Taking advantage of IT

Communication between plant departments is essential in maximizing productivity. The people in your IT department can help forge common objectives for disparate departments, writes Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker in his monthly column.

By Paul Studebaker

Shortly after the dawn of the Industrial Age, we decided to divide plant functions into maintenance, operations, sales, purchasing and finance. This makes sense because each function has its own priorities, and its personnel have different levels and types of education, training and experience, resulting in specialized mind- and skill-sets.

Each function works largely independently. With only 24 hours in a day, and the limitations of an individual being what they are, no work would get done if everyone had to ponder the ramifications of their next action on every aspect of running the plant.

Performance measures are also department-specific. Production focuses on utilization, maintenance on availability, sales on commissions and purchasing on spending as little as possible. Finance mostly ends up keeping score.

Separating the functions allows people to concentrate on what they do best, but it requires a thick layer of management to gather information from each, aggregate and distill it into specific instructions, and deliver it to the right people at the right time to keep each employee performing the most appropriate task at every moment.

It’s hard to see that layers of management add value, especially in financially-stressed companies where the layers appear to be ineffective. Short-timing CEOs, executives and stockholders don’t understand the need for middle managers to interpret and prioritize a top-down directive to make it work. As to the vital function of gathering accurate information from plant minions – well, who has time for that? Companies have made millions cheering up Wall Street by flattening their organizations.

In many plants, nobody has a real-time grip on everything they need to know to best benefit the enterprise. Interdepartmental communications are limited to scheduled meetings and frantic phone calls. Conflicting performance measures lead to activities that too often make individual departments score high KPIs at the expense of each other and the common good.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Now we have automation, networks, databases and computers – why not use this technology to break down the walls between departments and put us on the same page?

At the same time they’ve decimated middle management, industry has invested heavily in information technology. Compare the head counts of your company’s maintenance and IT departments, and the direction they’re going. Most places now have a truly impressive IT infrastructure, but what has it done for you lately?

It’s time to take advantage of that fine equipment and impressive horsepower.

Our most advanced facilities – power plants, refineries and chemical plants – are almost entirely automated. Control, simulation, optimization, alarm and safety systems not only keep the best plants operating near the best possible balance of throughput and quality, they monitor equipment condition and even raw material, energy and product prices to extract the highest possible return on capital and material costs.

The critical differences between those plants and the others are ready availability of real-time information and the intelligence to turn it into actions.

I know, you’ve heard it before. More than a decade ago, we started telling you about how plant floor data is key. Then we learned that plant data is overwhelming – what we need is information. We had to add executive dashboards so managers can see what they need in a familiar form, then a decision-support system to take care of that aspect, too. Never mind how we’ll get those good decisions back down to the people who have to carry them out, and, don’t forget, in real time.

Why not automate it? Take information from automation, control and CMMS systems, add financial variables like product, labor, energy and material prices, salt in some sales data, and use simulations to determine, for example, whether a given piece of machinery should be repaired now or later, upgraded, ignored or replaced. Instead of maintenance fighting to maximize equipment availability while production squeezes it for utilization, let the computers decide what’s best for the company as a whole. Then use those depoliticized, objective decisions to guide everyday activities.

It sounds like an impossible dream, but it’s already being done. And it’s coming your way.

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