Outsourcing ends progress

There is a growing realisation that the outsourcing of instrumentation can be fatal for a process plant. John Immelman writes.

There is a growing realisation that the outsourcing of instrumentation can be fatal for a process plant. John Immelman writes.

The demise of the instrumentation technician in Australia began over 20 years ago when formal training in this area ceased.

Throw in short-sighted venture capitalists, outsourced servicing and company reengineering and it is evident that the rot has well and truly set in.

A close look at any plant’s process automation reveals well-defined skill sets that come into play in two distinct domains. One is the control domain which deals with SCADA packages, networking, PLCs, DCSs and includes programming in one or more of the many IEC 61131 languages used in plant automation. The control room is generally staffed by computer ‘ programmers’ who can easily — and often do — cross over from the world of IT.

The second domain deals with the sources of information that are fed to the control domain- the instrumentation. Apart from all the measuring devices, this area also deals with valves, positioners, conveyor belts, drives and many other primary elements that are managed as a result of the control system outputs. This sector requires people with mechanical and electrical skills and an aptitude for hands-on work — the instrument ‘technician’.

Getting down and dirty does not really appeal to the younger generation. Also, over the past two decades, there has been little or no formal education in this area in this country and this has led to a severe shortage of skilled instrument technicians. Without accurate and reliable process information from the instrumentation, the control domain is ineffective, although it is generally well staffed, and well paid.

But this was not always the case. Historically, most large process plants, had instrumentation departments. Most often these were small but dedicated workshops tasked with the maintenance and operation of all the instrumentation.

These workshops were the training ground for the instrument apprentices — the newly qualified learning from the experienced — resulting in excellent ‘instros’. However, in a modern functioning plant, instrumentation activity is generally considered low importance and accorded low priority, although from time to time, the instruments still needed to be checked, re-calibrated and cleaned.

An increasing number of process plants especially in the mining, beverage and food industries, are being taken over by venture capitalists and outside investors, and to them, the instrument department is a non-core, non-value-adding, non-profit making activity, that was best outsourced. Out goes the instrumentation department. Not surprisingly, instrument technicians who were made redundant often set themselves up as instrument maintenance contractors, contracting back to the plants they left.

A few companies attempted a hybrid model by transferring a few instrument technicians to their electrical departments, but this was doomed to fail.

Electricians work with a high tension, high current, and mains voltage environment whereas instrument technicians work in a milliamp world. Despite the dual — training, after a period of experimentation, many of these companies also turned to outsourcing. Although the outsourcing of these core skills worked for a few years, the industry was dealt a double whammy. Firstly, plant maintenance budgets were cut significantly resulting in little or no upgrade of instrumentation. Secondly, self-employed contractors fail to upskill as they often consider training as encroaching into earning time.

When time is money, there is little incentive for training. So although the variety, range and capability of process instruments were undergoing a significant growth, the contractors and therefore the plants had fallen way behind the new technologies. For one, they were happy to maintain the status quo – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and secondly, they were in no position to advise the plant owners that “there is a better mousetrap out there”. Older instruments were also more prone to failure and took longer to fix, a rather convenient situation for a contractor billing by the hour.

With little or no investment in technology, the plants underperform, are inefficient, are high risk, non-profitable, and the venture capitalist wants to exit the business but determining the value of a plant’s instrument assets prior to the sale is another challenge.

Typically, PIDs (piping and instrumentation diagrams) detail all instruments, their tags and functions. But without an instrumentation team, the PIDs are hopelessly out of date.

Fortunately, Endress+Hauser offer a solution in the form of Installed Base Analyst (IBA). This unique service — powered by a portable software tool — audits and analyses an installed base of process instrumentation. Once plant inventory is complete, the owners have a clear picture of the condition of the installed base of instruments and are able to assign a dollar value for the sale.

What goes around comes around. In an often-witnessed 20-year cycle, venture capitalists sell their decrepit plants to resource experienced companies who then start the process of building it up, all over again. Engineers and technicians are hired or re-hired, the department is built up and the management and maintenance of process instrumentation is finally given its due.

There is a growing realisation that the outsourcing of instrumentation can be fatal for a process plant. Admittedly, instrumentation teams of today are much smaller. This is partly on account of the new generation of instruments that boast advanced features such as self-adjustment and predictive maintenance. In fact, if all the ageing instruments in a plant were to be completely upgraded, it is quite likely that the owners will recover their instrument purchase costs in a matter of months rather than years.

John Immelman is managing director of Endress+Hauser Australia .

Endress+Hauser Australia Pty Ltd

1300 363 707

info@au.endress.com

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.