Koch approach: Automating plants by putting people first

Koch approach: Automating plants

Automating plants by putting people first: Koch approach

Koch approach – For Howard Elton, inspiration comes from process control automation. “These are the machines that protect chemical plants and people,” he says. He is the guy at Koch Ag & Energy Solutions who’s preparing the plants of the future. His unbridled passion makes sure chemical plants and people are safe.

Gray plants may be the plants of the future, but Howard, Koch Fertilizer’s process control and automation manager says the future isn’t gray. It’s about making the company a better employer by finding and implementing technologies that will reduce the company’s environmental impact. It is expected that the same pumps and tanks will still be used, but with modern technology, such as process control automation, the workers will be able to make better use of the data. Improved environmental performance, such as reduced emission rates per unit produced, will result from these improvements.

The meaning of automation is not about replacing humans, but rather improving safety and reducing human errors, which are crucial for chemical manufacturing, where mistakes are often made in a highly technical field where it is often possible for humans to make minor mistakes. “If the computer can do the same thing over and over again, we save time, energy, and money,” Howard says.

As individuals develop new skills and capabilities through automation, they are able to utilize their experience in more fulfilling ways as well. This helps them move into other jobs that will be needed in the future, where they can also contribute more to the company.

In automation, people are empowered by monitoring plant machinery alarms. The sound of this alarm doesn’t necessarily mean that something in the system is broken. Rather, it is a signal that something needs to be checked or adjusted since the system is not operating according to its precise configuration. It is important in chemical manufacturing to detect and respond to these alarms to ensure the system is operating as intended, but human intervention is not required for every single alarm. Automation manages these alarms while letting operators focus on more productive, more fulfilling work without any unneeded interruptions.

As a company, Koch Fertilizer uses many different types of automation, but three are particularly exciting to Howard. First, he particularly enjoys the use of advanced process control. In this system, a computer makes a model of a manufacturing process that includes aspects that affect efficiency. The model lets Koch employees know how to improve production.

The state-based control approach is another automation tool. Every manufacturing process begins with various steps, reaches its steady state, and then shuts down. Operators are freed from manually completing these steps – reducing chances of error, causing alarms or reducing plant efficiency. “Those two tools reduce errors, set off alarms, and help reduce costs,” Howard says. “The result is a safer, more efficient chemical plant.”

Automating plants with Koch approach

Another of Howard’s favorite automation tools collects detailed data about manufacturing operations and equipment conditions. The data is then distributed to the Koch staff for use in making better decisions and doing their jobs.

Invista and Georgia-Pacific, which are also in Koch Industries, use automation to manufacture chemicals. “Essentially, we’re all running chemical manufacturing facilities,” Howard says. Process automation, for example, can be used by operators, electrical engineers, reliability engineers, and control engineers to all get data much faster and in great detail, in order to fine-tune manufacturing conditions. Ammonia fertilizer plants, for example, use process automation to measure chemical temperatures, pressures, and flow rates – all of which need to be controlled.

During his visit to the urea ammonium nitrate plants in Dodge City and Fort Dodge in the earlier part of the decade, Howard met with the board operators there. Board operators are responsible for controlling manufacturing equipment from a central location. Howard and his colleagues introduced automation software to the board operators and learned how they could perform their jobs more efficiently.

After seeing the benefits of automation process control models, the board operators became enamored with them. They looked forward to visiting with process control engineers so they could learn how they could use the programs to automatically set their controls. This would enable them to avoid having to make all the changes manually, says the board operator.

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