Shopped for a Father’s Day card lately? You’ll see plenty of golfing, fishing, and barbecuing themes. While my father enjoys many of those hobbies, that’s not what stands out most to me about him. What stands out to me are two things:
1. As an electrical engineer, he could fix any appliance in the house, from the TV to the oven to the sewing machine. (The ice maker was his nemesis for a while, but eventually my dad even fixed that.)
2. Growing up, my friends never really understood what he did for a living. When asked, I’d mumble “Something about automation and controls.” Even if I had explained it better, I realize now it would have been tough for people to understand because industrial automation was new. My dad was a bit of a pioneer.
Recently, my father retired after an intense 30+ year career planning, advising, and training engineers in automation systems. For more than 20 of those years, he and a partner helmed Commonwealth Controls Corporation, which Graybar acquired. (Here he is in awe of his retirement surprise party.)
With Father’s Day around the corner and content engineering rich with possibilities for content automation, I’m delighted to share this brief interview with my dad, Leonard “Pete” Pettit.
A senior engineer offered me a position on his staff based on an electrical design that I created at his former industrial plant. I found it interesting, especially because of its potential to improve efficiency.
Industrial automation is essentially using machines, control systems, and information technology to monitor and control the delivery of products or services. It puts the burden of repetitive or mundane tasks on machines instead of humans and often saves steps in a process.
When I started out, industrial automation was really needed in manufacturing plants. But, now, the applications are wider.
When you improve instrumentation (the instruments you use to measure or monitor a process) and digital communication with automation, you can get all kinds of benefits. The biggest benefits are enhanced product or service quality and better production thruput (the amount of material, substances, or products coming through the process). On top of that, automation usually improves safety for the plant and the people working in it.
First, establish a clear goal. You need a good definition of what the automation project will accomplish. When industrial vision systems became popular, many projects that tried to implement them were unsuccessful for everyone involved because the goal was ill-defined or altogether absent.
Cost / Return on Investment
To be effective, the overall automation system cost must be competitive: Hardware / technology, design / planning, and installation.
A key factor in assessing whether the system will be cost effective is support. For example, is this equipment proven? Does the design firm have a good track record? The last thing you want is to automate a process and then have the system go down.
Local training for maintenance and operation staff is key. You have to be able to keep the automation system running smoothly because now downtime is much more costly than it was before automation.
It’s hard to pick, but one stands out to me because of its dramatic results. We worked with a plant to make the process of loading tractor trailers with processed cement more efficient. When we started, loading the trucks took an average of 30-40 minutes. That’s a bottleneck.
We engineered a system that involved several different technologies–graphical operator displays and digital control of air-conveyed cement. After fully implementing the system, average load time dropped from 30-40 minutes to 8-10 minutes. The bottleneck was gone. That efficiency boosted the cement thruput by 66%.
Yes. The applications for automation are so wide that planning automation involves engineering appropriate combinations of hardware / technology into a system that works for the specific manufacturing plant or situation.
Glad my retired self could be useful. Now, it’s time for me to golf, fish, and barbecue.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in June 2013.
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