Top Ten Business Benefits of Process Automation

By Dick Hill

Industry Trends

Based on numerous engagements with end user clients over the years, ARC has identified top ten business benefits from collaborative process control or automation systems (CPAS).

1. Achieving and sustaining exceptional business performance

Exceptional business performance for most process manufacturers relates closely to achieving operational excellence (OpX). Achievement of true OpX requires continuous improvements through ongoing change. Automation can facilitate that change. The fundamental premise is that, unlike previous technology-focused incremental change, which derived its incremental value from cost reduction and efficiency improvements, the next wave of radical value increase will come from empowering and engaging people with knowledge and authority. In this manner, more people can make the correct decisions more often. Empowering people will require a change in how companies justify spending capital as well as how the resulting information is used.

2. Increasing asset reliability

Because most heavy industry process plants run continuously and most light industry process plants are expected to perform when needed, reliability is critical. In process plants, the three largest sources of unreliability are:

  • People – including design, documentation, management of change (MOC), work processes (procedures), etc.
  • Equipment – manufacturing assets, automation assets, communica-tions assets, etc.
  • Process – plant dynamics, reliable physics, feedstock variability, utilities, etc.Potential Benefits of Process Automation


3. Reducing complexity and customization

Process manufacturing can be complex and if the underlying automation technology is implemented without a strategy, the results can be extremely difficult and costly to manage. However, when automation is viewed as part of the overall business solution, the automation can be a major contributor in reducing the overall complexity. In addition, paradoxically, the state-of-the-art information technology on which CPAS is based can make the automation requirements as they relate to the business requirements easier to understand. In fact, we have seen automation users challenged by conveying common requirements internally to their organization and ex-ternally to candidate suppliers, use CPAS as a proxy, making their requirements understood much precisely.

Another issue that adds to unnecessary complexity is project-related customization. Approximately 75 percent of the engineering on a typical project is custom or one-off engineering. Use of international standards and adoption of “value adding processes” can reduce customization from 80 percent, to 20 percent, a reoccurring benefit.

4. Creating a proactive culture to capitalize on emerging opportunities

Currently, most process plants are operated reactively, rather than proac-tively. Anyone with a need to know should have visibility into their area of responsibility at any point in the production cycle under normal conditions. If the trajectory for their operation is not on target, they should have the opportunity and facility to make the adjustments to complete the produc-tion cycle on target. The proactive culture needs to allow the organization to capitalize on previously unforeseen opportunities and avoid or mitigate situations that can compromise performance or impose unplanned costs.

At any point in the production cycle, the operator should have the option enter into a “what if” scenario to qualify a set of candidate parameters lead-ing to improved business performance. This function should be independent of real-time operation. If a set of abnormal conditions develop that threaten to throw the unit into a critical condition leading to an inci-dent, the operator should be provided with ample warning and suggested parameters to avoid the incident or mitigate the consequences.

5. Insulating business from unprecedented external challenges

The plant operation’s ultimate goal is to meet the business objectives. This often requires insulating the plant operations from external variations. Many unforeseen external variations that can influence the plant operations include; volatile feedstock prices, changes in energy costs, unforeseen product demand, or changes in product market price. For example, when the front end of the plant cannot accommodate unplanned changes in feed-stock, the plant must compensate for these changes sequentially through every unit operation. This can wreak havoc, if each sequential not per-formed with precision.

In a paper mill, if the feed pulp is off spec, the cooking and digester cycles and chemical treating must be adjusted to compensate. If this is not possible, each subsequent unit operation must immediately change to compensate.

In oil refining, when there is a change in crude feedstock, the impact of the new crude assay must be established up front. The new crude will deter-mine the quantity and quality of the intermediate streams and the final petroleum products. If the refinery assets cannot accommodate the composition profiles, or another composition would be more conducive to market conditions, the crude feedstock needs to be re-blended into a composition that fits.

6. Unifying business and manufacturing with a common business plan

Modern enterprise requires that manufacturing and business activities be much more synchronized and coordinated than in the past. In the past, plant operations focused on production and efficiency targets while business systems were not presented a clear picture of where the plant operations stood in relation to business plans end-of-day roll reports. With a common focus for both manufacturing and business, coordinated support is a key requirement. This coordination requires a clear understanding of how resources should be deployed and optimized.

Traditionally, from a business perspective, optimization meant having manufacturing satisfy the production plan. Traditional optimization, from the manufacturing system perspective, meant meeting or exceeding the production plan, which could span several days. Notification of the de-tailed results of meeting the plan might occur once a day, or even less frequently.

Today, the need to adjust the plan can happen with little notice, so a common basis for business and manufacturing optimization is required. Creating a common basis for business and manufacturing optimization re-quires information to be synchronized. Synchronization, or synchronized information, is a fundamental issue driven by the need to have the right information available when you need it to perform the function necessary to satisfy your customer.

7. Utilizing automation to help satisfy health, safety, and environment requirements

The need to establish a “safety culture” should be foremost in the minds of everyone across all process industries, and especially those subject to OSHA 1910, where many companies have embraced the American Chemical Council Responsible Care initiative. Unfortunately, the need to cut costs often gets in the way. Safe operation is as much a business challenge as it is a technical challenge. We have discussed reliability and performance challenges but we must view these within the context of an overall safety strategy. As has been shown repeatedly, it is much more costly to have an unsafe business than to have a safe business of which you can be proud. Once again, CPAS can play a critical role by reducing unplanned downtime and providing an increasingly predictive capability for potential abnormal situations.

8. Protect operations from cybersecurity threats

Numerous trends and practices related to automation systems put critical infrastructure at increased risk from cyber-attacks. Developing a strategy for cybersecurity is not enough by itself. Users must add appropriate layers of protection and use automation hardware, networks, and applications that incorporate secure by design principles.

As evidenced by the rising integration of security concerns into standard business practices, corporate responsibility for control system security continues to increase. At the same time, an aging workforce, accelerating staff turnover, and less-experienced workers drive an increasing trend toward technology outsourcing and growing reliance on commercial off-the-shelf technologies.

The automation infrastructure for the energy markets is perhaps most vul-nerable to cyber-attacks. This includes SCADA systems for pipeline automation, process automation systems for power generation plants, and other offshore and onshore oil and gas installations that may rely on wire-less backhaul networks. Increasing interconnection of business and control system networks, further growth in dynamic demand planning, and in-creasing need for real-time business information to facilitate use of distributed and alternative energy sources and the development of the next-generation electric grid can also create an environment that’s ripe for cyber-attacks.

9. Provide and sustain a skilled workforce

Workers entering industry are often referred to as the “Millennial Genera-tion”. They are often described as digital natives, since they grew up with technology devices and tend to be very comfortable with technology.

However, do not expect this generation to be satisfied with their “father’s job.” Instead, they want to be knowledge workers with the opportunity to contribute directly to the business. These digital natives and tend to have a higher level of native, multidimensional problem-solving ability than dis-played by workers who did not grow up in the computer age. The best are not afraid to make decisions as long as they have enough relevant infor-mation. Rather than just being responsible for blindly completing a set of manual tasks, they want to be engaged and in a position to demonstrate their economic contribution. These are the same people you will be com-peting against Silicon Valley and other high tech locations in the world to obtain. CPAS includes the concepts and technology to keep your staff en-gaged and your plant successful.

10. Predicting and realizing potential value from automation

While every project should be justified on its own merits, we have provided a generic table of benefits for automation as a general guideline to deter-mine the potential value. It is based on a medium-size process plant (120-mbpd refinery or a 1-mmpbd Ethylene plant) with an annual consumption of $70 million of energy, including both purchased and internally generated energy. The expected incremental benefit is $25 million annually.

ARC believes that process automation can deliver an extraordinary compet-itive advantage to process manufacturers. The effectiveness of a manufacturing company operating at the highest level for manufacturing is directly correlated to the operation being internally synchronized and sup-portive. Many of the most recent advancements in DCS technology reflect this need for internal synchronization.

In process control terminology, CPAS provides the means to close the loop on business, plant, and process performance. This is critical because opera-tional excellence requires accurate measurement of process performance. Process automation will never be fully utilized unless there is a way to measure its contribution.

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