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Automation: The path to reliability

08.01.2012  |  Kern, A.G.,  Tesoro Corp., Los Angeles, California

Keywords: [automation] [process control]

Consider the view looking back from 2020. Will the current decade be the decade of process automation? This may seem a puzzling way to frame the question. We have been automating for several decades. To understand the question, we must define the distinctions between modernization, automation and optimization.

In investigating the net effects in how the process industry does business and operates facilities today, one conclusion is that the process-control business has been involved primarily in modernization, to some degree optimization, and least of all automation. That is surprising, since automation was the initial goal.

What came first?

Modernization and its prodigious offspring, information, have been several fold. Control-system success has often meant just keeping pace with technological change—completely separate from automation and optimization. Control systems have evolved from pneumatic to analog, digital, distributed and, now, open systems. Safety systems and field devices have undergone similar evolutions. Business pressures compel adopting each successive technology. Most people are only too familiar with the pace and demands of modernization.

It would be nice if, like information, automation sprang naturally from modernization. But that is not at all the case. It is quite possible to keep pace through multiple modernization cycles without ever making headway in automation. Indeed, this is the present condition for many companies. Processing plants are more modernized, but the difficult challenges of sustaining reliable operation still remain.

What is ‘modern’ control?

For example, modern control systems are digital and not pneumatic. However, are there fewer operators in the field, fewer process upsets, and fewer equipment trips? Are more valves in automatic mode, with less frequent reliance on manual mode? Are board operators less alarm-driven and more procedure-driven? Are more procedures and sequential operations automated? While the answer to these questions may be a tentative “yes,” in most cases, the improvement has been incremental and stems from modernization, not automation. The answer that we wish to see is that process industries have achieved the same transformational level of automation as many manufacturing industries.


Let’s define automation as automatic control that takes place in the control system domain. This fits the traditional concept of automation involving direct control of equipment or machinery. This includes, most notably, advanced regulatory control (ARC), multivariable control (MPC) and sequential control. But it really includes all automatic distributed-control system (DCS), safety instrumented system (SIS) and other base-layer functions.


Let’s define optimization as activities that take place in the business domain. They have the objective of arriving at optimal operating targets, or making optimal business decisions that are implemented across the organization. Optimization has been sustained by constant improvement on information flows. Many resources participate in this task across an organization. In many ways, the entire business is “plugged into” this mission; the automation domain is just one aspect. However financially winning optimization can be, plant reliability is not one of its usual consequences.

Little such carefree collaboration characterizes the automation domain, where equipment and procedures often defy automation solutions; implementation is laborious; mistakes are painful; and critical skills are scarce. This is one hurdle to automation. The control domain is not a very hospitable environment.

Modernization vs. automation

With these definitions in hand, it becomes clear that continued modernization and greater automation are the challenges before us. Modernization will continue to bring reliability and efficiency gains, such as centralized monitoring, remote control, lower cost and less nuisance trips, if not exactly automation. Greater automation, while harder to come by, can ultimately be expected to bring the same transformational improvements in safety, reliability and quality as in many manufacturing industries.

Next decade

The single biggest challenge facing process plants today is reliability. And automation is the single best answer. Will this decade become the automation decade? The situation is unfolding slowly, with manufacturers still engaged in modernization, broadly tackling the optimization puzzle and, when it comes to automation, still focused primarily on MPC, which is only one piece of automation. Perhaps, the 2020s will eventually unfold as the decade of automation. Those companies who start the automation process early may find themselves leading the industry over the next decade. HP

The author

Allan Kern has 30 years of process control experience and has authored numerous papers on advanced process control with emphasis on operation and practical process control effectiveness. Mr. Kern is a professional engineer, a senior member of ISA, and a graduate of the University of Wyoming.

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