Past, Present, and Future of Automation – Part 5 (Benchmarking and Opportunity Assessment)

One of my favorite cartoons is Einstein at a blackboard with his equations for the “General Theory of Relativity” all leading up to one concluding equation “Time = Money.” In this same vein, the great movie line comes to mind: “show me the money” . More than ever, if you want to do neat things in process control, you need monetarily decisive benefits.

What if a group of 5 modeling and control specialists working with the best automation engineers in the plants were given the freedom to find and improve the process control in 100 control rooms with Distributed Control Systems in a major chemical company without having to justify each venture for 2 years? Once upon a time this actually happened. The result was ongoing benefits of 75 million dollars a year. How did this start and finish and what does it say about the future?

The initiative began with a benchmark study of companies with the best track records in process control. The top three companies achieved a 8% reduction in the cost of good by a balanced application of 9 technologies in basic and advanced control and the use of data. The largest benefits came from better PID control (e.g. better tuning and control strategies), unit operation control (e.g. automated sequences), and advanced regulatory control (e.g. feedforward and override control). The next biggest source of benefits came from putting process metrics online via real time optimization and data analytics. The benchmarking study and other stuff supporting this discussion can be seen in a presentation I recently made to big chemical company viewable at the site:


We found in the benchmarking that each layer of technology was built on a solid foundation of supporting technologies to form a pyramid. The performance of regulatory control depended heavily upon the scope and sensitivity of the measurements and control valves and the tuning of the loops. In turn the success of model predictive control relied upon the performance of the regulatory loops. It is noteworthy that model predictive projects often report bigger benefits than those shown in the report because the improvements made in the regulatory control are attributed to the MPC project, which in a way is justifiable because the improvements to the loops probably would never have been made without the systematic approach used in well managed MPC projects. Finally it was obvious in the study that real time optimization worked best if was integrated into the predictive handling of constraints and interactions provided by an MPC.

The benchmarking study lead to 2 year process control improvement program developed by Vernon Trevathan, a recent inductee into the Control Magazine Automation Hall of Fame. You can read about the highlights of his career and his role in the program in my interview of him in my “Best of the Best – Part 3” series in Control Talk.


In the beginning of this initiative I conceived, trialed at an agricultural chemical plant, and documented in a internal report an opportunity sizing and opportunity assessment process, as noted in my Control Talk Column “Up for the Ashes.”


While I give myself credit for the original concept, the real success of this methodology and consequently the whole initiative was the result of Glenn Mertz who had a unique combination of process control and accounting skills and extensive plant experience applying the latest technologies. For each control room studied, Glenn went through the cost sheets of the production unit, found the best periods of operation, and quantified the demonstrable gaps between actual and practical process metrics such as production rate, raw material and energy cost, and rework. Glenn also dug out research reports and process simulation results to provide define theoretical goals and gaps. All of this could have been just an exercise if it wasn’t for the fact Glenn was able to get agreement from key process engineers in the plant to the goals and gaps to form an opportunity sizing that was then the basis of an opportunity assessment conducted for 3 days at the plant. Ultimately Glenn reported the benefits by again scouring the cost sheets and working extremely well with plant engineers in operations and process technology.

It would be nice if we could have a Glenn on each our teams, but given this is improbable what can we do? Can we get Glenn to give up his days on the golf courses in Door County Wisconsin in the summer and Fort Meyers Florida the rest of the year and travel on crowded flights in coach to not so gorgeous places? Can we create a virtual Glenn? Not likely. What is possible? For my answer and the conclusion to this series, see my entry on Dec 5.