Don’t just operate a plant: Take steps to optimize your business

Today's new generation of plant information management systems (PIMS) form the core of integrated information systems (IIS) that enable plant engineers to optimize their businesses and discover new and substantial profits.

By Nigel Bowden October 1, 1999

Today’s new generation of plant information management systems (PIMS) form the core of integrated information systems (IIS) that enable plant engineers to optimize their businesses and discover new and substantial profits. When PIMS are developed for applications worldwide, there are two overriding aims: to construct the most scalable, powerful system and to provide a platform for turnkey solutions for process-type business needs.

Specifically, the market tends to demand turnkey solutions when plant automation systems are purchased and installed. Historically, plant management systems have been developed and installed by individual specialist companies. But today, plant management demands speed of installation and a world-class IIS that can deliver total, plantwide integration of all process and business data along with conversion of that data into high-value, real-time business information.

Such an approach lets plant management achieve a seamlessly integrated facility. It will not only tell it, minute-by-minute, how much feedstock is being used or how much finished product is being diverted to stores, but also who buys the product, its quality, and how much profit (or loss) is made. Activities can be fine tuned so that operations can be perfected and profits maximized.

Integrated information system principles

Fundamental to understanding the business benefits of integrated information systems is fitting the IIS module(s) in the plant’s overall scheme. At the root end of the undertaking (see mushroom analogy illustration), where the process is at its peak and spreading out in circles toward a more placid perimeter, the plant is equipped with sensors that generate data.

Every sensor acts as a “sender,” taking readings at varying intervals and adding them to the centralized database. Some report every second, some more rapidly. Others report every 10 minutes or less, depending on the attribute being monitored. Sensors and instruments at the lowest level feed plant data into the distributed control system (DCS) in the stalk of the mushroom, where it controls the process and thus closes the process loop.

Around the edge of the mushroom cap lie the separate business functions and applications that contribute to the operation of the enterprise. These include, for example, enterprise resource planning (ERP), document management, planning and scheduling, materials management, quality control, financial systems, maintenance systems, and more.

A fundamental mismatch exists between the systems at the bottom and those at the top of the mushroom. Of concern are the type of data, the frequency with which it must be updated, and the data structure itself. Simply transferring data from bottom to top, or visa versa, is not meaningful. These data must be transformed and combined in a meaningful way.

Across the center of the mushroom cap is the PIMS with its business object-oriented database. It collects data from all the business functions and integrates them with the plant data from the DCS at the crucial crossroads of the mushroom where the stalk meets the cap. It is the nerve center of the enterprise where the PIMS processes the combined data to produce high value, real-time business information from which decision makers at all levels in the enterprise can derive information-based savings. Here, the IIS controls the business and thus closes the business loop. Because they control such critical data, IIS need to be as powerful, scalable, comprehensive, and future-proof as possible.

Integration by design

For the first time in the history of integrated information technology, it is now possible to discern certain trends. There is considerable momentum to Windows NT and its other embedded technologies and standards such as ActiveX, DCOM and OPC (object linking and embedding for process control). Linked to a Windows-based human machine interface, these systems are more user friendly and operator configurable than ever before. Their near-universal adoption has led to a global installed base that relies today and will rely in the future on Windows NT technology.

Concurrent with this convergence on one format has been the emergence of another standard: the industry-tuned solution. Historically, each installation was individual. A large amount of project-specific engineering was built into each system. Today, by incorporating much of the engineering into the product itself and providing a high degree of configurability, vendors have produced powerful, intuitive model-based, object-oriented products with customized, industry-tuned solutions configured into the installed system.

Such an approach gives universality, flexibility, and scalability at a much lower cost. It lets each application be configured rather than engineered from basics, thereby reducing the engineering costs associated with an installation. This approach exploits the open systems concept that is becoming standard in processing industries.

Reality of information integration

Software is rapidly becoming a commodity; hardware has already become one. Many years ago, a few vendors dominated the computer systems market: Each had its own proprietary hardware and software packages. Today, computer hardware from different manufacturers is similar. Little distinguishes one from another.

The same product drift has affected DCS systems. Some time ago, there was a material difference between providers. Not today. A similar convergence has occurred in software. Before long, every PIMS provider will offer products that rely on a real-time, object-oriented database, a historian, and a Windows operating system. Only small differences in performance will exist, except perhaps in maximum scale and ultimate power.

The big difference is found not in the stalk of the mushroom, but in the cap, in the multivariate facets of the enterprise business processes. Understanding the end user’s business processes and being able to build meaningful business objects within the IIS is what will differentiate the true IIS supplier from the routine software vendor. This quality ensures the client will realize the system it requires to achieve a competitive advantage over others in its industry. An IIS supplier must understand fully the process operation and business methods of the enterprise and its clients and be able to deliver completely integrated and appropriate information solutions.

Information integration is reality. It is already here in a simple form, and is rapidly gaining in scope, flexibility, and acceptability. It is fueled by advances in software and by the adoption of Windows NT and its associated technologies. Through these developments, basic PIMS software systems are commoditized. Means of differentiating available products are developing, in particular the degree to which the application of specific system engineering is incorporated into the product.

What does this mean? Effectively, there will be variations to basic PIMS products for each industry sector (petrochemicals, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pulp & paper, food, manufacturing, minerals). Each will incorporate the appropriate methods used within the industry to which it is targeted. The plant or corporation that adopts this technology gains a competitive advantage through the ability to base decisions on real-time, high-value business information derived from multiple sources throughout the enterprise.

Nigel Bowden is an electrical/electronics engineer who has spent more than a decade in project management and consulting for integrated information systems in the mining, food, chemical, and general manufacturing industries. He has most recently been involved with IIS, PIMS and MES, primarily in the hydrocarbons and chemicals industry. Contact Yokogawa Marex Technology Ltd at Marex House, 34 Medina Rd, Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK, PO31 7DA; phone: +44 (0)1983 296011; fax: +44 (0)1983 291776; or visit its web site at