Software importance increasing among plant engineers

Today's plant engineer is transcending the longstanding stereotype. The plant engineering function is no longer just nuts and bolts. Today's plant engineer is mature, educated, and tends to stay in his or her job. And the job requires an increasing amount of software.Software is a fact of life on the plant floor of today and tomorrow.

By Jack Smith, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering Magazine November 2, 2018

Today’s plant engineer is transcending the longstanding stereotype. The plant engineering function is no longer just nuts and bolts. Today’s plant engineer is mature, educated, and tends to stay in his or her job. And the job requires an increasing amount of software.

Software is a fact of life on the plant floor of today and tomorrow. The question is not whether to use software, but which software to use. And plant engineers are not only using, but also demanding efficient, affordable, and well-supported software.

What software applications do plant engineers use? What software characteristics are important to plant engineers? How do plant engineers use networks? How many plant engineers are using wireless technology?

These questions, as well as others, are addressed in an exclusive PLANT ENGINEERING survey. This article summarizes the survey results.

Software applications

PLANT ENGINEERING asked which software applications you use. The chart in Fig. 1 indicates that all respondents use project management software. A close second — 97.1% — use programmable logic controller (PLC) software. Third, 96.7% use CAD systems, while 96.6% use design, and 93.2% use automation software. Computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) users round out the top six at 92%.

Equipment selection and specification software is used by 91.7% of respondents. Next, 85.7% use energy analysis, followed by 83.9% using data acquisition (DAQ), then 80% using enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Vibration analysis is used by 76.3% of respondents. Following closely is electronic document management at 76% and enterprise asset management (EAM) software at 75%.

Of the respondents, 73.7% use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software. Next, 72.5% use predictive maintenance and 72% use project document management software.

There are no surprises here. The survey indicates significant software usage, as well as demand, among plant engineers. With expanding software usage on the plant floor, one inference can clearly be made: Software is becoming increasingly important to the plant engineer.

Important characteristics

PLANT ENGINEERING asked respondents to rank software characteristics in nine categories. The following list presents these categories in order of importance based on your responses. However, a word of caution is appropriate here. The last item on the list does not necessarily mean that the item is not important. Respondents ranked all categories with a certain level of importance.

  • Availability of technical assistance

  • User friendly

  • Upgrade compatibility

  • Service after the sale

  • Training availability

  • Ease of installation

  • Computer control compatibility

  • Price

  • Ability to customize

    • Networks

      Two-thirds (66.3%) of respondents use both networked and stand-alone systems, while 19% use only networked and 14.1% use only stand-alone.

      Whether partially or totally networked, some type of network protocol must be used. PLANT ENGINEERING asked: “If networked, what is your primary communication protocol?” The table categorizes the responses.

      The protocols in the “other” category are AS400, HP Brio, and simple TCP/IP.

      From these data, it is obvious that Ethernet continues to dominate communication protocol for most respondents.

      Wireless technology

      Wireless technology offers plant engineers the capability to “connect” instruments to networks without expensive wiring, maintain voice communication, facilitate controls and automation, and perform certain maintenance tasks effectively and efficiently. However, only slightly less than 25% of respondents are using it (Fig. 2).

      Of the 23.6% of respondents who are using wireless technology, 69.2% use it for plant communications. Nearly half use it for controls and automation. Third, 38.5% use it for maintenance (Fig. 3).

      Of those responding, 5.1% use wireless technology for bar coding, 2.6% for fire panels and computer room, and 2.6% for stockroom and receiving.

      The future

      With only a few categories swapping positions, software characteristics plant engineers consider important follow trends from previous PLANT ENGINEERING surveys. Ethernet is still the dominant network protocol. Also, wireless technology is still slow to catch on. However, project management software has replaced CMMS as the most used application among plant engineers.

      These data indicate that software is a fact of life on the plant floor. Software is important to plant engineers because it helps them do their jobs more efficiently. As software continues to evolve and plant engineers’ requirements become even more sophisticated, it will undoubtedly become more important.

      Primary communication protocols

      Protocol Respondents, %
      Ethernet 77.5%
      RS-232 8.5%
      4-20 mA 7.8%
      Modbus 7%
      RS-485 6.2%
      Proprietary 6.2%
      ControlNet 3.9%
      Profibus 3.1%
      AS-Interface 3.1%
      Foundation-Fieldbus 2.3%
      DeviceNet 2.3%
      BACnet 1.6%
      HART 1.6%
      ARCNet 1.6%
      WorldFIP 0.8%
      SERCOS 0.8%
      Other 3.9%

      Engineers’ favorite software-PLANT ENGINEERING asked you what your favorite software application program is and why. There were numerous responses, some of which are listed here.

      Favorite software Reason
      Allen-Bradley Cross-functional packages
      Allen-Bradley RS series Service
      AS RS Logix 500 To program Allen-Bradley SLC 500 PLCs
      AS RS Logix, RS View Ease of use
      AutoCAD Most useful Stability of product Very powerful, good support, no bugs Works well for low price Relatively universal and friendly Use it every day for quick sketching The newer versions have made drafting more versatile as well as challenging Good tool for my needs Allows visualization of space utilization, production flow for new machinery Its an important part of our work here and its easy to use I need it on a daily basis
      CardKey Ease of use
      Cimplicity Easy to use, reliable
      Cimplicity HMI Allows great control of various machines
      Datastream Performs all purchasing, inventory control, and work orders for maintenance
      Datastream MP2 Excellent CMMS package All encompassing, brings much data together, good report generation
      Emonitor Odyssey (Entek) Logical, user friendly, capable
      Excel Copy and exchange files rather than create from scratch
      Faser 5.0 Well written with good technical support
      Fluke NETDAQ Ease of use
      Intellution Ease of use
      Mainsaver CMMS (Cayenta) Easy for shop personnel to use
      Maximo Predictive Maintenance Helps maintenance manage the bottom line
      Microsoft Office Facilitates job performance Integrated package that allows me to do my job efficiently
      MicroStation Power Its what I use; it works well
      Palm desktop Daily organizer, address book
      Pegasys We can monitor and control our power consumption and demand
      PHD design software Makes specifying pneumatic and hydraulic components much easier
      PLM (Plant Line Monitoring) You can see the entire plant on one screen
      Power Basic Design in-house control systems
      SKF Prism 4 for Windows Ease of use and graphics
      TurboCAD Low cost with excellent functions
      Visio Adaptable to a wide range of custom applications
      Visual Basic Ease of writing custom applications

      Key software challenges

      Plant Engineering magazine asked what factors you see as key challenges your company faces concerning software applications. There were numerous responses, some of which are listed here.

      Compatibility among systems

      Compatibility among programs and intranet applications


      Upgrade compatibility


      Selecting and implementing a CMMS

      Advancing an application in a declining business market

      Availability of capable people for implementation

      Being cost competitive

      Agreeing on a standard control software to implement and use

      Combining parts, production, and sales databases

      Communication, interfaces, and historical data management

      Companies that stop supporting equipment and software after just a few years, requiring users to upgrade

      Hardware and software upgrades

      Customizing to meet individual needs


      Finding useful applications

      Getting corporate to authorize the purchase of a decent package


      Going online with a work order system

      Implementation of BPICS

      Implementation of a new ERP system

      Integrating CMMS with office systems

      Integrating different software for electronic data exchange

      Integrating information between different business units and providing web-based access

      Integrating the new systems with the existing ones

      Internet connectability and security

      Knowledge management

      Letting go of legacy software

      Machine control integration

      Networking PLCs

      Better predictive maintenance

      Nonsupported software

      Quick sketching

      Regulatory compliance with electronic audit trail

      Too many standards and getting vendors to use them

      Windows 2000 compatibility