Modular Procedural Automation Addressing the Post Recession Skills Gap

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A procedural operation consists of a set of tasks that are conducted in a set way time-after-time to achieve a certain goal such as starting or shutting down a unit or making a product. As demonstrated by Paul McKenzie (Bristol Myers Squibb) at the WBF NA Conference 2007 in Baltimore, it could even apply to the operation of an analyzer. These operations can be performed manually, semi-automated or fully automated and have for many years been associated with batch processes. Batch processes are procedural in nature, but typically involve sets of procedures running in parallel on varying process units and almost always need to have inbuilt flexibility. The ISA-88 standard has defined models and terminology for procedural operations in batch processes and how they should be organized. One of the key aspects of the standard is the ability to run these procedural operations flexibly. Procedural operations are also used in continuous processes for many operations including grade changes, transition management, start-ups, shutdowns, and even emergency procedures. In fact, in a recent study, the ARC Advisory Group indicated that continuous manufacturers are now seeing effective and repeatable transition management along with the use of operator sequences as a competitive advantage. Procedural operations have been used in continuous processes but, as with batch processes before ISA-88, they have typically been set up using strings of function blocks chained together or by straight line-coded applications. This is inefficient, not standardized and prone to error. Operational knowledge and the accompanying skill sets are leaving the workplace due to retirement, and the availability of good operators to run these procedures is diminishing. How to preserve the knowledge of the best operators on his/her best day has become the question.

The same goes for engineers who have traditionally designed these “straight line” procedural applications and are now facing retirement. Modifying these “spaghetti-coded” applications can be difficult. A standardized approach to the design and implementation of these procedural operations needs to be replicated throughout a site and company. The current recession has exacerbated these issues as companies continue to cut workforces which gives rise to another concern – safety. The cause of some recent industrial accidents has been partially due to the lack of good procedural-based, emergency shutdown operations or an abnormal situation putting too much pressure on an operator in a crisis. The pressure initiates out-of-sequence procedural operations with disastrous consequences. To solve these issues, we are using the ISA-88 principles to address procedural operations in industries that are outside traditional batch operations and we have coined the term “Modular Procedural Automation (MPA). MPA would use the ISA-88 modules below the unit such as phases, control modules and equipment modules. This modularity would provide the standardization that would help with repeatability and reproducibility across units and from site to site within a company. It would help with safety, engineering and the retention of operator knowledge as well as with the training of new operators.
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