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20 years of process automation

When David Askew came to Australia as a 21-year-old backpacker from his native England, he probably would never have realised he would be running one of the best process automation companies in Australia.

With Fast Automation turning 20 this year, PACE interviewed CEO Askew to learn more about the many changes he’s seen over the years. All these changes have seen advances within the industry, and Askew said they fall into various categories.

Energy efficiency
“Government schemes often drive industries. For instance, a lot of companies right now are scrambling to take advantage of the Energy Savings Scheme (ESS),” he said. “They can do upgrade projects and claim money in the form of Energy Savings Credits (ESCs) for energy savings forecasted for the next 10 years, plus they get savings on their energy bill. With advances in technology, it is almost possible to reduce consumption by a factor of six in some cases.”

PLC technology
“PLCs are becoming more open, more powerful and a lot cheaper. Nearly all PLCs have Ethernet capability making connecting and sharing information simpler,” said Askew. “They used to be on bespoke proprietary networks and now they’re on Ethernet networks. Standard internet protocols have moved into the PLC world so we have controllers that can serve web pages, generate SMS alarms, give diagnostic info and host dashboards. Many PLCs can now do safety and failsafe functions together with onboard BUSs that can connect faster to bigger volumes of IO more effectively and with less wiring.”

“We’ve always had safety standards but we are being asked to provide safety solutions and services more and more,” he said. “The industry is offering many ways to service this industry too, and there are a myriad of courses and certifications. It’s like the market has suddenly woken up to the consequences of safety issues and becoming more proactive. Regulations have tightened too, while technology is advancing – we have TUV-certified safety engineers on staff and have performed some of the most difficult safety applications in the world. For instance, one 100 per cent CAT 4 system we did picked up trains and moved them around for maintenance works.”

“Traditionally, companies develop software, go to site and connect it up, then they commission the logic,” said Askew. “We write or auto generate our software and fully test it with simulation. In some industries this is critical, such as the pharmaceutical industry where we might be making a solution that is going to be injected into a human body. For example, the manufacturer has to prove that within the system – without any doubt – that no valve is in the wrong position, is exposed to the wrong temperature, or it doesn’t trip or cause an alarm. We’ve been given accolades after TGA and similar authority audits for the depth of proving and validation we do.”

Project management
“This probably sounds simple, but I never thought a large portion of our company would be constantly engaged managing automation projects for big clients,” he said. “Right now we are responsible for the delivery of millions of dollars worth of automation projects in critical applications. We have a good working methodology and enforce this to inject quality and efficiencies in any automation project we are asked to police – to great effect.”

And the future? Where does Askew see the industry heading?
“The future’s about being more datacentric – we’re already seeing that now. Everybody is making more use of the data to get more value and intelligence. The Internet of Things (IoT) to me, is making the data more accessible in different ways. My view is that the IoT is about making things available from anywhere. You can use the internet when you are at home or on the train. You can see which piece of plant is doing what versus the national average and things like that. Now, it’s just becoming more prolific and widespread. One example is the IATA 753 resolution. Soon, everyone will be able to see exactly where their luggage is when they fly – on their phone. There has also been growth – and I see more growth coming in this space, for example, in data concentrators and servers, products like Splunk are cleaning up.

“Aside from that, robotics and AI will definitely start taking over some of the labour-intensive tasks or health-averse tasks. A surprising number of companies are teaming up and investing heavily in AGV and robotics’ centres.”

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