Prior to computers and laptops being common in the industrial world, automation meant large control rooms, panels full of switches, dials, and lights with hundreds of relays, timers, and miles of wire behind the scenes. I spent a good number of years working as a master electrician in a major food processing plant as the person who received the late night page when the process the size of a city block ground to a hault because of some unknown problem. Time obviously meant money in this environment, and often times after driving the 20 minutes or so to the plant I would find a line of semi trucks backed up down the street and tempers on edge.
As the computer found its way into every home, so too the use of this technology became commonplace in the industrial world. The PLC or “Programmable Logic Controller” is the computer heart of many control processes both large and small. Access to these PLC computers was through a suitcase size programming terminal which was lugged around the plant. These dinasours have now given way to the smaller laptops and handhelds that are commonplace today. Along with this technology came significant advantages in dealing with the operation and support of industrial processes.
No machine or process is infallible and sooner or later something happens to make the lights stop blinking and pumps not pump. Along with good, efficient design, the key is to be able to recognize the problem and repair it in as short a time as possible. Keeping an up to date stock of repair components is also vital in maintaining a 99 percent plus uptime record.
To illustrate how this process has changed over the years, consider the following common scenario when a shutdown problem occcured:
- Plant Operator (Norman) pushes start button and nothing happens.
- Process stops, schedules start backing up
- Norman calls for help (pager) for tech (Jim) on call
- Norman calls pager again
- Jim calls back after pulling off road on the way to dinner to find a phone, heads for plant
- Plant is down for 20 min waiting on Jim to arrive at plant
- Jim looks at panel, walks into motor control room and pushes reset button
- Plant starts back up, Jim leaves to console wife waiting in car.
Today the scenario looks more like this:
- Process goes down, system autodials Gary
- Gary looks at cell phone alarm, pulls out laptop and logs into plant
- Gary sees exactly what process is doing and diagnoses the problem
- Gary calls plant and tells operator which reset to push
- Plant starts up, wife wonders what Gary is doing on the computer
Sure there are still times where problems are not dealt with as easily, but process uptime statistics are proof that we are doing things better today than ever before.
Although the gadgetry may look intimidating to the untrained eye, there is no doubt that the impact of the industrial automation in food processing has resulted in more efficient operations, which translates to greater efficiency and profitablity.