What to Consider When Upgrading Your Control System
Your thermal-processing control system’s performance may not be something you concern yourself with. That is, until it absolutely needs to be.
Like all other can’t-fail equipment driven by the latest technology, thermal-processing control systems fall into obsolescence, fail to meet code or standards, or become irreparable. These systems are more vital than most for virtually all businesses doing any type of thermal processing. They ensure precision in the control and operation of furnaces, ovens and a multitude of other heat-treating and thermal-processing equipment.
The latest control systems not only optimize performance to deliver consistent and verifiable results, they also make equipment monitoring and data recording easier, which can minimize the stress of third-party audits and help suppliers meet the rigorous quality standards of their customers.
Whether you’re serving customers in aerospace, automotive, medical device or another industry, exacting standards such as AMS 2750, CQI-9 and CFR-21 will apply. Dependable control systems will ensure that results are more reliable, consistent and verifiable.
New control systems are a major investment, so making the correct decision and selecting the best one for your needs is paramount. This set of guidelines takes the guesswork out of the selection process by explaining how your current system should be evaluated, what you should expect from a provider and how an upgraded system can benefit you.
Tailored to Your Needs
Thermal-processing control systems should never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Your equipment, customers, budget and other specific needs are unique to the operation of your business. Control systems and equipment should reflect this fact. When selecting a provider, look for an entity that does more listening than talking and takes the time to understand your production process and what you want and need out of your thermal-processing control system.
The system you select should allow you to meet your current requirements but also be expandable to meet your future needs. Ask potential vendors if their system is scalable. Does it have built-in communication capabilities or the ability to add communication cards so that these controls can be connected to other devices within your control system? Think carefully about what you want to accomplish both today and in the future.
With the wide variety of sophisticated instrumentation on the market today – available from numerous manufacturers – businesses interested in new control systems have multiple options to choose from. The majority of this new instrumentation can be integrated with the various HMI (human machine interface) software packages that are available.
An additional benefit of today’s high-quality, off-the-shelf instrumentation is that it can be supported by multiple entities within the industry. If a client is not satisfied with the level of service it receives from the company that sold them the instrumentation, they can have another provider support the system. Companies in the market for new control systems should exercise caution when evaluating proprietary systems that leave them reliant on a sole provider. A new system should not leave you beholden to a single vendor for the life of the system. In today’s environment, customized solutions are easily achieved using off-the-shelf hardware and software combinations.
An upgraded thermal-processing control system offers benefits beyond enhanced production and precision. Today’s modern systems can help improve your entire operation in several ways (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Control-system Upgrade Benefits | View full-size image
Not every provider can understand how to make your thermal-processing control system work for your exact needs by simply listening. That’s why the right provider should have considerable industry experience. Look for a provider that has done similar jobs for other customers.
A strong track record of success and testimonials inspires confidence that the final product will function as promised. An experienced team will also help uncover unmet needs and may have innovative solutions that will help your processes run more smoothly and efficiently while allowing you to deliver higher-quality results.
Adding Value Through Understanding
In order for a provider to exceed expectations, they must have a deep understanding of the industry, know what it takes to meet manufacturers’ demands and be aware of the latest control-system options. But all of this technology is of little use if it is not utilized correctly.
For example, a manufacturer not achieving the production results it requires can purchase and install a new, top-of-the-line controller from a vendor to replace an existing controller and still not achieve its desired results. In this example, the controller was being utilized to control contactors. The problem was not the controller, but the contactors themselves. By replacing the contactors with an SCR (silicon-controlled rectifier), the manufacturer was finally able to meet its objective.
Prospective customers should ensure that their controls provider has a thorough understanding of their production process. Before recommending any solution, however, a comprehensive engineering study is essential for establishing the critical level of understanding that is required.
What an Engineering Study Entails
A good engineering study involves considerable information gathering along with a lot of listening. The purpose is to gain a thorough understanding of the customer’s current production processes and any problems they are encountering. After careful analysis of the data, a solution is developed. During this process, industry experience and knowledge is critical. The right team can identify issues and recommend solutions that the customer may not have considered.
As an example, a manufacturer that was cooling its parts by manually opening and closing its furnace doors was able to achieve an 80% reduction in production time by automating the process using actuators controlled by a computerized control scheme.
A thorough engineering study involves a team of experienced and qualified engineers visiting the site to:
- Evaluate current systems, and if necessary perform the following.
- System accuracy tests (SATs) to ensure the accuracy of furnace control and data-acquisitions systems
- Temperature uniformity surveys (TUSs) to identify inconsistencies within the qualified work zone
- Instrumentation calibration services to identify equipment that is not within acceptable tolerances
- Find problem areas that may be keeping equipment out of compliance. In the event of a test failure, technicians will inspect the devices to find the component that is causing the problem.
- Identify process improvement opportunities.
- Fully understand system requirements.
- Find ways to standardize systems.
- Anticipate future needs.
- Make recommendations for upgrades.
A thorough engineering review study will conclude with recommendations as to what products and services will best meet your needs. The recommendations should go beyond simply identifying issues. They should solve problems and explain how you can overcome challenges. Providers with engineers on staff are uniquely qualified to do this. The optimal outcome is to find a partner that can actually improve your operation while upgrading your systems.
If you’re still unsure about what vendor to choose for your thermal-processing control-system upgrade, ask for references. Talk to others in your industry. Many of the best providers do very little marketing, relying instead on word-of-mouth and long-standing relationships. Credible providers will put you in touch with peers who have done similar upgrades. Ask key questions like:
- Did the upgrades perform as promised?
- Was the project on budget?
- Is the solution scalable?
- How is ongoing support?
- Do you feel trapped into using the same vendor for support?
These conversations can often make decisions much easier. Seek vendors with a track record of doing what they promise on time and within budget.
With thousands of aging furnaces, ovens and other types of thermal-processing equipment located across North America, control-system upgrades are in high demand. Given the many benefits a new system delivers and the retirement-driven decline of knowledgeable people working in the field, the case for simplification and automation is even stronger. Following these guidelines should make the process easier when you are ready for a new thermal-processing control system.
For more information: Contact Christopher S. Miller, chief executive officer, Conrad Kacsik Instrument Systems, Inc., 30925 Aurora Rd., Solon, OH 44139; tel: 800-666-1165; fax: 440-836-0115; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.kacsik.com