Book Review—‘In Pursuit of the Perfect Plant’

New publication provides recipe for ‘perfection’ in process and manufacturing. But will it work?

There is an old IT joke (we’ve told it before) that goes, ‘How come God only took seven days to make the world?’ The answer is, ‘No installed base.’ In Pursuit of the Perfect Plant* (IPPP) is about the corollary of this. That most plants, whether they produce petroleum or paper, include a huge and heterogeneous installed base, much of whose technological ancestry goes back 40 years. And which makes for quite an obstacle in the pursuit of perfection!

What is the perfect plant? For the authors it is one that is capable of reacting to the ‘pull of demand’. Moving faster or slower depending on customers’ needs. And one with a supply chain that can keep pace. Much of today’s plants are ‘big black boxes’ where orders are processed—but where ‘nobody has a clue about what’s going on inside’. Perfection is about visibility and flexibility, about full capacity, quality, change management and getting the right information in the right place at right time so that ‘decisions are based in information not instinct.’

Lofty stance?

Cynics might see in this work authored by thought leaders from OSIsoft and SAP an attempt to sell software (see below**). But the book has a good bash at taking a loftier stance—perhaps too lofty in fact as coverage is vast. Dissertations, on membership of the local Rotary club, trades union activity and carbon cap and trade may be interesting but make for just a bit too much scope. A more serious failing is that the book is without an index, an unforgivable omission in the days of digital authoring. Moreover the table of contents and layout is also lacking in pertinence. Chapter titles like ‘making progress to perfection’ and ‘making it happen’—were not very helpful for the hard pressed reviewer. In fact the only way to get anything from IPPP is to read from cover to cover which is more or less what we did. The book has a very large number of contributors and authors—although the editorial team from Evolved Media have hidden all this behind a fictional dialog between an executive VP Manufacturing and three ‘analysts’ making up the Perfect Plant Research and Communication team. This makes for quite an easy read—but it is sometimes frustrating not to know exactly who is speaking.

Pitfalls

The dialog includes a lot of advice and caveats—pitfalls in plant revamps abound—investment decisions are often made without input from the plant and systems may be ‘inflicted’ on a plant to solve problems that may not exist. Such unwanted ‘solutions’ can come in the form of software—but also procedures for safety, audits and inspections. Such systems fail in their objective of improving performance and instead ‘cause more work than they’re worth’.

Oil industry ‘inflexible’

The authors note that although the oil industry is in a phase where capacity is ‘sold out at high prices,’ and now suffers from inflexibility (the key to refinery optimization) having blown the last 15 years or so of its margins on ‘compliance and cutting costs’. The Purdue Reference Model is used to analyze different levels and vintages of systems deployed in a plant—from ERP, through MRP and enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI). Standards coverage give the impression that the plant world is at the dawn of a new age in interoperability as ‘new standards are just starting to affect the way products are created.’ The commercial message is the promise of service-oriented architecture in the plant. Although here there is a mixed message as legacy interoperability through OPC is pretty good and is credited anecdotally as ‘doing a better job of sharing information in a plant than web services do in corporate computing!’

IP-based

Elsewhere, legacy network topologies are considered to hold back progress towards the perfect plant. The authors advocate IP-based networks but recognize that this might stress older dedicated machines on the network and introduces the risk of viruses and other malware. ‘Connecting a network to the plant freaks out some of the engineers***.’ But increased visibility—one of the tenets of the PP requires a ‘converged, common infrastructure.’

Slow loop and fast loop optimization is discussed and the thorny issues of data management, Excel hell and the lack of a single version of truth.

Architecture

A disappointingly slim chapter introduces architecture standards and interoperability. Plant networks were not designed to support a world of ‘any information, any time any place’ but you can’t afford to ‘tear everything out and start over.’ It can cost $17,000 to install a new transmitter in a refinery—and it’s unclear if the data will even be monitored. The remedy is to encapsulate to legacy data sources to ‘stateless chunks,’ wrapping legacy PLC, DCS and Historian data and exposing it to ‘mashups.’ Another round on standards and interoperability paints a complex picture of plethoric standards—ISA S95 for ERP and MES, ISA S88 for batch, OAGIS—ISA for messages and Mimosa for maintenance.

Intractable?

To sum up, the book’s unusual format is a mixed blessing. It is readable, but rather wordy. Its authors have an axe to grind—retooling the plant to a modern IP based infrastructure. But this is not oversold and there are plenty of caveats and a fair presentation of the subject’s complexity. In fact, there are so many caveats, and the technology ‘sell’ is so soft, that the authors fail in their perfect plant advocacy. This reviewer concluded that the problems of multiple ‘standards,’ interoperability and a lack of visibility across the plant appear to remain rather intractable. But it is certainly worthwhile spending a few hours with IPPP for the insights and contradictions that its assuredly well qualified authors offer.

*ISBN: 978-0-9789218-6-6. More from orders@evolvedtechnologist.com.

**In a recent press release, SAP describes its Perfect Plant strategy to ‘bring together core SAP solutions with the software, hardware and services offerings of ecosystem partners to drive innovation for discrete manufacturers.

*** A report in the Washington Post this month described how the Hatch Nuclear Power Plant near Baxley, Georgia was forced into a 48-hour emergency shutdown when a computer on the plant’s business network was rebooted after an engineer installed a software update. According to the Post, the operator was investigating cyber vulnerabilities when it was realized that the business network and the plant were communicating, causing the malfunction. Since then, plant engineers have physically removed all network connections between the affected servers.

This article originally appeared in Oil IT Journal 2008 Issue # 6.

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