Automation has evolved exponentially over the past number of years. It has migrated from simple start/stop machine type of equipment control systems to advanced automation solutions that provide a number of advantages for the customer:
❚ Equipment control/interlocking that increases the life span of the equipment
❚ Facilities can function with fewer people
❚ Facilities are safer
❚ Third-party devices can be seamlessly integrated into one solution
❚ Production/throughput increases
❚ Downtime/human error decreases
❚ Increased profit
❚ Data is continuously recorded that allows management to refine and improve the process
Today’s automation systems focus on maximizing these advantages by increasing efficiency and streamlining data flow within the organization. In addition to controlling equipment, they need to capture, summarize and report on operational data. Facilities need a flexible solution that gives them control over how data is filtered and reported — for their own use, for presentation to their customers, as well as meeting the auditing requirements of the safe feed/safe grain/ safe product standards that are now in place. The ability to trace all raw material entering the facility, how it was processed, and how it leaves the plant as finished product is imperative. Nutritionists rely on feedback from the automation system to help develop and refine recipes and forecast ingredient usage. Maintenance teams rely on real time equipment data to plan maintenance schedules and shutdowns. Managers rely on data to forecast delivery of products (in and out) to ensure proper levels of inventory. Customers rely on data so they know the products they are getting meet the requirements they have in place at their operations.
For the foreseeable future the above mentioned items will only increase in importance. Technologies will be developed and continue to evolve to ensure that these functions are performed faster, safer and more reliably. Wireless and mobile (tablets, smartphones, etc.) have already had a great impact on process control facilities. Maintenance personnel troubleshoot equipment at the source rather than from a control room. Alarms can be sent via text messaging or email. Sensors equipped with wireless options can lower electrical installation costs as both material and labor are reduced. Web-based dashboards allow personnel to view and manage data from more than one facility at a time. This is becoming increasingly important as managers are tasked with managing multiple remote locations and/or employees spread across the country.
Finally, there is the idea of “lights out” where facilities can run without an operations team on-site. This allows facilities to run longer hours or extra shifts without the labor cost of a fully manned facility. The majority of facilities are not set up for lights-out types of operations, but many do already perform. ❚