Making data into information

Brent Balinski spoke to Schneider's Philippe Rambach and Neil Smith about the company's acquisition of Invensys and the importance of making decisions from data.

One of the major stories globally in automation last year was Schneider Electric's acquisition of Invensys. 

Schneider, the French energy management specialist, acquired a significant control system and software capability when it agreed to buy Invensys for $US 5.2 billion. 

"This acquisition brings significant synergies, enabling Schneider Electric to add a major process DCS and a leading safety line to its portfolio, as well as a large DCS and instrumentation installed base, and provide additional coverage in the heavy process industries, such as oil & gas," said one analyst after the acquisition was completed in January this year. 

According to Schneider CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Invensys added "a very significant brick of technology, which completes our solutions." 

Schneider/Invensys recently held their Industry User Conference, titled Synergy (for obvious reasons). 

Broadly speaking, Vice President of Industry Business in Australia for Schneider, Philippe Rambach (pictured), said there were three major benefits for the customers from the merger. 

A "full, absolute, complete automation offering" pooled the strengths of each organisation, and was able to cater to the need for discrete automation, process automation and hybrid automation. 

"The reality is even if your customer is more process or more discrete, at some stage in these factories in his company, he will need some of the rest of automation," Rambach told Manufacturers' Monthly

Other advantages were in terms of software offerings, and, crucially, a greater ability to convert users' data into information, the need for which is a "gigantic" trend. 

"We have now, everywhere in the factories, in the automation, in the PLCs, in everything, we have that data available," said Rambach.  

"The question is how do we bring this data into useful information for the customer. And the combined software of Invensys and Schneider we will be able to bring to the customer information based on the data that comes from the automation. And that is absolutely key." 

The "data to information" issue is often mentioned when the Internet of Things is discussed, which happens with increasing frequency. 

"Everywhere in the factories, in the automation, in the PLCs, in everything, we have that data available," said Rambach.   

"And with the combined software of Invensys and Schneider, we will be able to bring to the customer information based on the data that comes from the automation." 

A recent release from the company, the Altivar Process variable speed drive (with embedded ethernet), is an example of a response to the data-to-information issue, as well as the impact of the Internet of Things on industry. 

Each of the new drives has an embedded web server, and data/information on them can be viewed on a web browser.  

Among the benefits of the drive claimed by Schneider are optimised cost savings through the detection of efficiency drifts and a 20 per cent reduction in downtime through "predictive, condition-based maintenance." 

Fundamentally, the Internet of Things and devices based around it are about collecting and making data meaningful, for reasons including predictive maintenance and optimised efficiency.  

"Because the internet of things is bringing so much data that at the end it can mean nothing," explained Rambach.  

"This is really what we have at heart: information accessible everywhere, anytime in a very simple way and with useful information." 

Neil Smith, Country Manager Legacy, Invensys (acting) cited the benefits of connectivity (and sped-up decision-making) through an example involving a SCADA alarm notification at a plant. 

"The traditional response was the operator gets an alarm, the operator sees they have a fault on an instrument, he then phones his operations tech, he then has to go off and look at it," he told Manufacturers' Monthly.  

The worker might be an SOP contractor. He must enter the incident, do the permits, and follow a set procedure to see what has gone wrong. 

"Now with the interconnectivity or the Internet of Things providing all that information, you can actually pull up the moment that alarm comes up, you can do that automatically – if it says it's a maintenance alarm it could have already dispatched the work order to the maintenance department," said Smith.  

"It may have already checked your inventory. 'Do you have a spare part in place? If you haven't: expedite…' So you're integrated from your controller into your MES and even into your ERP.  

"So you're connected up to SAP, you're releasing orders, you get a notification of when the part has come in, and the maintenance guy goes and collects that, takes it out, maybe picks up the calibration files that he needs as well, presses download, the system automatically downloads the correct configuration, and calibration information, and he's back up and running again."  

Great improvements in productivity could be achieved through simplified, automated processes, eliminating human error, and increasing the effectiveness of both the operator and the plant's assets, with reduced downtime. 

According to both Smith and Rambach, major issues among customers (Rambach's brief covers MMM, food and beverage and waste/wastewater) include high operational costs and trying to extract as much value as possible from assets.  

Within Schneider, other, broader shifts the company is trying to meet are around the shorter average tenures among operators, digital natives among the workforce, which is itself ageing. 

Smith believes the merged companies are in a better position to meet all of these demands, as well as demands such as the need to bring products to market faster. 

"There's a combined operation to bring the expertise and the pedigree of Schneider in energy management and if you think of Invensys, there's a very strong offering around operational management," he said.  

"We now can address all of those industry trends around the ageing workforce, the need for customers to do more with less, to have green credentials, so it's an extremely powerful offering." 


Manufacturers' Monthly attended the Synergy 2014 Industry User Conference as a guest of Schneider


(Image: supplied)

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