Process Automation: Why it's worth the investment

AutomationCost SavingsDistillingEngineering Solutions

Automation is a wide-ranging term that generally refers to programming machines to mimic human actions and perform repetitive and tiresome tasks without the issues of fatigue or boredom. Whether you are designing, updating, or expanding your engineered processes, implementing industrial automation, commonly known as Operational Technologies, can provide an abundance of time- and cost-saving benefits.

The benefits of implementing automation into your operational processes include:

  • Labor savings – Reducing the need for manual intervention at various stages of processing or manufacturing means fewer people are needed to perform those (sometimes monotonous) tasks.
  • Increase time for innovation – Operators and experts who used to perform the manual ‘busy-work’ are now free to focus on value-added and innovative activities.
  • End-product consistency – Consistency is a key element of quality assurance in any service or product. Automated systems can ensure consistent processes and respond to inconsistencies early before they become greater downstream issues, especially in industries that require cGMP standards (pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, cosmetics, etc.).
  • Ease of scalability – Automation allows processes to be improved or extended without the need for additional operators or major changes to equipment.
  • More efficient throughput – When each step of production is controlled precisely and accurately, more processes can be performed simultaneously without concern for mistakes or cross-contamination.
  • Energy savings – Programmed processes can be designed to optimize utility and energy usage, helping to reduce operational costs and improve resource utilization.
  • Data collection – Automated processes go hand-in-hand with in-line analytics, which can provide extensive data collection to support quality control, efficiency, and troubleshooting.
  • Ensure safety measures – Removing tiring tasks, setting limits on equipment parameters, and incorporating feedback alarm and interlock systems can reduce the risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

ICC Group has implemented highly successful automation strategies in many industrial, pharmaceutical, chemical, and food/beverage settings. In the case of one of our brewery clients approaching the limits of their capacity, they were eager and ready to expand their operation. Without adding square footage to the brewery, they believed replacing the whole brewhouse with larger vessels was their only option. ICC’s process automation design team proposed simply adding a fifth vessel to the existing process. Coupled with sophisticated and intelligent programming, this allowed for starting the next batch of beer well before the previous batch had worked its way through the brewhouse without requiring additional brewers to monitor the extra processing. As a result, our client was given more options for expansion, saved on labor costs, and accomplished more brewing steps simultaneously, without replacing costly equipment that would have also had a large effect on the flavor profile of their product.

The best way to know if your operation is ready for process automation implementation is by first understanding all aspects of the process you wish to automate. In other words, know your process. Instead of defining vague goals such as ‘reducing cost’ or ‘increasing productivity,’ ask specific questions about certain tasks that involve manual intervention. These questions include:

  • What is each manual task trying to accomplish?
  • What is the definition of a successfully completed task?
  • What data points or parameters, such as flow rates, temperatures, etc., are critical to the task?
  • Where can in-line analytics be placed and where can data be acquired?
  • Where can feedback loops or closed loops be utilized?

Each of these questions can help determine precisely how and where automation can help your overall operation and defines when an operator should step in for manual control or decisions. In the early stages of designing a comprehensive automation plan with an engineering consultant, having a defined scope and a clear definition of the objectives is the greatest way to ensure the success of the project. ICC can help you with that.  Process automation design and implementation is a collaborative effort between you and the engineering team and should feel more like a conversation than a transaction with instructions.

Finally, as much as we all want one, there is no “easy button.” Our brewery client likes to joke that his “perfect automated brewery” requires only a brewer, a button, and a dog – the button to brew the beer, the brewer to push the button, and the dog to bite the brewer if he touched anything else. In reality, brewers and operators perform far more important tasks, from designing beer recipes to recognizing trends and adjusting those recipes to make up for differences in raw materials and other external influences.

Process automation does involve computers, sophisticated electronics, and programming, but it rarely includes artificial intelligence (A.I.). Incorporating automation in any of your industrial processes does not completely remove the need for the experts who are still the “brain” to the “body” of your operation. Overall, avoiding unreasonable or excessive expectations for automation will mean that your improvement or expansion goals are realistic and achievable.

At the end of the day, it goes without saying the benefits of implementing automation into your operation speak for themselves.

If you are in the process of designing, updating, or expanding your operational processes, contact ICC Group today to see how our process automation design experts can help save your company time and money through automation efficiencies.


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