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ECS Total Process Automation featured in AutomationWorld

Earlier this month, an article written by ECS President Tim Matheny was featured in AutomationWorld. Matheny discussed the Total Process Automation approach taken by ECS and how “The best control system integrators do not only automate the production equipment, they help to automate the entire manufacturing process.” By focusing on assisting the client with the whole process, integrators can not only help create and package goods more efficiently but also help the client increase their profits. The Total Process Automation approach used by ECS results in “an organization achieving higher quality, higher performance and higher profits.”

Click here to read the article and learn more about the Total Process Automation approach.

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Blending Ratio Control

We bumped into a client that indicated their process specified a particular material ratio (i.e. 10:1) of materials A/B on an In-Line pre-blender.  Additionally, the client also specified that an amount of A was required in the beginning and at the end of the blend since it was critical that material B could not be added by itself. In the past, the control system was programmed to control the ratio of the flows (as requested), where A was the Master and B was controlled to keep up to maintain the required Flow ratio. The Batch Brothers sensed some issues with this approach…

The problem they encountered was that upon completion of material B feed, too much or too little was left of Material A to flow solo as by requirements, this was due to the errors encountered by B trying to keep up with the Master Flow rate.

After better understanding the requirements the following solution was designed to ensure the best possible ratio control. Aside from the initial Solo of Material A (SiA) and final Solo of material A (SfA) addition required, the remaining amount of Material A (RaA) should be blended as homogeneously as possible with the required amount of Material B.

The Batch Brother’s Solution continuously calculated what the Ideal Flow ratio should be based on the actual amount of material remaining to be blended. By continuously updating this ratio the system could compensate for the errors incurred by not maintaining the EXACT ratio required as well as any error incurred in the addition of the initial solo feed of Material A.

The initial approach of maintaining a fixed Flow ratio setpoint did not allow the system to compensate for any errors incurred by the feed systems, by continuously recalculating the required ratio based on the amounts remaining, the system continuously corrects the setpoints and provided the most homogeneous possible product.

Problem solved!

Batching Across America,
-The Batch Brothers


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Material Delivery Optimization

We visited a client and determined that the production bottleneck for their process was the delivery of grain from silos. The client shared with us that their intent to upgrade the conveying equipment and that a large Capital investment was being requested…This was a clear opportunity for The Batch Brothers to step in!

After The Batch Brothers evaluated the existing system, we determined that a software approach could eliminate the existing bottleneck, without a large investment of Capital equipment. The batch system required multiple grains be delivered, only one grain was requested at a time, once that grain was delivered, the next one would be requested until all the grain required was delivered. The accuracy of these deliveries had been optimized and more than exceeded their tolerance requirements.

The systems characteristic that mostly affected the bottleneck was the distance the silos where from the weigh hopper. Once a Material was requested, the delivery delay from the time the silo gate opened until the first material reached the weigh hopper was of approximately 5 minutes. Once the amount remaining to be added to the hopper reached the “in transition amount” the system would command the silo gate to close, another 5 minutes would pass before the remaining material in the transport system would arrive to the weigh hopper.

The software solution consisted of requesting from the recipe the materials and amounts required, the system will then determine the location of each silo and prioritize the delivery based on the silo that had the smallest delivery time to the hopper. Now, instead of waiting for the completion of the material delivery the logic calculated when the next ingredient/silo gate should be opened to provide a predefined gap between the two ingredients, sometimes the second gate had to be opened before the first one closed.

Once the hopper determined that there was a feed gap and the amount required was near the required amount, then the logic considered this the end of the leading material and would consider the incoming material to be part of the following material requested. The system was designed to be able to specify up to 8 ingredients and their amounts.

In this case, the software automation system could provide another 5% production capability and eliminated the need to upgrade the grain transport system. With each bottleneck change, the process becomes more efficient. Software sometimes can cause that change and may also reduce the need to upgrade the hardware.

Batching Across America,
-The Batch Brothers

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The Most Annoying Question on Earth

Why? One of my grandsons learned to say, “Why?” soon after he learned to say, “No!” and well before “Please.” He is a sweet boy whom I love dearly, but, frankly, I find his single-word reply to whatever answer I may give annoying. Too often, I end up replying, as my father before me, “Just because.”

Why? Because “Why?” is both inquisitive and challenging. At the same time, it asks to know more and it accuses its target of holding back, of giving an insufficient answer.

Why is this the lead for an Automation World blog? Because “Why?” is simply the most important question that can be asked. Why? Because it is both inquisitive and challenging. Because it is unsatisfied. Because it demands thought and commitment to an informed opinion.

Why answer “Why?” when “How?” is much easier. After all, “How?” deals in facts, not opinions. Augmenting a thorough “How?” answer with a “What?” answer makes for consistent bids, consistent deliverables, and iron-clad specifications. We, the experts, know that if you will just do this with that at a low price that we will be happy and you will get paid.

“Why?” asks some control system integrator engineer who has obviously not matured beyond four, and whose experience is not with your process, but from other industries entirely, “Why do that?”

Why not just answer, “Because… that’s how we do it here?” True, it is easy to waste time explaining something to someone who knows much less. But, it is also true that game-changing improvements come from individuals unencumbered by detailed knowledge.

Why do I ask “Why?” First, to satisfy my insatiable desire to learn. Second, because I have met many other engineers honest enough to respond, “I don’t know.” As often as not, my contribution is only to question, not to offer an answer. Third, because I have seen results from my asking. Clients reduce cost, eliminate waste, improve quality, or deliver faster.

Why? Because I was either smart enough or dumb enough, take your pick, to ask, “Why?” Perhaps my grandson will be an engineer someday.

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In meetings with clients, we should always endeavor to more fully understand the process of concern. The client has usually identified a problem and believes that an efficient and reliable control system will correct that problem. Hence the focus is on the problem, and perhaps, this is one step in the process. We believe that understanding the big picture can enable a better solution, that is why we ask questions about the overall process and not just the problem area.

  • What are the factors that affect Quality, Quantity and Cost?
  • Why is the process conducted in that way?
  • How many variables are controlled and monitored?
  • How do these variables affect the problem area?
  • How accurately should the variables be controlled?

We are convinced that by having a better understanding of the process in question, additional control system capabilities may be incorporated into the solution.  In this way, significant improvement in the efficiency of the process and/or the quality of the product may be realized.

We recently met with a client from the food industry, who required a system to control the blending of the content from Two tanks into a third tank.  The original requirement was to blend at a specific ratio i.e. 10:1 We learned that the quality of the product was dependent upon the ratio of the two materials in addition to initializing and completing the blend requirements.

It was thought that simply controlling the flow rates of the materials into the blending tank in that specific ratio would suffice.  We pointed out that small variations in the flow rates from either or both tanks would change the ratio of the remaining materials to be blended, perhaps significantly.  We suggested that the system must, therefore, focus on controlling the flow rates to maintain the required remaining material ratio instead of a fixed one.

Another example.  We recently learned from a manufacturer that a chemical reaction occurring in a reactor at one stage of the process generated a foam.  This foam formed an undesirable layer above the materials in the tank and it was necessary to allow it to dissipate.  This slowed and delayed the overall process.  The control system that had been installed included the capability to purge the tanks and pipes with gases when required.  We realized that the pressure control system could be used to accelerate the dissipation of the foam and minimize the delay in the process.

It is well known that control systems can offer a wide range of capabilities often more than may be initially envisioned by clients.  Added value may be obtained from the control system if the factors affecting the finished product are shared by the client. Try to view the “big picture”.

By understanding the factors that affect the finished product we may be able to take advantage of functionality that can be achieved with the existent control system.

Until next time, friend!

Batching Across America,
-The Batch Brothers

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Total Process Automation = Industry 4.0

Simon Drexler of OTTO Motors blogged for ARC Industrial IoT/Industrie 4.0 Viewpoints, identifying The 5 Factors of Industry 4.0. Total Process Automation aligns with Industry 4.0 in many ways, some of which are discussed below.

1.      Big Data

ECS’ Total Process Automation, particularly when S88 Builder® is included, contributes to Big Data. Both time-based and event-based data is contextualized for more straightforward performance reporting and analysis. ECS does not provide the advanced analytics portion of a full Big Data approach. We do provide analysis of process data that makes sense in support of continuous improvement.

2.      Smart Factory

Industry 4.0’s concept of the Smart Factory is the heart of Total Process Automation. From our ERP Gateway to the end of your packaging line, ECS’ Total Process Automation integrates and automates both production management and process control. Total Process Automation turns your factory into a smart factory that produces your goods more effectively for greater profits.

3.      Cyber-Physical Systems

S88 Builder is the world’s only true ISA-88 model-based control system designed to control processes, measuring, interpreting and reacting to results. Offered as a ControlLogix controller program, designed to be reused in its entirety from one project to the next, S88 Builder performs these activities at the lowest possible layer of a typical control system ensuring precise measurement, interpretation, and reaction.

4.      Internet of Things (IoT)

Ultimately, the Industry 4.0 Cyber-Physical Systems of a Smart Factory will benefit from self-aware, smart, data-gathering sensors. Today advanced cyber-physical systems, such as S88 Builder, wrap missing smarts around available “dumb” sensors before exposing them to the IoT. All sensors of a class must present to the IoT consistently, a requirement made easy with model-based cyber-physical system software.

5.      Interoperability

ECS brings about the interoperability of Total Process Automation using commercial off the shelf (COTS) software available from the leaders in information technology and industrial automation. Common platforms such as SQL databases and programmable automation controllers provide the foundation of interoperability. Common protocols offer humans and other cyber systems straightforward interaction with a Total Process Automation solution.


Total Process Automation solves problems for real customers, helping them make what they make more effectively and profitably than ever before. Some of our success stories are astounding; we would be happy to share them with you. Ones we have been permitted to publish are available elsewhere on ECSSolutions.com. For the rest, you will just have to contact me.

Stay in control!

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A Tale of Two Service Professionals

There is a saying that I recall hearing from my very first days of being associated with a service organization, “The customer is always right.” A second goes further, “When the customer isn’t right, the customer is always the customer.”

A few years ago, I was staying in a hotel in downtown Chicago where, as is my custom, I handed my car to the valet, tipped and accepted my claim check. The next day I called the valet desk from my room 20 minutes prior to the time I preferred to leave, as requested, then went down to wait on my car. It didn’t come. At 25 or 30 minutes after I called, I asked the valet at the desk where my car was and gave him my claim check. He said that he wasn’t sure, but he got right on the radio to ask. Ten minutes more waiting and I asked again, got the same blank look, and so took my problem to the concierge.

After a brief exchange between the concierge and the valet, the concierge directed me to the front desk and the manager on duty, who asked me what area of the city I needed to get to, handed me $40, told me a cab was being called. I signed nothing but promised to bring cab receipts.

As the concierge was ushering me to the waiting cab, the valet asked if I had given them only my push-button fob or if I had also given them the physical key that inserts into the fob. He explained that the fob would not work without the key. I protested; he repeated himself. I realized that I had neither the wherewithal nor the time to convince him I was right and handed him the key as I jumped into the cab.

Ten minutes later I am at the location, tipping the cabbie, trying not to worry about my car and clear my mind for my appointment. About two hours into my appointment, the front desk manager called to say I should stop worrying because they had found my car and it was fine.

Later and back at the hotel, I gave the desk manager the change from his $40 and the receipt from the cab, tried to tip him, then moved to the valet desk and introduced myself as, “the guy who’s car you lost earlier.” “Oh,” the valet said, “the problem is with your fob. Maybe the battery is low, because if it reached further we would have found your car right away.” I asked for a replacement claim check and left not, at this point, thinking that another tip was appropriate.

The next day I again called and the valet retrieved my car promptly. Not seeing any damage, I tipped and drove off, glad to be able to get to my next appointment in plenty of time.

It is so very tempting to make excuses for failures, even to blame others as the valet did because we all have the desire to be perfect and the inner voice that tells us that we are not. Quelling that voice can become so habitual that it wells over into the way we deal with others. The more that we are successful quelling that voice, the more we start to believe that we really are perfect. Any cracks in our perfection must be denied and made others’ fault. Any criticism must be defended.

So, why tell you this story? Because service matters to me, because service failure frustrates me, ECS’ culture is one of service. We are committed to helping fellow industry professionals solve production challenges through fair and honest relationships with customers, suppliers, and employees. I expect ECS to be helpful, fair and to extend trust—until we are taken advantage of, as sometimes we are.
Why should you believe me? No reason, I suppose. I would like to have the chance to show you how hard we will work to make you successful.

Do we ever act more like the valet and less like the desk manager? Certainly. Thank you if you have been patient with us in our imperfection. I am always glad to hear from you.

Until next time, stay in control!

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Customers Return for Solutions

Some of our customers believe that they achieve the highest value from ECS by purchasing services. ECS works on a cost-plus (hourly) basis on the customer’s challenges with our customer’s own technical resources. Teaming together blends our customer’s product and process knowledge with ECS’ extensive control and information system knowledge to achieve a superior solution. Often the solution is unknown or is only a concept when the team starts work. The most competent resources are challenged to conceive and deliver the best (highest value) solution for a fair price based on the efforts required.

Some of our customers believe that they achieve the highest value by purchasing solution projects. ECS works on a fixed-price basis to achieve a scope of work. The definition of that scope may be more or less detailed. ECS delivers well-defined projects after bidding against other contractors to propose the best value project scope. As ECS demonstrates trustworthiness, ECS’ role tends toward that of a solution provider or main automation contractor. In these roles, ECS shoulders more responsibility for the solution success and less for delivering a detailed set of deliverables. The continuum might be described as ranging from “I want a faster car in order to better compete,” to “I want a car with X.X liter engine and a transmission with these gear ranges and these tires.”

Projects deliver specified results, often called deliverables. Specifying what is needed to make a project successful requires engineering. Some customers maintain strong engineering capability, either at the plant or corporate level or both. Some customers utilize a design-build contractor or main automation contractor to obtain up-front engineering. With a design and a specification, success is defined as delivery on time and at budget of the specified deliverables.

Solutions solve operational issues delivering results such as improved profitability. To deliver solutions, ECS must do a better job of aligning itself with customers’ business, not just control of customers’ production processes. Discussions between ECS and a customer focus on both parties understanding the problems that are to be solved and the value attached to solving those problems. With a full understanding of the problems, success is defined in terms of problems solved or alleviated and value realized.

Is it more important to you that your control system integrator delivers the proper items of hardware and software licenses or helps you to achieve improved production results? More often than not our customers really want solutions. Our ability to solve problems, delivering measurable performance results, keeps our customers coming back for more. Over the last six years, 80% of our annual revenue has come from customers buying again. When ECS solves real problems, customers return.

How do you solve problems? Is your company sufficiently staffed with engineering and continuous improvement staff so that you can confidently issue specifications for what you know will work? Could you benefit from association with a main automation contractor that understands process control, process automation and process operations management requirements?

As always, I would love to hear from you.

Stay in control!

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Value from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

The IoT and the IIoT are all the buzz these days. It’s a pretty safe bet that the plant down the road, your competition, and/or your sister plants are making plans for an IIoT project. Maybe it is time to get on the bandwagon?

Hold your beer a minute.

The IoT is simply a network of smart things. The IIot might be thought of as a network of smart things that produce value in an industrial plant. The IIot is technology. It is useful technology, not just another craze. But, it is technology. For my 40 years, I have observed that the value in a system or solution is NOT the technology, but the application that the technology enables or delivers. It is how we USE technology that delivers value. It is value that makes our organizations more effective and more profitable. Value is the holy grail, not technology.

When I consult with a client that desires to increase operational profitability, I start by asking what is being measured. What data is already being collected or available to be collected? I have been in facilities that are swamped in data that is not being used. How can we use this ready resource to point to challenges? Accurately understanding a problem and accurately measuring its effect on plant profitability is key to receiving funding for overcoming the challenge. Accurately measuring and loudly touting the value received from an improvement is key to receiving attention and funding for the next challenge.

If you do not have a process, or want to compare your process’ results against ours, I am happy for one of our lead engineers to come in and help you with a Total Process Automation assessment or simply give you the questionnaire so that you can use it yourself. Step one is casting broadly for a lengthy list of problems. Step two is focusing down on the problem(s) with the highest impact on plant profitability (Pareto principle). When ECS is engaged for an assessment, our deliverable is a report that includes a FEL-1 (Front End Loading) project charter for the top one or couple problems/opportunities.

Application of IIoT technology comes into play as we define how to accurately measure the problem and the value that fully or partially resolving the problem will create. When we need to add an instrument to plant equipment to accurately measure the waste, we want that instrument to be smart and to be capable of being accessed from a variety of solutions—not just the controller it is wired to. One of the value propositions of IIoT technology over traditional approaches is that making data available to additional consumers accelerates the improvement process as those consumers use the data to solve more problems faster.

If you have lots of money, go ahead and create your IIoT with lots of smart things measuring “everything.” Good will come. If you are limited in your funding, as most of our clients are, then start with your biggest problem(s), using the value recaptured to fund subsequent projects until one day, you have a top performing plant.


Stay in control!

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The Value Of A Truly Modular “Clean In Place” System

Improving overall manufacturing process efficiency is not limited to the tasks and methods used to make the products; important opportunities also exist in the clean in place process (CIP). CIP is a factor that directly impacts the utilization of the plant equipment, as well as the unit cost and quality. A modular CIP system fosters more innovation by providing the process owner the ability to pilot solutions with minimal effort. A properly designed CIP system will not only allow the owner to optimize the execution of the cleaning procedures, but it will also reduce the costs associated with cleaning solutions, water and energy.

Typically, CIP systems are commissioned and their procedures are seldom changed. This is due in part to the rigid logic that provide the process owners very little flexibility to improve the procedures, programs are created to perform tasks such as the pre-rinse, detergent(s) wash, and a final rinse, etc. The process owners find themselves limited to changing recipe values (parameters) and are not given the flexibility to optimize the procedures. If a change needs to be made it may require the intervention of an engineering group to gather requirements, make and test the changes, then release these changes to the process owners. Often, improvements don’t happen because of the time and resources required to make such changes.

The key to allowing the plant to improve the cleaning process is to provide a truly modular CIP system that allows the process owner to configure procedures based on the capabilities of the equipment instead of coded routines.

ISA S88 provides guidelines for the design and specifications of batch control systems. The capabilities of the equipment are exposed to the recipe authors and these capabilities are captured in what is defined as the equipment model. These capabilities are then programed as sub routines (Phases) that can be called upon to be executed at any time.

A procedural model (Recipe) provides the recipe author the granularity that allows the author to define tasks to be performed as well as their triggering conditions. This recipe authoring flexibility empowers the process owners to quickly author new procedures that reflect the current best approach, these can be tested without requiring programing and revalidation of code.

Given the mathematical capabilities of modern automation controllers it is also possible to write equations that can be integrated over time to provide a cumulative cleaning factor, such concept is used for steam sterilization cycles (“F-sub-zero”). This method can be used to dynamically determine when the cleaning cycle is complete without having to follow the traditional method, a direct benefit should be the reduction of time, materials and energy required.

*A major food manufacturer initially reduced their total clean in place time by eight hours per week—creating far more efficiency.

Important opportunities to improve the overall manufacturing process efficiency exist in the clean in place process automation, key to this is a well-defined ISA S88 Equipment Model that provides a modular and flexible solution to the process owners.

ECS is a Control System Integrator’s Association (CSIA) certified control system integrator offering Total Process Automation—from your ERP solution to the end of your packaging line. We help customers solve real problems, making them more profitable. After more than three decades of hands-on process control system development, ECS has refined its ability to deliver high-value, agile, solutions at a fair price and within an amazing schedule.

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