Total solutions automation marries vendor, utility

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

Total solutions automation and monitoring is not your father’s control system-well, not entirely. It starts with your father’s system and then adds in variables like diagnostics to expand a plant’s interconnections, but for the average utility hunter of the elusive all-encompassing automation control technology, the questions surrounding a total solutions package remain, leaving EL&P in the position of debunker.

For help in uncovering the mysteries surrounding total solutions automation, EL&P turned to two companies familiar with the stomping grounds: Invensys Process Systems and Westinghouse Process Control.

Invensys Process Systems (IPS) is a new name for an old face. Within the past year, several Invensys-owned companies were integrated, resulting in a reorganization that produced IPS from a number of already established companies like Foxboro and Wonderware.

Originally formed out of Hagen Controls, an old Rosemount corporation, Westinghouse Process Control is now a part of Emerson Process Management.

Total solutions: fact or fiction?

Bill Burke, director of industry marketing for the utility and power sector at IPS comes down on the side of “fact,” with provisos. In an interview with EL&P, he revealed that Invensys tries to go to market with what they label a ‘sensor to boardroom’ approach.

“We offer the complete gambit of technology and applications that a company would need to run their plant,” he stated, but he pointed out that whether a total solutions package appeals to a utility depends more on the structure of the utility than it does the make-up of the total solutions package.

“There would not be a universal appeal [for a total solutions system]. It depends very much on the internal resourcing of the company,” Burke said. “Utilities have grown out of a regulatory environment where they, over time, became quite self-sufficient, and the process of deregulation is impacting the resource base that the power companies have.” Burke stated that some utilities still prefer to serve as their own prime contractor. Still, Burke believes that other utilities, perhaps those who have resource and time constraints choose a single source supply approach from an automation supplier, bringing total solutions back into focus.

Willie Roland, manager of new business at Westinghouse Process Control, agreed with Burke that total solutions automation and monitoring was a fact in the realm of plant engineering; they do disagree, however, on the current level of acceptance for a total solutions system.

“Right now total solutions has a very large appeal due to the high growth rate,” Roland stated. “With new fleet generation-the building of the combined-cycles- companies are looking to cut down their time to market, so they are trying to cut costs by doing things such as packaging everything under one purchase order. It has put vendors in an interesting position. They have become the integrators and the broad-base suppliers.”

Roland also pointed to cuts in staff-citing numbers of jobs cut from 40 to 60 percent in the last 10 years-as a major factor in power companies investing more heavily in control systems.

“The vendors are the ones who have to pick up the ball, and that’s why [a total solutions package] looks good,” he added.

Here and now

Some utilities are indeed looking for that total solutions vendor.

Invensys has a multi-year partnership alliance with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the City of Austin to retrofit and upgrade a number of their central stations. A half dozen have already been reworked, with another four or five slated for the future. These upgrades covered all of the applications within the plant, including maintenance management, and, in the case of LCRA, Invensys worked with NOx reduction as well.

Burke pointed out, however, that Invensys has yet to accomplish their ‘sensor to boardroom’ approach in the power arena.

“We have done that in other industries, but in the power space we’ve taken approaches like total scope of supply, associated with the control system around the plant. It’s gone up as far as the business applications,” Burke stated. “Most of what we’ve done in the power industry today goes from instrumentation and sensors out in the field up to the information management platform at the plant and the maintenance management applications.”

Business systems at plant level is the final stop for a total solutions package in the power industry, according to Burke. Tying in maintenance management is the final key, but crossing over to encompass power marketing and other exterior levels of the utility is still uncharted territory.

“To some extent, the scope of our client’s interest doesn’t go much beyond the plant itself. If you get into procuring and new trading and transaction systems, you’re generally dealing with a different set of people, and while executives understand the across-the-board benefits, vendors mostly deal with buyers at the plant level,” he said.

Roland agrees with Burke that there is a gap in communication on this issue.

“I wish we could say that the benefits of a total solutions package are obvious, but it is sometimes a hard sell. The marketplace potential is there, but the utility industry has always been slow to move,” Roland stated.

“It’s been a regulated business, and they’ve always had their certain way of purchasing certain things. The trouble with control and instrumentation is that it’s always been a capital expenditure, and under the rules of a regulated business, that had to be a competitive bid. So, you had a very formal process to go through. Many of those people are still basically stuck in that rut, in a sense. They think, ‘This is the way we do business.'”

Some utilities have started to change that process, though, and with both Invensys and Westinghouse the key seems to be alliances.

Westinghouse began the alliance system with Florida Power & Light a few years ago, and they believe that most utilities and automation vendors are being driven toward the same. They consider it “the next level.”

“We’re really evolving from a vendor-purchaser marketplace into a partnering marketplace, and a total solutions package is part of that,” stated Joyce Dasch, North America power marketing manager. “It’s a transition from transactional buying to relationship buying, where there is an alignment of business objectives as well.”

Future aspirations

Invensys sees significant future investment in the basic automation platform, but also in the idea of an “information highway” that connects various plants within the company and creates a central information repository. Burke also felt that investment in diagnostics and instrumentation associated with equipment health would continue to be a huge growth side of the control industry. One final area of interest: plant staffing profiles.

“The automation investments are now seen as being a way to minimize-or perhaps maximize-your manpower utilization in the plant, especially during start-ups,” Burke stated.

Westinghouse’s Roland agreed that manpower augmentation is a huge issue for automation. He pointed to layoffs, cutbacks and retirement as prominent drivers for the issue.

“Right now, the lack of staff has everyone in the industry fairly shook up, for they see their expertise leaving,” he stated. “They don’t have the personnel, so now vendors are having to supply some of those services.”

However, the future of the automation industry may rely less on technological trends and more on whether an automation vendor can convince a utility of a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. Burke revealed that those numbers often do not encompass all that they should.

“The bottom line impact for a new automation plant actually sometimes goes unmeasured, and that’s part of the problem that people are having in justifying automation investments. If you only look at the cost savings dimension, the return on capital is sometimes marginal,” he stated.

However, according to Burke, if a company can build in the value parameters that they would get with the new platform in a competitive market, they could look at six or eight month paybacks, at times.

“If you can reach across the fence and look at what the value of those MW [saved through advanced automation] is to the marketing company, and look at the enhanced value associated with the automation investment, the ROI [return on investment] becomes very favorable. And part of our challenge in the industry is really getting the asset management of the business and the marketing side of the business to work together to rationalize capital investments. In some cases, that’s being done-with the more enlightened entities-but with others there is still that chasm,” Burke said.

Roland agreed that the real issue is a “culture change,” as he put it.

“You have to get these people working together better than they do right now. I’ve been in the optimization field for 10 years now, and the culture is a major issue. The technology alone can’t break through that barrier, no matter how good the [financial] numbers,” Roland added.

Bill Burke can be contacted via e-mail at Dasch can be reached via e-mail at joyce.dasch@emerson, Roland via phone (412-963-4148).

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