The road to a sustainable plant upgrade

Being honest and looking out for your client’s best interests can lead to a long-term beneficial relationship for both companies. PACE explains.

Metquip Systems general manager Jose Lobato is a passionate man. It shows in how he talks and the enthusiasm he exhibits when explaining what his company does. Maybe it’s because he’s been in the industry for more than 30 years. Or it could be because he’s seen all the misfortune and mistakes companies make. He has also witnessed companies advance and succeed in an environment that not always looks favourable. It might be a combination of all these things. But if you spend enough time with him, you know that his passion is all about Australia’s manufacturing and automation scenery as he truly believes that there is a bright future.

Being an automation software specialist since 1988, Metquip Systems has always been associated with brand names such as Wonderware and Thin Manager, both of which were built to make facilitate and make automation easier. These products are essential when it comes to plant enhancements. The industrial automation sector has changed markedly in the past two decades, which means clients’ expectations have now changed, too.

“In the old days we used to deliver solutions via shrink-wrapped products that were sourced purely on their features,” said Lobato. “Today, it’s a much more complex engagement with our customers. Not because it’s hard, but because you touch on so many other areas in the operational and manufacturing domains. It’s no longer as simple as ‘giving a box to the courier containing CDs that get installed, establish connection to your PLC and then you develop your HMI mimics’. Today, more than ever, there is the transfer of knowledge and the utilisation of information that brings it to the next level in the automation space.”

To complicate matters many companies have consolidated their workforce by removing their own engineering and automation sections which in turn introduced a number of long-term problems.

“There was a trend 10-15 years ago with many end users and production suppliers where they decided to remove the in-house engineering capabilities and expertise,” said Lobato. “We saw companies that had teams of up to a dozen expert engineers reduce them to one or zero. Manufacturers saved money because they reduced staffing levels, wages and overheads, but by the same token there has been a loss of control and direction of their operations. They went out to contractors and put their operational side into the hands of companies that made their decision to suit them rather than the company itself. These days we are seeing a resurgence in many end users having a smaller team of engineers that are more focused on standardisation strategies, full governance of automation programs to increase operational throughput, increase efficiency and continuous improvement plans. More importantly, we are seeing more requests to integrate plant floor information and data into the administration and operational layer of the organisation.”

Another notable change is how Metquip Systems approaches its customers with regard to their software needs and requirements. Back in the day, it was a case of bombarding clients with pretty pictures, information and product features and then deliver the latest product releases. According to Lobato, that had to change simply because the customer’s expectations are now different.

“Today, I literally walk into a customer’s facilities to quantify their problems and where they are heading in terms of strategy for increasing throughput and efficiency in their manufacturing space,” said Lobato. “In terms of a new customer, I go there to find what their pain points are. The engagement from our end is pretty much consultative to give them direction and advice. Most importantly I am there to help them apply the products to solve their problems. Metquip Systems is taking a more consultative and advisory role rather than being a product supplier.”

Lobato points out there are many things that need to be taken into consideration with clients – the type of software needed; is it compatible with the hardware; and who on the ground is going to implement it? Are they even qualified?

Lobato cites the case of a well-known food producer it has worked with over a 20-year period. Metquip Systems and the company first came across each other in 1998 when the manufacturer needed to upgrade its plant.

“They did a major upgrade of their facilities and put in a batch management handling system, which was considered the latest and best batch processing site,” said Lobato. “What has happened next is classic. The main contract was given to an outside company who we worked with. They delivered the solution and then handed it over to the client. From that point is where the problems started. Back then the plant people were isolated from management.

“Ultimately the plant people were left to do what they wanted, which can be dangerous because they had no standards and their own separate network,” said Lobato. “The system was never updated. They used old hardware and never updated the batch management software. Slowly but surely the whole batch processing system was antiquated and the HMI screen resolution was poor. It came to a point where the management was made aware that they had to do something because they were running a huge risk with no clear automation strategy, a solid back up strategy let alone a planned disaster recovery in place.”

One of the managers who had been part of the company when Metquip Systems first became involved in 1998 started taking an interest in where the company was heading and didn’t like what he saw. It came to a point where he knew that they were in trouble not only due to antiquated systems, but also because there was no back-up system in place.

“We spent months and numerous meetings with the IT personal, management and with the plant people,” said Lobato. “They had to engage an engineer to go and do an audit. The audit was to quantify what they had on the shop floor.”

What the audit found was alarming. With the advent of the IIoT and Industry 4.0, sometimes security is left in the ether, with no real systems in place. In the past, somebody had installed a router that was open in the factory. It was not password protected so anybody close enough could grab the signal and had access to the system and could have hacked into it.

“That was just one thing we discovered,” said Lobato. “Anybody could access the network that was part of the batch management system and destroy it if they wanted to. They even introduced their own PC games to the network and were accessing the internet. It was the classic case of what not to do.”

Lobato said Metquip Systems takes pride in supplying on time, however once they got involved in the upgrade it took a little longer. He didn’t mind, neither did the client, as long as they got it right.

“They really put the money and resources to put a proper remedy in place,” said Lobato. “We came in to assist with upgrading the application and the software into the latest Microsoft platform and product version. That was a big challenge. Then we had to rehash the application to go into the latest hardware. That was another big challenge. It took us four months to do. We had to dig in and complete the task as production had to continue.”

There were a couple of key features that made ThinManager a good choice to the upgrade, not least its ability to recover data as well as how it managed to fit in with the company’s terminal services.

“Terminal services are when you have a big server with an application where you have your clients connecting into that application that runs centrally,” said Lobato. “This is what it’s called thin client architecture. The old technology commonly referred as fat client, is when you have an application that you run in individual PCs that operates by itself. That means that when you do an upgrade with a fat client you might have 15 machines, which means you have to do 15 upgrades. Whereas with the thin client system and terminal services you only do one upgrade. ThinManager will provide many added features and extend this network to cover mobility clients like smart phones, tablets, IPads and more. It can also restore a failed client in less than 15 minutes whereas with the old fat client individual PCs the system recovery could take up to a day or more.  This will impact on down time and productivity losses, which will be a nightmare for the production and accounting sections.”

Metquip Systems also introduced the adoption of “Best Practices in IT” concept by making the IT sections and the plant floor team work together towards a common goal during this upgrade.

“With today’s modern technology it does not make economic or practical sense to have a robust and solid IT strategy catering for cyber security, disaster recovery and network optimisation and only cover one part of a plant while leaving other parts exposed,” said Lobato.

Metquip Systems worked with IT for the production systems to gain access of the company’s IT infrastructure convincing them to adopt virtualisation, a new technology whereby a virtual server is installed inside a large hard drive or tower. If there were six or 10 servers in the old days, it is now possible to have 10 virtual machines environments inside one. This was another transition Metquip Systems added in to this upgrade itself.

Now the upgrade has been completed, Lobato said the next stage will begin, which they hope to start soon.

“This means that a strategy for OEE (overall equipment efficiency) is not only realistic but can be executed rapidly,” said Lobato. “Another strategy can cover traceability and tracking of the food production system – from raw materials to finished product and then the reconciliation of the financial system.

“We know they have got a number of bottleneck points in the factory that are causing tremendous downtime. We need to identify under which conditions these bottlenecks occur and prevent these conditions.”

When it is all done, Lobato wants to be left with not just with a happy client but another world-class operation that is a showcase to the rest of the world. All these upgrades have one purpose: making Australian manufacturing and process engineering great again.

“The general perception is that Australian manufacturing is too expensive and we don’t know how to operate plants,” said Lobato. “If you apply a proper automation strategy, if you focus on the operational efficiency to maximise throughput and you adopt best practices under proper governance, we will have facilities that compete easily in the world market including the Asian economies. We have got clients that are already doing this and do not see why many more cannot do the same. We need the country behind this and the press reporting success on what can be done rather than focusing on the negatives.”

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