Sidney Hill, Jr.: Seeing manufacturing as a business process

Mike Brooks is staff technologist with Chevron, a job that requires him to investigate new technologies and recommend whether the world's second-largest oil company should adopt them in its refineries. He recently shared his thoughts on next-generation production management systems with MBT Executive Editor Sidney Hill, Jr.


Mike Brooks has a message for all the vendors that sell production management solutions to process-oriented manufacturers: He's ready to embrace and adopt your products, but only if they satisfy his specific requirements.

So who is Mike Brooks? What are his requirements? And why should production management vendors care about either?

Brooks is staff technologist with Chevron, a job that requires him to investigate new technologies and recommend whether the world's second-largest oil company should adopt them in its refineries.

But Brooks doesn't see himself as a mere technology evaluator. “My job is to understand how to institutionalize methods for improving business processes,” he says. “That means we start by looking at our processes—and what people do to make them work. Only then do we look at new technologies that might support the existing processes, or even help to improve them.”

This process-first focus led Brooks to conclude that process-oriented manufacturers like Chevron need more than the distributed control or manufacturing execution systems that most vendors currently offer them. “We need a framework that helps improve the performance of all personnel across the entire business,” he says.

This belief has led Brooks on a crusade of sorts. In addition to evangelizing about this framework within Chevron, he takes every chance he gets to share his convictions with his industry peers.

I heard Brooks' message at the annual user conference industrial automation vendor Yokogawa recently hosted in Houston.

When you listen to Brooks describe the framework he envisions, it sounds a lot like the service-oriented business process management platforms that IT infrastructure suppliers like IBM, Microsoft, and others are touting these days.

“It needs to define the data sources, as well as the data and process flows, across departments,” he says. And once these flows and processes are defined, Brooks adds, they need to be packaged in a way that allows them to be reused to create new processes.

When applied to a business like oil refining, Brooks says, having this type framework should promote sounder decision-making.

“Consider the situation in which a production operator sees a sensor pointing to an impending failure,” he explains. “The maintenance department will want to take that machine down immediately and repair it, but the operations department will want to keep it running to keep from delaying orders. But which is the right answer?”

Giving the current state of systems in most process plants, there is no way to know definitively, Brooks argues. “Under the current work processes, a decision is made in the daily production meeting, and usually the guy who shouts the loudest gets his way.”

With the right technology framework in place, Brook contends, appropriate data from all departments could be shared at the meeting, and a collaborative process would yield an objective decision that is best for the entire business, not just a single department.

Brooks doesn't expect industrial automation vendors to build these business process frameworks, particularly since the IT infrastructure providers are pretty far down that road. He does, however, expect the automation vendors to make their systems capable of fitting into such frameworks.

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