What economists predicted at the beginning of the recession has indeed happened. The world is adjusting to a “new normal,” which, for the business world, has evolved into “right-sizing” and scaling back. The economy also has breathed new life into old concepts. Continuous improvement models and lean management principles are being dissected, applied and perfected every day, as is the automation and standardization of electrical and mechanical processes.
“When times were good in the mining and crushed stone industry where people were selling all that they were making, efficiency didn’t matter as much,” says Jeff Patenaude, co-founder and co-owner of Engineered Software Products (ESP), which creates automation control systems for the energy and mining sectors. “But in the last three to four years, operations need to be as efficient as possible. Energy costs are higher, they have more competition and there is a bigger push for quality. In lean times and hard times, these tools have become a lot more useful and a lot more needed.”
The tools that ESP creates address the mining and energy industries’ need for greater efficiency. Automation systems have increased steadily in popularity since the 1980s. ESP began in 1988, making it one of the industry’s early innovators. As an integrator of customized automation and control systems, the company creates solutions that help companies adjust to what is now the cross-industry new normal – standardization, continuous improvement and lean management.
“Standardization has always been a key component of how we do business, in this manner when we make improvements we end up with a good, solid, proven standardized solution that gets better every time we create another application.” Patenaude explains. “You would be surprised to know how many different ways a system can be designed. Each engineer will approach a job in their own unique way, so without standardization it becomes difficult to maintain and troubleshoot if you are not the original engineer.”
For the mining industry, ESP has created a suite of products that have become standards in the industry. OPENPlant Control uses standard hardware and software that can be customized to manage plant production, while HAULTrac and LOADTrac monitor the efficiency of the truck hauling and loading systems. The eCONTROL Center (e-house) is a prefabricated electrical components center that is assembled, wired, tested and shipped to the customer for installation – one of ESP’s many turnkey services.
Other industries see the benefit of these prefabricated offerings, as well. In fact, ESP will be manufacturing one for a biomass gasification power plant.
“What is unique about this biomass project is that it could be a typical brick and mortar plant,” says Jim Batten, vice president of sales. “Mining very easily lends itself to e-houses, but this client recognized the value of having a prefabricated building wired off site.
“They are buying an e-house to put inside their existing building,” Batten adds.
Looking Over the Data
For both the energy and mining sectors, and others that ESP serves, Patenaude and co-owner Grib Murphy say that in the trend to continuously improve, companies are forced to decipher how they can turn the buzz phrase into a real practice. For that, many have turned to analyzing the data.
“We’ve been emphasizing the need to collect and analyze data for continuous process improvement for the last 15 years,” Patenaude says.
“But it seems only in the last five or six years that companies are really pursuing this due to energy costs and the down economy,” he adds.
Murphy affirms that claim. “Today, with the big focus on energy costs, conservation has become a bigger factor,” he says. “Everyone wants to know how much energy they are using, and want it broken down for each process. Many times, electrical providers are asking manufacturers to reduce energy consumption during peak hours. We provide the infrastructure that allows them to make those decisions.”
It allows them to make countless other decisions, as well. Based on data, the equipment engineer can estimate when a certain machine should be serviced, rather than waiting for its eventual malfunction, thus avoiding downtime.
ESP’s promotion of data monitoring and reporting speaks to the company’s ability to know what customers need, even though the customers may not know it themselves. Take, for instance, the foundation from which all of its products are based.
As opposed to the traditional model of building a from-scratch system every time an order comes in, ESP serves the needs of its clients through customizing standardized open-architecture platforms for each industry.
As it looks to its future, Batten explains that renewable energy clients, such as biomass gasification plants, will be a big push for the company. Traditional oil and gas is another current focus, with the evolution of fracking to extract new resources from old wells bringing in more business.
“Frac sand is almost like the new gold rush,” Batten says.