Automation Internationalisation – Challenges and Chances; an Interview With NAMUR Chairman Wilhelm Otten

Editor: Dr. Jörg Kempf

The times in which one could optimise process developments or regulation in isolation are long past. Nevertheless, there is still obviously a lack of mutual understanding between chemical/process engineers and the colleagues in process automation technology. What is the reason for this, and how can it be changed? NAMUR chairman Wilhelm Otten, leader of business line technology at Evonik Industries, faced this and many further questions by PROCESS—and makes a clear plea for process automation technology.

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(Photos: PROCESS)

PROCESS: Mr. Otten, automation technology is gaining increasing importance in the process industry. How do you hope to make use of this development as the new chairman of NAMUR?

OTTEN: As I have been on the board of NAMUR since 2004, it would be a sign that I had been doing something wrong previously if I now wanted to come up with completely new ideas. In that light, my targets build on the strategy process which we on the board enacted in 2004/2005.

PROCESS:But that was more than seven years ago, and the challenges are changing all the time. So where do you want to set personal accents?

OTTEN: Essentially there are three areas. These begin with internationalisation: both our member firms and our equipment suppliers are active globally. We can therefore only exert a positive influence on technical developments if we likewise take global action. Many large projects are running at the moment in Asia, so the start of our China activities was an extremely important step for us. On the other hand, we are of course an association which lives from its members and their input.


Know Your Strengths...

The strength of NAMUR is namely that we are a relatively large and active group of 40 working teams. Retaining know-how is, because of the demographic development in Germany, the second big challenge and can only be met by improvements in basic and advanced training. At the same time, NAMUR is taking on an increasing number of tasks which were previously carried out by individual member firms themselves. While all chemical enterprises used to have large process automation units, these functional structures do not exist at all in the firms anymore.

These units are now, instead, either process-orientated or tied in to the individual business areas. But this means that a higher-level, functional view, which is very important for the further development of our processes, is lost. Optimising of processes, with the aim of extracting the last ten percent, is the first priority today – going as far as the problem of how we can have variable running of processes.

PROCESS:But the crisis in 2009 showed that one can reduce production by 25 percent and more.

OTTEN: True. No-one thought that we would manage it. Automation technology made it possible. In the meantime it is obvious that our business is becoming more clearly cyclical, and we must be able to run our installations optimally not only at full load, but also any load level. On top of this, there is the major trend topic of using alternative energies and of dealing intelligently with superfluous energy. In German chemical enterprises they are certainly thinking about how one can adapt production to changing energy requirements.

“Energy Has Become A factor To Which Productions Have to Adapt”

Previously, energy was available in any quantity at any time. With the energy turnaround in Germany, energy, especially electricity, has suddenly become a factor to which I may perhaps have to adapt my production in order to operate production processes as cost-effectively as possible. But this variable kind of operation will only work if much more intensive use is made of automation technology.

PROCESS: What does this mean now for NAMUR?

OTTEN: The consequences are these: NAMUR is increasingly taking over the functional bundling of these questions. Here experts meet to set the necessary standards. The challenge of establishing this on an international basis, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

Foreign Markets Follow Their Own Rules

PROCESS: Will this possibly result in different speeds within the worldwide activities of NAMUR?

OTTEN: Our idea is of course not one worldwide NAMUR with a central office in Germany. Rather, we want each region to develop its own identity and to have its own regional priorities. The example of our NAMUR in China shows us that the priorities there can be different to ours. The topic of maintaining, for example, plays a much larger role in China: the relevant know-how is missing. An overlapping of the work of the two NAMUR units in Germany/Europe and in China must therefore be limited to the core topics. Anything else would be more than members can give on a purely voluntary basis.

PROCESS: If there are already different identities of the NAMUR in Germany and China, how will it be possible to set up successfully the Europe-wide intermeshing with other associations that you have been promoting?

OTTEN: Here we are trying to establish more intensive exchanges with the associations WIB, Exera and EEMUA in our European neighbourhood. We are planning a meeting of all associations in June in order to achieve further progress in our joint steps. We have been doing things this way on a bilateral basis all the time in recent years.

But now we want to get all associations together at one table. Although we have a certain leadership role due to our size, one must of course proceed very cautiously and sensitively.

“It is sensible to internationalise cooperation!”

PROCESS: Wouldn’t the founding of a European umbrella organisation be the logical consequence?

OTTEN: It is naturally sensible to internationalise cooperation, to structure it in some form which is yet to be defined, and to agree on joint aims. And this should definitely go beyond the current level of cooperation.

But, with an umbrella organisation, there is always the risk of losing the identity of individual associations. What is clear is that it is urgently necessary for us to agree even better on defined topics.

Have these topics already been formulated?

OTTEN: Yes. Our standpoint on wireless standardisation, for example, is supported equally by all the associations mentioned. The associations, however, have different structures. If you look at the EEMUA, for example, this is more of a service organisation to which customers bring their problems, and the EEMUA attempts, with few full-time staff, to work out relevant solutions. Our approach, in contrast, is that of a classical German association which lives from the fact that all members work on the solutions.

Respect Comes From Competence

PROCESS:The high respect enjoyed by NAMUR comes from the competence of the members in the working groups and the resulting NAMUR recommendations. How can this competence be maintained when the workload on the individual persons is increasing in the member firms?

OTTEN: You are really talking about two trends there, namely the one you mention, and a contrary one we have identified. The latter shows that our members find that the necessary know-how is increasingly seldom available from specialists in their own company, so they are dependent on exchange of information with colleagues in the NAMUR working groups.

This inverse trend has in fact led to an intensification of work in NAMUR areas of activity in recent years because these colleagues then take something away with them for their place of work, whereas previously they did not need this because of the bigger and better provision in their own company.

“We Really Have Two Challenges”

PROCESS: So NAMUR recommendations are a kind of by-product of internal learning processes?

OTTEN: Quite clearly, the process of meeting and exchanging with each other and the precise working out are just as important as what comes out afterwards as a NAMUR recommendation. The latter is in fact only a dissemination of the knowledge. The colleagues who meet in the working groups, in contrast, have reached a much greater depth in the subject. This inverse trend is leading namely to a gain in importance for NAMUR.

PROCESS: How much understanding between process and electrical engineers for the tasks of the opposite numbers is still missing?

OTTEN: We really have two challenges. Process engineers still have too little understanding of dynamics and regulation technology. This was one of the reasons for founding our university working group. If you look at process technology institutes today, with a few exceptions, you can go through a training without ever hearing anything about regulation technology. This is an impossible state of affairs. Our processes, our competitive advantages, whether in work efficiency or in utilisation and availability of the installations, live primarily from the level of automation in our production installations.

Does Training not provide Fundamental Understanding?

At the same time, 70 percent of process engineers here in Germany still come from their training without an understanding of dynamic processes. On the other hand, there is still very strong influence from manufacturing industry on the training of automation engineers. A large portion of graduates from universities or technical universities go straight to companies as Siemens, Bosch etc. at the end of their studies. This is our big problem.

PROCESS: And how do you hope to solve this?

OTTEN: Here we must make fundamental changes in the training and assure more mutual understanding. In daily work, added value is today only possible as the result of a team approach. The days are past when one could optimise process development or regulation in isolation. An electrical engineer also needs a good understanding of processes and, conversely, chemical and process engineers need an understanding of dynamics in order to optimise large installations.

But the cooperation between NAMUR and both ProcessNet and Dechema came into being precisely against this background. Can you feel satisfied with the form of cooperation up till now?

OTTEN: No, we cannot.

Where is the snag then?

OTTEN: If, for example, one puts on NAMUR-relevant lectures at the ProcessNet conference, the people one meets there are those one already knows anyway. We have not yet succeeded in creating the link there between process and automation technologies.

“We Must Start Right at the Beginning in the Training”

This is, admittedly, particularly difficult. In my opinion, we must start right back at the beginning in the training. If you do not create a basic understanding of the other side in each case during training, it will be particularly difficult to bring these together at a later date.

Is this view shared equally at ProcessNet or Dechema? Only a few years ago, automaters were considered the preparatory workers for the planners and operations engineers.

OTTEN: Yes, but there has been a substantial change of thought on this. Previously, the classical distribution was as follows: there were operations engineers for process or machine construction matters who had responsibility for budget and availability, and somewhere there was an electrical engineer looking after several installations simultaneously.

But if you look at Evonik today at the Wesseling/Germany location, for example, you will now seen 50 percent electrical engineers responsible for operations. Why? Because process automation technology is the stronger lever when it comes to optimising existing installations regarding operational excellence.

Does this mean, more engineers ought to come to your NAMUR meetings in order to understand better how much is already possible today using automation technology?

OTTEN: Yes, in principle it does. The topics for the NAMUR main meeting are of course always a balancing act. On the one hand, many colleagues come who are interested purely in the technology. On the other hand, if measurement and regulation technology wants to continue to be successful, it has to go beyond pure technology into process management. And then we have to show what advantages this brings.

This is the switch from a purely technology-driven organisation to a management-driven organisation. If we want to make further progress here, we cannot stay sitting in our technology corner. We must also sell the technology, realise it, show what added value we generate with it.

A Shift of View Ahead?

What current issues occupy you most at the moment?

OTTEN: Internally at NAMUR we are currently debating the need for a shift from the purely equipment-based view to a process-based view. This is also reflected in the NAMUR working groups. We have, for example, two fields of work which are more equipment-oriented, while working groups one and four can be seen as more process-oriented. Keeping both aspects in view is a balancing act which requires very intensive discussion about the relative positions of these views.

The conclusion is that we must have stronger networking among our four working groups. To enable a common understanding to develop here, there will first of all be a strategic meeting with the leaders and selected colleagues from the working groups, for we will not be able to solve these problems with rigid structures. The question is: How must we adapt our organisational structure so that we can work through these topics more efficiently?

“We can not be interested in that”

Are there developments which you, as NAMUR chairman, do not welcome?

OTTEN: Oh yes, the big topic of international norming. The way it is being run at the moment or—more precisely—not being run does not suit us at all. The original sense of norming is of course to set certain standards, to simplify technology and to accelerate its spread.

But what we often see is that norming is increasingly being used to build up barriers, whether around countries or on the manufacturering side, in order to cement proprietary solutions. That cannot of course be what something like NAMUR is interested in. Another point is the regrettable trend that we are increasingly having to resort to components which have an ever shorter service lifetime and do not fit in with the long service life of our production installations. We need to keep a careful watch on the balancing act between long service life, availability and cost optimisation.

Mr. Otten, thank you for speaking to us. ●

* The interview was conducted by PROCESS Chief Editor Gerd Kielburger.