Training & Improving Operator Efficiency...Wasted Investment? |

Training & Improving Operator Efficiency...Wasted Investment?

November 022012
Training & Improving Operator Efficiency...Wasted Investment?
November 2012
By Bill Lydon
At every industrial automation conference, there is a great amount of time devoted to improving operator interaction with automation systems. I wonder if too much energy is focused on this topic. Subtopics include how to train new operators, human factors engineering, information presentation, sophisticated training simulators, alarm management and ergonomics. These are all good topics but this perspective may be holding back automation industry progress. It seems to me the industry should be devoting more time to developing the next step in the evolution of automation systems to eliminate operators with more automation. This is essentially moving to the goal of “lights-out” manufacturing. The “lights-out” manufacturing philosophy is the vision of a fully automated factory requiring no human presence on-site. The technology necessary for approach lights-out production is becoming increasingly available.
“Lights Out” Failure
The “lights out” concept fell out of favor with some early high visibility efforts that failed. The foremost effort was by the U.S. automotive industry in the 1980’s led by Roger Smith, Chairman and CEO General Motors. Smith had a vision to modernize using advanced technology, particularly robots, to create "Lights out" factories. GM spent billions of dollars on these efforts that were later considered a failure and much of the deployed technology was pulled out of plants. By the time Smith retired, GM had evolved from the lowest cost producer in Detroit to its highest cost producer, due in part to the drive to acquire advanced technology that never paid dividends in efficiency. 
Times Change
A major contributor to these failures was the use of early technology that was unrefined, expensive, difficult to use and inflexible. Applying technology too early - before it is reliable and refined enough for practical application - creates many problems. Today, many of the technologies used to achieve or approach “lights out” manufacturing have improved dramatically and can be purchased at lower costs. Many companies are automating parts of production lines to the point where they can run unsupervised. Automation has also enabled one person to supervise many machines that run automatically rather than one operator per machine.
Automation Goal
The goals for automation including continuous improvement, system upgrades, migrations, system replacement, and new projects should be considering ways to implement more automation to approach “lights out.”   New technologies and the combination of refined technologies are available today to accomplish more of this vision. These are some examples of the technologies to consider:
The cost of robots has been decreasing and more importantly they are becoming much easier to program. At the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) exhibition, I programmed a robot by teaching it - simply moving the robot arm with my hands to desired positions and playing back the created program. The International Federation of Robotics reported 2011 as the most successful year for industrial robot sales since 1961. The highest growth was in China, United States and Germany with growth rates between 39% and 51%. Japan and the Republic of Korea are still the leaders in robot adoption.
Machine Retrofits
The problem of finding people to run machines is worldwide. One solution being implemented is retrofitting old manual machines with servo drives in place of hand wheels and adding CNC controllers to create automated machines. Now less skilled operators can tend to the machines and/or one operator enabled with mobile computing devices can oversee multiple machines.
Advanced Process Control (APC)
Advanced Process Control started with algorithms to optimize high value processes using computer based control. But, the cost of computers limited the application. These early systems required a great deal of programming, and they were limited by computer processing power available. Today APC is significantly easier to apply and computer processing power is dramatically lower in cost. APC is also being embedded in newer DCS and PLC controllers.
Rules Based Systems
There are many steps in manufacturing and process control that can be defined with rules. Over the years, Automation Engineers have been building this logic into controls by writing creative application programs and complex interlocks. Today, systems are making this much easier with built-in rules engines and programming standards like IEC 61131-3’s sequential function chart programing.
Remote Operations
There has been an explosion in technology available for remote monitoring and control that can be used without having operators on sight. For example, the Fieldbus Foundation ROM (Remote Operations Management) initiative provides an efficient way to remotely run oil & gas pipelines, offshore platforms, oil & gas fields, water & wastewater operations, tank farms, terminal automation, mining, and the growing applications in subsea production using the NAMUR NE 107 framework.
Where are your opportunities?
The well regarded business guru, Peter Drucker, always challenged people by saying, “How will these technological trends impact my organization today and in the future?” This is still a good question to ask. More specifically, what can automation do to take the human out of the loop? Another question to consider is, how do we decide when an operator must be in the loop?
Focusing solely on improving operator interaction may be a mistake, when your competitors may be focusing on increased automation to gain a competitive business advantage.
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