SolutionsPT is one of the “Best Companies to work for”

The industrial automation specialist SolutionsPT has been listed in the prestigious UK Sunday Times ‘Best companies to work for’ list for the fourth year running. The company was notable for the fact that an incredible 91% of its staff believe that they make a valuable contribution to its business as the result of the work they do. 

SolutionsPT was listed at number 26 in The Sunday Times ‘Best Small Companies to Work For’ table, moving up 29 places since 2011. The impressive increase means that the company is now the fourth highest placed business on the list from the North West of England.

Best Companies, the organisation that manages the process on behalf of The Sunday Times, noted that SolutionsPT’s ability to pool talent across departments to tackle knotty issues helped set it apart.

Of the company’s 70 staff working in the Cheadle offices, 88% believe their jobs are stimulating, which ranks SolutionsPT in the top ten for the Best Companies list overall. An impressive 91% are proud to work for the company and 85% believe the firm does its best to be green, by educating employees in energy-saving techniques.

“The accolade is absolutely fantastic – but it’s still only the third most important thing we get from Best Companies,” explained Phil Gillard, SolutionsPT’s General Manager. “The most important thing is the feedback we get from the survey, which helps us improve year on year. The next most important thing is the ability the listing gives us to recruit outstanding people.”

“Best Companies does make us a more attractive place to work,” offered Louise Potts, SolutionsPT’s People and Culture Manager. “We see that very clearly in the covering letters we receive, a huge amount of which mention the listing. Best Companies drives people to us; it helps improve our employer brand and helps quality people self select during the application process.”

SolutionsPT has a very low staff turnover ratio, an average age of 40 and a male female split of 64% / 36%. Best Companies has assigned the firm its prestigious three star rating, which is the highest attainable. In the last financial quarter the Cheadle business recruited five staff and expects to continue growing as market conditions allow.

Maintec – the UK maintenance technology exhibition

Exhibitors at the Easyfairs Maintec Expo at the UK’s NEC in Birmingham (Feb 28 – March 1) were hoping the visitor numbers over three days might reach 1500, but it did not look to be on target, even though Day 2 was reported busier than the day before! Walking in as a visitor there was the inevitable slight panic at the long queues for some NEC registration desks, but it turned out these were queues for the Easyfairs Packaging Expo, obviously a better topic for visitor interest these days. The three people queuing at the Maintec windows did not cause a major delay to entry! Exit was more troublesome, having to once again fork out GBP8 to the NEC for the privilege of parking!

Maintec covers maintenance and asset management. So my main interest was to be in asset management via condition monitoring systems – and I was typically looking for vibration monitoring and reporting systems, preferably using wireless or internet connections.

A good start was on the Prüftechnik stand, who had previously co-operated with Perpetuum to produce the first energy harvesting-based wireless vibration sensor system. No evidence of that on display – apparently the product was abandoned, as a result of some implied difficulties in a commercial and a University-based development company working together. The Prüftechnik approach now is to launch a new wireless vibration monitoring sensor at Hannover, using “batteries, which after all can give a 5-year life these days”.

Maybe there will be more success with the cloud-based condition monitoring system launched by Eriks. Here the cloud appears to be used to make it simpler for the client to access the current machine status reports, rather than having to search for it in the In-Tray. The report is still oonly updated after the 4 or 6 week plant inspection and analysis tour on site by Eriks, unless they are using wireless or email/text alarm reporting from continuous monitoring systems on critical plant items. Eriks are a major user of accelerometers from Hansford Sensors, who showed a new triaxial sensor at the Maintec show. Hansford claim to supply sensors to many of the condition monitoring service providers.

Kittiwake-Holroyd supply acoustic emission monitoring systems for machinery condition monitoring. New for 2012 is a portable, magnet attached machine bearing health checker, giving a simple traffic light output for use by a standard maintenance technician with no specialist training, at a price less than $1000. I have to admit sympathy with Holroyd, having launched a low cost vibration monitoring machine bearing condition alarm system 30 years ago, when condition monitoring was “forecast to be about to take-off”! Over the years Holroyd have survived monitoring steel industry, power generation and mineral rock crusher bearings – hopefully the market might now start to take off.

Schaeffler-FAG-INA are no stranger to bearings, so have a track record in bearing condition monitoring too. Their new WiPro CM system monitors up to eight vibration sensors, and reports back over Ethernet or other communications systems, that can typically include a wireless link. With over 2000 of these systems installed, many of these interface with Schaeffler reporting service centres – for example the wind turbine monitoring centre in Germany provides a 24/7 analysis of the performance of wind turbines (based in Australia, Europe including the offshore in the North Sea, and the USA. Over 600 systems installed on wind turbines typically use seven separate bearing sensors, with a cost per turbine of around GBP6000.

A new feature at Maintec was their Hazex specialist hazardous area section – unfortunately identifiable by being one of the few empty stands. However a presentation by Quartzelec discussed the repair of electrical machinery used in hazardous environments. Quartzelec are the original GEC/Cegelec repair organization, now privately owned, with eight repair bases in the UK, several in the offshore North Sea areas like Aberdeen, Grimsby etc, plus Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. Some of the repairs they are asked to consider would appear to defy belief – but of the more normal repairs, over 50% relate to bearing failures.

Inevitably a significant proportion of the media associated with industrial maintenance were present on stands at Maintec: promoting some new social media publishing ideas, the Process Industry Informer (PII) magazine recently launched an “industry first” – a mobile APP offering a B2B Directory of supplier information, contact details and news releases, known as Process118.  Available to both iPhone and Android devices it has already attracted registrations by 500+ suppliers and is attracting an increasing number of end-user “hits”. Listing on the APP is low cost and offers suppliers a valuable route to this developing 24/7 accessible market. PII has led the UK technical press with web and mobile friendly electronic initiatives, and was one of the first to use QR codes within the paper magazine itself.

Rockwell acquires SoftSwitching Technologies

Rockwell Automation has announced the purchase of SoftSwitching Technologies, a leading provider of industrial power quality detection and protection systems.

Solutions from SoftSwitching Technologies improve uptime in manufacturing production by identifying and correcting brief power disruptions called “voltage sags”. Typically, voltage sags can cause computerised machinery to go off-line, precision instruments to fail, and control systems to shut down. These problems can be extremely costly for customers, particularly in the semiconductor, automotive, food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries.

“Brief power disruptions account for up to 70% of all unscheduled downtime in manufacturing today,” said Bob Lennon, vice president of industrial components. “Studies show that most of these events are caused by voltage sags lasting less than two seconds. SoftSwitching Technologies products strengthen our capabilities in plant-wide optimisation, complement our current power quality solutions and protect our customers’ manufacturing assets.”

The battery-free, environmentally friendly products from SoftSwitching Technologies provide cost and performance advantages over battery-based, three-phase uninterruptible power supplies or constant voltage transformers. The global, centralised intelligent network system also provides power grid alerts so manufacturers can monitor activity and correlate power quality events with unscheduled downtime, saving hours of guesswork and mechanical diagnostics.

“This acquisition provides the necessary resources to extend all SoftSwitching Technologies’ unique technologies into many more applications through the Rockwell Automation global channels network,” said Jason Doescher, chief financial officer at SoftSwitching Technologies.

SoftSwitching Technologies will be aligned within the Rockwell Automation Control Products & Solutions operating segment

P+F invests in factory for Exd, Exe housings

Dr-Ing Gunther Kegel joined Pepperl + Fuchs, the German family owned company, in 1990, in the Mannheim headquarters, initially in design and technical management rôles, but since 2001 he has been the ceo. Currently, apart from running P+F, he has been elected to the chairmanship of the Fieldbus Foundation board of directors, and also chairs the board of the VDE (the Association of German Engineers), plus is a member of the boards of many other organizations, such as the FDT Group, the ZVEI, and the German language automation magazine atp – plus several other organizations.

It was therefore a fascinating experience to be present at the opening of the new P+F factory in Wednesbury, in the UK West Midlands, North of Birmingham, where he outlined some of the plans and developments for the future within P+F – which is developing along just as many strands as his external activity. Concrete evidence of one of these strands is seen in the new Wednesbury factory, representing a total project investment of Euro6m ($8m) over three years, into the manufacture of enclosures and hazardous area electrical equipment.

Acquisition of Walsall Ltd
In December 2009 P+F acquired Walsall Ltd, a UK company established in 1892, and originally named after the neighbouring town of Walsall, where the first factory was established. The acquired business manufactures Exd and Exe junction boxes, cabinets and control panels and switching systems for hazardous area use, plus accessories such as light fittings, floodlights and beacons for hazardous areas. It still trades with the brand name P+F Walsall, see, but the Walsall name will be phased out slowly.

The logic is to grow the P+F business with an expanded range of explosion protection equipment, adding flameproof (explosion-proof) and increased safety housings and cabinets to their existing capability of intrinsically safe sensors and barriers, making a complete offering for hazardous area electrical installations. With a parallel acquisition in Italy offering a complimentary range of Exd and Exe enclosure designs, P+F has a portfolio of stainless steel, cast iron, aluminium and GRP housings and cabinets, to offer across their nine regional solutions engineering centres, scattered across the world.

Investment in production
In only two years the new factory has been established, with more than double the previous production space, and production cell and team expertise is being built up in the fast growing team – currently 45 are employed: the surprising mix of German and Birmingham accents in the production and engineering teams, and the robot handling the output from the fully automated and software programmed stainless sheet (1.5mm and 3mm) cutting machine, are evidence of a drive to build and grow this business. The next investment at Wednesbury will involve a fully automated welding robot cell (at around GBP350k/$550k) for these stainless housings, to increase volume throughput. Already the solutions centres are supplying over 25,000pa units of hazardous area solutions packages, and this success is leading to increased demand.

P+F sees fast recovery from 2009
Dr Kegel outlined his view of the P+F Group, after a remarkably fast business recovery from the depression of 2009: 2010 saw a sales recovery to the Euro370m level of 2008, and last year the business grew to achieve Euro450m in sales, admittedly still with 58% in Europe. While only 17% of sales go to the USA, many of the major DCS suppliers are major customers for P+F interfaces, custom control cabinets and barriers.

P+F adopts a full manufacturing profile, even down to the plastic mouldings, and currently has 5200 employees (900 up on last year), with 49% in Asia, and a large manufacturing base in Hungary, a relatively low cost assembly area. Current investment into manufacturing includes doubling capacity in Hungary, and also in Tuttlingen, Germany (for rotary encoders – widely used on wind turbines).

Other investments include Euro15m into the German distribution centre, now nearing completion, to be followed by further investment in the Singapore centre. On top of this, R+D expenditure is budgeted at 10% of sales, around twice that of any similar business in the USA or UK, but actually on a par with some of their German competitors. They see a need to stay in a strong position of “innovation leadership”, but Dr Kegel stressed an area of concern, that there is a real need to attract more engineers into this industry, to achieve their development plans.

DART goes into production
A major P+F innovation is seen in their DART technology – Dynamic Arc Recognition and Termination. The first pilot production runs are in progress, following the PTB approval of DART systems for use on Foundation Fieldbus H1 installations. Basically DART offers Ex ib IIC intrinsic safety for long (1000m) cable lengths carrying up to 50W of power into the hazardous area, by having P+F electronic systems at either end of the cable: these identify any fault in the electrical system at the outset of the event, and switch it off before the energy released reaches a critical level. After only a few milliseconds the power is restored, and if the apparent ‘spark’ signal had been caused by a ‘connect’ or ‘disconnect’ operation, for example when an operator reconnects a sensor, everything is back to normal.

A DART power supply links to the DCS in a safe or a Zone 2 area, and in Zone 1 at the other end of the cable up to four DART Segment Protectors provide intrinsically safe connections for field instruments and fieldbus segments, with up to 120m per spur allowed – double the length available with FISCO. Note that these segment protectors are normally housed in stainless or GRP enclosures with suitable cable glands – which can also be supplied by P+F Walsall.

A future IEC standard?
DART allows long cable runs in hazardous areas that previously might have needed to be specified in conduit, replacing this with standard cabling, and avoiding the need for conduit, glands and flameproof or explosion-proof boxes, to distribute the instrument power. Further applications for DART are being planned – for example for Profibus PA, and also maybe with intrinsically safe lighting systems. A consortium of companies are quoted to be pushing to get the DART technology adopted as an IEC standard – Dr Kegel would not like to see application of this technology in any way affected by the commercially biased approaches that have caused the ‘Fieldbus Wars’ and the ‘Wireless Standards’ disputes of recent times!

A delegate’s view of the ARC Forum 2012

The ARC ‘World Industry Forum’ in Orlando in February was a record breaking event, with 664 attendees from 21 countries, and 254 separate companies. These delegates chose from 60 sessions featuring 154 speakers and/or panelists, and even the pre-conference workshop on security, the day before the Forum opened, was over-subscribed. For a report on the event from a delegate’s viewpoint, the INSIDER is indebted to Maurice Wilkins, vp of global strategic marketing at Yokogawa, who attended as part of a delegation of 25 from Yokogawa, their largest attendance since 2006. This report was featured in the March 2012 issue of the INSIDER.

Report by Maurice Wilkins:
“This ARC Forum is still THE place to meet senior people in the automation industry, even though the focus has now shifted away from automation – the subtitle for the event was “Transforming Manufacturing through New Processes and Technologies” – but this is the place where we can all meet and compare notes as we used to at the ISA show, which few of these people now attend, to hear about new stuff that matters in our industry. I have to say that it actually looked like the best I have ever been to in terms of attendees, but the comment I heard over and over was there were too many suppliers. All the major suppliers were there in force, although Honeywell was conspicuous by only sending one attendee. There was also a big presence from the PLC suppliers – for example Rockwell, Mitsubishi and Schneider.
This year the focus had shifted from automation to asset management, human factors, security, supply chain and industrial IT. In his keynote speech, Andy Chatha, president and ceo of ARC Advisory Group, said that the four main areas of interest these days are: social media, cloud, analytics and mobile. He said every company needs a mobile enterprise application platform.

Boeing and J&J production
The main keynotes were by Dr Dianne Chang – vp operations and technology for Boeing – and Ron Guido, vp global brand protection for Johnson & Johnson. Dr Chang spent a lot of time talking about the changes that building the 787 has brought about – it was manufactured globally and assembled in the USA. She said technology is advancing at an ever increasing pace but they have to balance creativity with value creation. Boeing’s biggest current worry is a general industry concern – they have 11% of employees now over 60. They have to create a talent pipeline. Guido’s main concern is a $650Bn counterfeit market and protecting J&J’s brands. His main aim is a safe and secure supply chain using new track + trace technology and business models.

Dow Chemicals operator expertise
In a very good session on ‘Operator of the Future’, Eric Cosman of Dow Chemical said that operator effectiveness is a mixture of risk minimization and the reduction of unscheduled downtime. Dow’s operator demographics are scary: 35% are eligible for retirement now, 50% within 5 years, 70% in 8 years – and 15% have less than 5 years experience. He said skills are different compared to 30 years ago – regulations have increased – technology is different and so is human behaviour and motivation. New operators are capable of doing more but the Dow philosophy is to put the most effective practices of the most effective operators into the control platform.

Other notable presentations
Mark Chavis of Shell Gulf of Mexico, incidentally a Yokogawa customer, gave a good presentation on alarm rationalization and how they had achieved an order of magnitude reduction by looking hard at alarms and making sure that those showing up really had to be dealt with.
Stefan Malmsten gave a very interesting presentation on how an Akzo Nobel plant in Norway has been operated remotely on nights and weekends for the past 10 years using GE Proficy. Then a presenter from NAMUR, talking in the standards session, said that standards are not working! He said the value of standards is below its potential due to too many special interests, and he cited the “Fieldbus Wars” and “Wireless Wars” as examples.

Lastly, a surprise track on the last day of the Forum covered ‘Social Technologies for Industry’: there were probably 60 people in the room to hear several presenters discuss the impact that social media is starting to have on our industry….”

Yokogawa Centum adds new monitoring features

That concludes Maurice’s report for the INSIDER, but to add one piece of news actually presented by Yokogawa at this ARC Forum, it is worth mentioning that Chet Mroz, president and ceo of the Yokogawa Corporation of America, gave their press presentation, explaining their Evolution 2015 plan and objectives, particularly relating to the USA (See INSIDER, February 2012 issue). Mroz also described the latest release 5 of the Centum VP integrated production control system, due out in March, as follows.

This release adds support for a dual-redundant unified gateway station (UGS), which serves as the interface between Centum VP and other control systems, and this allows the display of alarm information from other control systems on the Centum VP human machine interface (HMI).

The logic for this addition is that on established legacy control architectures, as installed throughout the oil, chemical, and iron and steel industries, there are many separate distributed control systems (DCSs), programmable controllers (PLCs), and even other types of control systems from a variety of suppliers. These are used to control their own particular functions, such as electric power, wastewater treatment, shipping, and other auxiliary facilities, as well as being used within the main manufacturing process itself. By monitoring all of these control systems via the Centum VP, acting as the main process DCS and operator interface, plant efficiency can be improved.

Dual redundancy simplified
Yokogawa point out that plant monitoring and control functions are usually designed to be dual redundant so that an automatic switchover to a backup unit can be initiated in the event of a system failure. Although the gateway unit that serves as the interface for the monitoring of other control systems from the main process DCS should also be dual redundant, systems with this feature have not been widely adopted because of the requirement for special software. Using the Yokogawa UGS as the interface between Centum VP and other third party control systems, only simple programming is required to include dual redundancy. Alarms from other control systems can then be displayed on the Centum VP HMI via an OPC Alarms and Events server.

Nobuaki Konishi, vp and head of the IA systems business for Yokogawa, commented: “To achieve integrated plant monitoring and control by a DCS, gateway functions must be highly reliable. This has been accomplished with our development of a dual-redundant UGS, enabling for the upstream market the integrated monitoring of offshore platforms and widely distributed facilities such as oil and gas wells. I believe this enhanced UGS will help customers improve production efficiency.” As well as oil and gas applications, remote monitoring of water supply systems, wastewater treatment facilities, power transmission/distribution facilities and other types of infrastructure are seen as the main opportunity areas for this approach.

Metso acquires Valstone globe valves

Metso has signed an agreement to acquire South Korean valve technology company, Valstone Control Inc. (Valstone). The acquisition strengthens Metso’s control valve and service offering for customers in the oil and gas and power industries. Valstone’s globe valves add to Metso’s current wide portfolio of control valves. The acquired technology plays a key role in most critical processes with extreme pressures and temperatures. The acquisition follows Metso’s strategy and strengthens Metso’s market position in the growing Asian markets.

Valstone is a privately owned globe valve and service specialist company. Its customers include many of the leading South Korean petrochemical and power generation companies and engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies. Valstone’s net sales are less than Euro10m.

Metso has an ambitious growth strategy to develop its valve business.The Valstone acquisition is preceded by a series of investments in Metso’s global valve offering. Last year Metso opened a new valve technology center in Finland, and the previous year in Shanghai, China. Currently, Metso is expanding its valve production premises in the US as well as building a new supply and service center in India. Additionally, Metso has high-class industrial valve facilities in Brazil and Germany.

Commitment to meeting customer needs has also made Metso a leading valve technology service supplier. For example, customers like Petrobras and Arcelor Mittal have awarded Metso with large service contracts. Valstone strengthens Metso’s service capabilities in the growing South Korean market. For valve customers alone, Metso has 31 service centers around the globe.

‘’The acquisition of Valstone and the preceding investments confirm that we are in the business with a long-term strategy to continuously improve our technology offering and services to benefit our customers. Asian growth markets have a key role in our strategy. We invest heavily in these markets in order to serve our customers better, both locally and globally’’, says Perttu Louhiluoto, President, Metso Automation.