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The art of Process Automation

During the last twenty years, demand has grown dramatically for high and consistent quality consumer products, such as beverages, pharmaceuticals, food and dairy products. In the light of this trend, manufacturers have been faced with the need to enhance control of their production processes as well as to maximise productivity by automating as many of their operations as possible. In this feature we set out to discover where the know-how to deliver these advances in the art of process automation has come from.
We asked leading specialist in the field, ABM Limited to explain. ABM Managing Director, Allan Rogerson has been involved in process automation for the last forty years and set up ABM over twenty years ago.

Early Days
As Allan put it: “When I was a brewery production manager one of my main interests was to find ways of improving control of the brewery operations. So, when the opportunity arose to be able to concentrate on this and to offer solutions to other process industries, I set up ABM with two colleagues. Right from the start we found that demand for our services was strong.
In fact, most of the early requirement for ABM’s services was in the form of individual process automation jobs, frequently involving automation of existing processes and equipment. Over the last five to ten years however, ABM has provided an increasing number of full turn-key projects, calling for management of the project from initial concept right through to commissioning. This trend has continued and over the last five years, the majority of ABM’s work falls into the category of Project Management.
One of ABM’s brewery customers, Wadworth Limited of Devises in Wiltshire, used to carry out all their own process automation work. As Wadwoth’s Bob Tyre put it: “We used to do everything ourselves, from building our own control panels to programming PLCs. Then we saw ABM’s CIP (clean-in-place) work at other breweries and were impressed. So we asked them to look at automating much of our operation and are very happy with the results they delivered.”

Complete Project Management
Allan Rogerson added: “We’ve recently commissioned a £2million development at Wadworth. We started by digitally surveying the whole operation and produced a three-dimensional virtual model of what we believe Wadworth’s facility would look like when the project was finished. Together with their input, this provided a really clear start point on which to base the project. This allowed us to put forward an accurate costing, from site clearance and preparatory work, to sourcing and installing equipment, all electrical and control work, right through to commissioning”
To produce a virtual model of a facility like this requires around 60 individual laser scans and takes ABM about two days to complete. These scans locate in space, all walls, process vessels, pipework and other equipment by producing what’s called a “Point Cloud”. In turn this is used to produce a three dimensional virtual model of the facility that offers a number of advantages:

  • It allows a virtual tour to be made of the facility as it is before and on project completion.
  • This approach replaces the need for detailed and costly survey.
  • It allows suppliers to quote more accurately for supply of equipment and services.
  • Because the virtual model can be shared electronically, engineers in remote locations can communicate more accurately about the project without the need to travel to site, hence steamlining the project and minimising costs.

This modelling approach has become a standard part of ABM’s service.
Bob Tyre added: “In fact ABM was appointed overall project manager for the complete project and we’re really happy with their approach. I can talk to any of their engineers and their MD at any time about any concerns I have. Their customer care is very good.”


Long Term Development
Another important feature of ABM’s work is their input to long-term development at individual customers’ facilities.
As one such customer, Ray Webb, a project manager at Diageo explains: “We don’t have in-house resources to design and manage these types of project so we use specialists to gain access to certain areas of expertise. When it comes to process automation, we’ve used ABM for many years. What we’re looking for is a customer orientated supplier who understands our business and our needs at individual operator as well as management level. Most importantly we need someone who will deliver what we want, rather than their standard solution made to fit our situation. This is what we get from ABM. And they’ve proved themselves time and time again.”

Diverse Markets
Aside from the beverage sector, the food industry is another key market for process automation. Colin Pope, Group Project Manager with Interlink Bakeries, now McCambridge (North) Limited, sees a major role for process automation in his industry: “Our business has grown from its origins as a cottage style industry. There’s no doubt that we can benefit greatly from improved automation and control, especially in fermentation and CIP, as well as in batch and portion control.”

Much of this bakery group’s manufacturing capacity has been built up over a long time and produces excellent quality products. The key now is to harness control of the whole baking process to improve quality consistency, reduce waste and lower costs.
As Colin Pope went on: “What we’re looking for is a specialist who can improve the control our existing equipment. This is one of ABM’s strengths. They are able to work with our existing systems and apply their know-how to these. The cost of installing new plant from one of the major plant suppliers is prohibitively high and then you’re locked in to their after-service. With ABM we get cost-effective solutions and we’re not locked in.”

The Future
So what does the future hold for the “art” of process automation? Allan Rogerson is in no doubt. “To compete in global consumer markets, our customers need to upgrade continually their productivity to maintain cost competitiveness, as well as to produce repeatable high quality. Manufacturing processes are becoming increasingly complex and along with this is the increased need to manage and control them. So we see significant growth in market for process automation and particularly for turn key, managed projects.”
Looking back ten years, ABM was carrying out individual projects to a value running into five figures. Today, their order value is in the six or seven figure category and almost all their work contains a significant project management element. Companies like ABM offer them a cost-effective way of bringing on steam a well-managed project, complete with all the necessary process automation for their particular application.
Within ten years, Rogerson sees ABM becoming one of the leading project management companies in the UK. He believes his company is already seen by the brewing industry as the “safe” decision in brewing. His ambition for ABM is to achieve the same position in other process industries, including food, dairy, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals.

He added: “One of our most important business principles is that we talk about production issues, not control technology. So our customers can readily see how our proposals bring real benefits to their operation. In the next year or two, I’m looking at strengthening our management team to ensure that there’s adequate succession and hence maintain our service to customers in the years ahead. So we’ll be in a strong position to take on the challenges of the next ten years. Today we employ around 20 people. I would foresee this rising significantly over the next few years.


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