he could not even find a copy of them. Documents are living creations. They must be continually updated.

Solution: A comprehensive Management of Change(MOC) program.

With a proper document control system, every document will list all documents that rely on or pertain to it. So when you run an MOC, you pull the primary document, and you also pull the secondary documents listed on it. When you make a change to one, you simply update the others. This also allows for your MOC to identify repercussions from you proposed changes more readily. And it is a good idea to get a decent document control software package. There are many on the market to choose from.

This will help with the paperwork, but what about the people?

Mentorship

I have worked in numerous industries for a wide variety of companies, from basement startups to multi billion dollar international enterprises. And I am sad to say that in all that time, in over 30 years of work, I have yet to see a formal mentorship program in a business. That is a sad truth.

A mentorship program will take these old-timers and pair them up with a few younger, middle aged workers to teach them and prepare them. The middle aged or intermediate workers will be paired up with junior employees as well. The tribal knowledge will then begin to flow down through the generations. It is important when setting up a mentor program that a person’s mentor is not their supervisor. A mentor has to encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone and to take chances. A supervisor often has to encourage an employee to stay within their expertise band to maintain high performance. There could be a conflict of interest, and in that case, the mentoring will always lose out.

It is also important to acknowledge an employee’s career goals when choosing a mentor. If an operator is looking to be a supervisor, then one of his/her mentors should be somebody in a supervisory position. If, however, they are looking to become technical masters, then their mentor should be a technical master. A key feature in any professional development plan is a formal mentorship program.

The mentors now also have to be trained. They have to receive leadership training. They need to learn how to teach and coach. Knowing how to do something, and knowing how to teach it, are completely different skill sets. I had some University professors that were so intelligent, so accomplished at their craft, you wondered if they were from another planet, yet their ability to teach others was somewhat limited. It is sad to lock away such brilliance and not be able to share it.

The mentorship program must be formal. There must be one person who is called to champion the program, and given the resources and authority to make it happen. That person also must be passionate about it, as every champion must. People should be signed up and the process monitored. The monitoring is to find weaknesses in the program and strengthen it through continuous improvement.

Even with flawed documentation, a quality mentorship program will ensure that the tribal knowledge built up through the years will be passed down to successive generation. Not only will that expertise flow, it will be built upon. Successive generations will not be continually wasting enormous efforts reinventing the wheel, they will be improving the existing wheel and avoiding repeating past mistakes.

If you only take one thing from this article, let it be the absolute need for a formal, well thought out, mentorship program in your business.


 

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Critical Path Myopia

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In the wonderful world of project management, one of our first and most critical roles is to determine the critical path activities within our project execution schedule. This goes hand in hand with identifying all long lead items and expediting their arrival to meet with critical milestones. We have all learned to do this well.

Unfortunately we often tend to do it too well. We become myopic. We get our critical path identified and focus only on those specific items. At the end of our projects, we sit back and count up our B-Deficiencies. Why do we have deficiencies? How on earth can we make the insane requirements of the critical path schedule, and miss on everything else? Critical Path Myopia.

Events that do not fall on the critical path are also critical. We, however, tend to put them off.For example, if we were recertifying an API-653 regulated tank, our critical path could include items like installing the liner, pouring the concrete subfloor, jacking columns, preparing a nozzle sheet etc. But just as critical are the Foam Chambers for fire suppression. They is not on the critical patch because you can do them pretty much anytime that the wind isn’t howling too hard to get up in a lift. Thus we tend not to focus on them. We have a crew, we have a critical path, we hit that path hard. We don’t want to sacrifice manpower on a non-critical item when we are in danger of slipping on the critical items. Then we find that we are buttoning up after the hydro test and the Foam Chambers are not replaced.

Now the Foam Chambers are your critical path and you are stuck because you let them slip. Now you cannot return your tank to service because you do not have appropriate fire protection. Now your refinery is paying for a day or two of demurrage and your crew is on overtime to get the job done. Maybe there is an air freight shipment charge involved to expedite some parts to site as well.

Critical Path Myopia is a common, and is a dangerous and expensive practice. While it is vital to identify, plan and execute the critical path, it is equally vital to keep the whole program on track. Deficiencies at the the end of a project are a sign that we have fallen into the trap of Critical Path Myopia.

Don’t get nearsighted. Don’t be blinded by the critical path. Don’t allow the “lesser things” to fall out of your attention. Remember, it is the little foxes that spoil the vine. Once you have identified your critical path, ensure that you have also allocated sufficient resources to complete all secondary tasks on time, on spec, and on budget.

As they say in hockey, keep your head up, and your stick on the ice.


 

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“Not My Job”

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“Not My Job”

Not My Job
Not My Job.

How painfully often we hear this phrase pronounced at the job site. Something needs to be done, and sometimes we are often asked to do it, but we firmly state “That is not my job”, and let it go. The business suffers, safety gets compromised, customers leave. Factories close and then indeed it will not be your job for you won’t have a job left to go to.

There is a tendency in the workplace to identify a list of roles and responsibilities, which we do need to do, but then use it for the wrong purposes. Our stated roles and responsibilities at work are not an all inclusive list, they are merely the backbone of our job. These are the things that we must do in order to keep the company moving. These are the vital aspects that we are most qualified at, and that have been placed on our plates.

A workplace is a homogeneous group of heterogeneous components; people. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. Each of us is an expert in some areas, and a complete novice, even totally incompetent at others. Our roles and responsibilities should be composed of those things for which we are experts. There are times that we are experts in certain areas, and we are also pushed out from doing those things. That will happen. That is not a good thing.

But what I want to focus on today are the things that are not on our lists, the things that we confidently claim “are not my job”. Let me tell you a secret.

THEY ARE YOUR JOB!

We, as employees, as managers, as tradesmen, as operators, as clerks, as drivers, as administrators and HR and every other title under the sun, are ALL responsible for anything and everything that happens at the workplace. We are ALL responsible for safety. We are ALL responsible for costs and budgets. We are ALL responsible for customer satisfaction. We are ALL responsible for environmental compliance. We are ALL responsible for product and service quality.

If something is “not your job”, then please resign and go home and drink tea because there are thousands of people available, equally or even better qualified, with a far better attitude that would be more than happy to make it their job.

The global economy is in the toilet. Jobs are running scarce. The solution is to tighten up and perform. Be the best. Make it “Your Job”! Look around at work and see what is not being done, where the gaps are, and take the initiative to fix it. Do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, the way it needs to be done. And if you simply are unqualified to perform the task, then make it your job to ensure that a qualified person gets it done. If you see something that needs welding, get the welders on it. If you see something that needs cleaning, get the cleaners on it. If you see something that you can do, do it. Do it immediately. Do it right.

Make it “Your Job”!

Be a Can Do individual. Be outstanding. Take a proactive approach and use your personal initiative. Stand out in the crowd, take some chances, be bold. Encourage others to do the same.

Make it “Your Job”!


 

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Hydraulic Intake Strainers

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Fluid Power – Otherwise known as hydraulics. It is everywhere and it can be very finicky. One of the most important things to know about setting up and maintaining a proper, full functioning, robust hydraulic system is DO NOT USE AN INTAKE STRAINER.

Plugged Intake Strainer
Plugged Hydraulic Intake Strainer

First of all you should be adding oil to your reservoir through a filter because the oil you buy is not clean. Yes it will adhere to a specific cleanliness standard, but that standard is not high enough to maintain a healthy hydraulic system. Your oil should be clean in your tank and the only way that is going to happen is to start with clean oil. Filter your oil as you add it.

Now some might say they need the strainer to keep junk out of the system that falls in the tank during service. What they actually need are service technicians with work ethic. If your oil is getting contaminated, then replace it.

The idea of the intake strainer is that it is supposed to keep the dirt out of your power system. The dirt should not be there in the first place. If you cleaned your oil when you added it, and you took proper precautions to protect your oil during servicing, there will simply be no dirt.

Intake strainers are usually a 140 mesh strainer that screws onto the pump intake inside your reservoir. What it actually does in real life is increase the NPSH (net present suction head) on your hydraulic pump. This can lead to what is called cavitation. Cavitation is a sudden change in pressure resulting in small gaseous bubbles spontaneously collapsing creating supersonic shock waves within the fluid. This is never a good thing. Anyone who has a boat and has had to replace the prop on his outboard motor because it was 9 inches in diameter in the spring and is only 6 now can attest to the affects of cavitation. (yep, that is actually what did it. Notice the pitted surface on the worn edges). Cavitating a pump is one of the quickest and most effective ways to destroy it. It is not as serious in Positive Displacement pumps as it is in Centrifugal Pumps, but it is still bad.

A common situation is to be sent out on a service call for a hydraulic system that simply isn’t making power, that won’t run properly, that is blowing breakers, that is overheating, only to find that the intake strainer is plugged up. The solution to many hydraulic failures and to the prevention of such is to dispose of your intake strainer up front. They are good on paper, but terrible in real life.

Take care of your oil. Take care of your systems. Filter your oil as you add it. Use a desiccant air filter as well to keep moisture out. But that is another blog. And get rid of that intake strainer.


 

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Curing Automation Myths

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Is Automation for You? 

GUI
Simple GUI for a Sludge Dewatering Screen

Automation is a wonder and a dark art to most of the world. Even companies who have large amounts of automation within their own facilities often have misconceptions about how it works. There, for example, is a tendency to lean towards certain brand names, yet those brands are not necessarily better and are possibly more expensive. Below are five big and common myths in the market place about custom factory automation.

  1. Automation is too expensive, it costs millions.

Actually, automation is surprisingly cost effective these days. Today, computer based controllers are effective, efficient and quite reasonably priced. A simple business model for every automation project will demonstrate its quick payback time, reduced operation costs, reduced manpower and skill requirements, and increased productivity. And it is also important to remember that you don’t take and entire process and turn it into a black box solution. First you look at your obvious bottlenecks in your process and mechanize them. As you work your way through the process gradually automating more and more you start integrating them into a complete system.

For a few decades now there has been a move towards off shore manufacturing based on the super low cost of labour in third world countries. The cost of overseas labour is still cheap but the cost of shipping, of waste, of the absence of quality control, of immense orders and long wait times far out ways any up front cost reductions. There is also the issue of the environment. One of the big cost saving in many of these countries is the complete lack of environmental laws or ecological constraints. We are waking up today, finally and thankfully. The solution to pollution is NOT dilution and just because you pollute over there doesn’t mean it won’t come here. Automation is the industry standard of the 21st century.

Most process plants today are economically viable because of automation. You simply could not afford to run an oil refinery or a water treatment plant without it.

  1. Automation costs jobs.

We do not replace people; we automate tasks. The tasks we automate are the ones that are slow, costly, ineffective and inefficient. Automation frees workers to do more interesting and productive tasks. It also improve a company’s competitive position by increasing throughput and quality while reducing or nearly eliminating waste. This improves sales, improves profits and increases your business’s overall performance and shareholder equity. Automating a factory often creates more jobs as it allows the company to gain a greater market share and provide a higher quality product.

Keep it in the tanks
Keep it in the tanks

Automation, especially in the areas of monitoring, reduce or eliminate environmental compliance issues. Automated sensors and controls allow a plant to discover and mitigate problems at the onset, not after a million gallons have been released to a river or lake.

 

  1. Automation is only for big companies.

Any task or process can be automated. There is no maximum or minimum size or complexity requirement. The same rules apply to all automation; the difference is merely one of scale. Even if it’s just a single part pick-and-place or a wash-down line that needs to be timed, we can automate it to save you time and money. Sometimes it is just one task within a complex manufacturing process that is slowing down overall production; that would be the place to start automating. Maybe you just need your pumps on timers or hooked up to simple level switches or temperature probes in tanks. Small organizations can benefit from automation just as easily as large ones.

  1. This industry has been around forever so there are lots of off-the-shelf solutions.

Truly there are a lot of standard options for mechanization. And where a standard product exists, and would be an appropriate solution, I recommend its implementation. Forklifts are the prime example. They are designed to lift, move and stack pallets, yet people buy them and use them for everything but. They are only safe and efficient in the specific task they were designed for. If what you are moving isn’t a pallet, get a machine that will work better for you and save yourself time, money and frustration.

The glass industry, for example, has been around for thousands of years and yet I have worked on many custom machines for a glass processing. As each business has its niche, so does it have its individual processes. Only a few mass-produced systems are compatible with every process within an industry, leaving large gaps in every production process. A custom automation product, however, is tailored to your specific needs and designed to meet your exact requirements. And it is the system that is tailored, using economical, time tested and proven, off-the-shelf components. You can use the same PLC for controlling a primary treatment screening of residential sewage as you would for controlling a cake manufacturing line. The difference is in the application and programming.

  1. If our process changes the new machine will be obsolete.

If you look at your entire process consulting with your technicians and operators when designing your solutions, you can build in flexibility for expansion. The machine you will get will not only be based on your current need, but it will also be parametrically designed to accommodate foreseeable changes in your product or process to match market variations and changes. For example, allowing for differences in sizes of product can allow a machine to fulfil its task for decades.

With automation, the machines are always designed modularly. This is true for hard automation, flexible automation (robotics) and process automation such as water treatment or chemical plants. As new needs arise or change, new modules can be developed and integrated into the system.

Automation has so many benefits for 21st Century manufacturing and process industries. It can no longer be ignored. The cost of automating has reduced significantly over the years with the increased performance of the computers, sensors.


 

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Corrosion Issues = Planning Issues

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Corrosion is the Fruit of Poor Planning

Rusted Out Foam Chamber
Corrosion and Erosion

Corrosion & Erosion, Hand in Hand

There indeed is a desperate need for a corrosion science. We have all seen perfect, shiny new equipment quickly rot and deteriorate in the field. Put a new motor in a pulp mill and two years later you cannot even read the label on it. String in a new stainless steel spool and a little while later you have pinhole leaks at the welds. To the right you see a fire suppression foam changer on an API 650 storage tank. It is only a few years old, but out in the wind and weather, next to the ocean, it has rotted completely away. Imagine if there was a tank fire. Do you thing that foam chamber would be effective?

In many industrial processes there is a requirement for metallurgical engineers to investigate, research and develop solutions for safe handling of chemicals. In larger industrial settings there is also a need for the assistance of corrosion specialists when integrating numerous pieces of varying equipment into a process. For example if you are transporting hydrofluoric acid at 300 Celsius through a pressurized pipe, you get an expert to tell you how. For many process situations we do have regulatory bodies and industry standard associations to help us. ASME, API, NFPA etc are perfect examples.

Outside of the Extreme

There is however another facet of the corrosion game. Many corrosion issues we face daily in industry have extremely simple solutions. Most are caused by an abject failure to educate ourselves before making decisions. All that is required is a little reading. There are untold resources, free and available at your fingertips if you have Internet and can type. There are some basic consideration that can save you a fortune and a lot of pain downstream.

Common Galvanic Corrosion

galvanically corroded boltsFirst is the problem of dissimilar metals. In general this is a BAD thing. When you are forced to use contacting dissimilar metals the first thing to note is the relative nobility of the metals. The further apart that number is, the fast one of them is going to rot away. This is further exacerbated by the amount of water present, and the amount of electrolytes in that water, and the temperature. For example if you have warm municipal wastewater, with a low pH, full of various salts as it always is, travelling through a carbon steel pipe and  you need to divert it with a hose, and decide to use an aluminium cam lock fitting. (Yes I have seen that done on more than one occasion) That decision will come back to haunt you in a few weeks. I know of another example in an oil refinery where they decided to use a titanium tube bundle in a heat exchanger. The feed pipe to the exchanger was 18 inches in diameter, to give you an idea of the scale we are talking about. The shell was about six feet in diameter and about 30 feet long. They did everything right except electrically isolating the dissimilar metals. The shell of the exchanger and the pipes feeding it were carbon steel. It was not long before they had to replace the shell and ten feet of pipe on either side.

The Process Side of Things

The next notable consideration is the chemical compatibility of your materials to your process flow. There are many tables online to help. And always, and I mean always, consult chemical compatibility tables when choosing materials for piping, fittings, tanks, vessels etc. For example, did you know that ketchup will eat through PVC piping? I didn’t either until I consulted a chemical compatibility table. What goes with what, and what doesn’t are not always intuitive. Similarly, many people mistaking think that stainless steel is stainless. It is simply corrosion resistant, under certain conditions. The rejects from a Reverse Osmosis desalination system will eat through 316 SS. You would need at the very least a 2205 duplex, or preferably a 2507 super-duplex.

Operating Conditions

Then you must consider the temperature and temperature variation. And it is not just for the acceptable temperature range of the material, you must also consider the coefficient of  thermal expansion, and the relative thermal expansion coefficients when dealing with differing materials. Laminations can peal off with heating and cooling. Piping can buckle, fitting can be snapped off. I have seen it happen. And it is not just a one time thing, it might last for a couple of months, but with each temperature cycle you get fatigue building up. Then one day, on a long weekend, you get called in to clean up because a fitting broke and nobody can figure out why.

What Else?

There is also the issue of coatings. There are many corrosion resistant coatings available for different applications. Here I definitely suggest calling the experts. And supplier of coatings should have in-house experts that will recommend the best coatings for your application if you give them accurate details up front. There are also more advanced solutions like Cathodic and Impressed Current Protection. They may seem like black magic to some, but they can work wonderfully. For example, when we replace the floor on one of our crude storage tanks, we also include a Cathodic Protection and liner. This literally adds years to the life of the tank.

Then there are things like Stress Corrosion Cracking, Corrosion Under Insulation (CUI) and Hydrogen Embrittlement, and my favourite, Microbiologically Induced Corrosion (MIC). In reality, for these you might want to consult and expert.

So for basic corrosion issues, please consult the many free and available documents that can make your life, and the life of your operators and maintainers much easier. They will thank you for it. Well, maybe not but they should. And for those funky situations where the process contains odd chemicals, high pressures etc, consult an expert and save everyone a lot of grief. Remember most corrosion issues are just the fruit of planning errors.

I hope you have found this Engineers Brief to be useful and informative. There are many more to come. Please stay tuned.


 

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The Seven Habits of Highly Automatable Systems

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Automation

The insides of automation
The insides of simple automation

When we automate, we are really just mechanizing individual tasks, controlling that task with some form of computerization, and linking those tasks together in what is called system integration. So when looking at automation the first step is to identify exactly which tasks you should be mechanizing. Here is a brief list of the seven most common task attributes that immediately lend themselves to automation. Looking around your plant and your processes you will be able to use this list to quickly identify what areas you should be first considering for automation.

  1. You have a task that involves repeatability of motions. Repeatable motions are very boring for people and lead to repetitive strain injuries. This boredom leads to slower production, increased errors, and job dissatisfaction with workers. Repetition leads to complacency among workers. With this comes an marked decrease in quality and substantial increases in rejects and waste. Machines will perform repeatable tasks flawlessly and far quicker than any human leaving the workers to do more involved and interesting tasks. Machines do not get tired or bored and do not need breaks. An automated system can be relied to repeat a task flawlessly, at a prescribed speed without deviation.
  1. Task involves very high accuracy and skill levels. Even and very skilled technician cannot match the accuracy of a machine. We have put machines into service with 0.001” repeatable accuracy. Our closed loop control systems not only allow us to design to an arbitrary accuracy, it will also perform the tasks at a much faster rate than any human can. Reducing the required skill level in a factory and reducing production time are two main requirements for reducing costs and maintaining a competitive edge. The increased accuracy also speaks to higher quality and reduced waste. As well, the higher accuracy will provide you with a superior product in the market place greatly improving your positioning.
  1. Task involves danger. A machine can be programmed to operate within a very specific range of motion. If the task is within a dangerous environment, whether heat, or chemical or dangerous moving parts, a machine is a far simpler and safer method of completing a task than trying to outfit and train a person to perform the same task safely. The automated system can be programmed to stay within a safe physical envelop and be constructed of materials that will withstand the required environment.
  1. Task involves high manpower and time. Every process has a bottleneck, and that bottleneck is usually a manpower or resources issue. Mechanizing and automating tasks or procedures within a process can effectively debottleneck an entire process and often substantially increases productivity while reducing costs. Automation is particularly useful where short run, high throughput is required.
  1. Task involves excessive handling. Material handling is often a slow, resource consuming issue and the more a product is handled the greater the danger of damage to the product and injury to the workers. Material handling has been a standard area of automation for many years but with the advancements and reduced costs of modern computerization, material handling has become a first step in plant automation in most factories. Material handling also comes into play in buffering processes to compensate for variations in production from complimentary processes. When job A feeds into job B and job A varies so you have to keep a small stockpile of goods in order to keep job B running, an automated system is a perfect solution. It will receive parts as they come and feed job B as it is needed and never need human intervention.
  1. Requirement for accurate inspections. Mechanizing and automating your inspection station will assure that you will turn out a far more standardized product with zero rejects going out to your customers. We can design and build equipment that will inspect for colour, clarity, shape, weight, size, texture or dimensions. Modern machine vision has the capability of sampling up to 500 frames per second and can differentiate up to 16 million different colours, which is more than the human eye can discern. Other testing can also be incorporated like for example using ultrasonics to test for cracks in a casting. If you have a specific inspection category, we can automate it.
  1. Offshore competition. Sadly, offshore competition can produce products far cheaper than we can in North America using traditional manufacturing methods. That is, however beginning to change with the high cost of transportation and the high material cost from the waste generated through this method. We can command a competitive edge by mechanizing and automating our processes. Machines allow us to substantially increase our production rates, decrease costs through reduced waste and manpower, and produce a more standardized, higher quality product with far fewer rejects.

It seems simple because it is. Do you have tasks or processes within you plant you need mechanized and automated? Call us, we can help. That is what we do.


 

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