Expert Interview with Kevin Patel Of Signature Automation On Learning Automation

Learning automation“We put a plan of attack together that delves into the technology solutions that are best suited for our client and the steps that are required to implement these solutions. Much of this work is done early on in our projects. Once we have this understanding in place, we begin the execution phase where we follow the initial plans that our senior staff developed prior to getting into the details of the project.”

This is a quote from our interview with Kevin Patel of the automation consultancy firm Signature Automation when asked about their process when coming on to a project.

Assessment. Planning. Execution.

While Signature Automation may work predominantly in the sector of water and wastewater management, these three words – along with the company’s dedicated, focused approach to automation – would serve any industry or company looking for maximum efficiency and optimal performance via automation.

Whether you’re considering bringing in an automation firm for your own company, optimizing your company’s workflow, or thinking about becoming an automation consultant yourself, there is something for everybody in Kevin Patel’s words of wisdom.

Signature Automation provides quality and reliable automation solutions. Can you give a few examples of some of the things that you’ve automated?

Our firm primarily provides automation solutions for the water/wastewater industry. Although our company was formed in 2012, our staff has extensive experience in this industry. Many have spent their entire careers working with industrial and municipal water/wastewater clients as design consultants, system integrators and even end users. We have designed and commissioned control systems for everything related to the treatment of water, from wastewater collection and wastewater treatment facilities to water treatment facilities and water distribution systems. Our systems generally control the equipment used to move water and initiate the treatment processes throughout the system.

One of the easiest examples to explain what we do is that of a city-wide distribution system. A city generally has a complex system of underground piping that provides water to the residents and businesses within their service area. Strategically-located elevated storage tanks feed the flow of water to the users in a particular neighborhood. As the users in the area use water, the level in the tank starts to go down. This triggers a signal to the control system to start and stop upstream pumps or open and close upstream valves as necessary to fill the tank back up to a desired level. All of these actions are monitored and controlled by the systems we design and program.

We develop the graphical interface that the city’s operations personnel use to see what is going on with the system; and we develop the programming that controls the starting/stopping of pumps, as well as the opening and closing of valves to push the water through the system and inject the appropriate chemicals to help maintain quality drinking water for the residents of a city.

Control systems within a treatment plant are much more complex, but generally consist of the same types of issues where we use instrumentation to monitor signals such as levels, flows, pressures, etc. and make intelligent decisions within the programs we develop to control equipment to aid in the treatment and flow of processes.

When you begin on a project, what are some things you look at to determine what can be automated? How does this initial planning impact the work you’ll do later on the project?

There are many aspects to executing an automation design and programming project. The most important, of course, is meeting our client’s expectations. On all assignments, we start by meeting with our client to gain a thorough understanding of their end vision. These discussions help us to determine how we will address their needs, and also help us to openly discuss any potential issues that may arise throughout the course of the project.

Often, this is followed by an assessment of their current systems and technologies so that we can determine how to best utilize the investments they currently have in place. We then put a plan of attack together that delves into the technology solutions that are best suited for our client and the steps that are required to implement these solutions. Much of this work is done early on in our projects. Once we have this understanding in place, we begin the execution phase, where we follow the initial plans that our senior staff developed prior to getting into the details of the project.

At times, our work requires us to deviate slightly from our initial plans,; but generally, we have found that if we put a well-thought out plan in place before we are deep into the execution phase, it helps to focus the efforts of all involved so that time is not wasted on figuring things out on the fly – and also helps us exceed our client’s expectations with regard to their end vision.

Signature Automation works with a wide variety of software and hardware environments. Can you give us some examples of some of the technology that you commonly work on?

Technology is constantly evolving. To stay ahead of the curve, our engineers go through continuous education and training to stay ahead of the trends in our industry. The major technology in the automation industry are instrumentation, variable frequency drives, motor control centers, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interface (HMI), fiber optics, highly managed switches and routers, and network firewalls.

Signature Automation also offers training for operations and management. How difficult is it to learn the automation systems that you install?

The automations systems can range in complexity. However, our firm truly believes that the automation that is provided to our clients must be developed with the end user in mind. This includes easy-to-understand user interfaces, thorough documentation, and hands-on training. The training that is provided to operations and maintenance is customized with exercises to provide a thorough understanding of the automation solutions provided.

In addition to classroom training, our firm has also provided computer-based training with the development of training videos. We work hard to design our systems so that they are as easy as possible for our clients to learn how to use them. This often requires more behind-the-scenes programming and planning on our end.

You’ve worked on a wide array of different projects, from water treatment to odor control. What are some things that you’ve automated on these projects?

Our company is capable of automating every process within the treatment facility or distribution system. Some of the things that we have automated are pump stations with lead/lag control, which allows the pumps to automatically start and stop based on demand or if a pump is unavailable due to maintenance or a failure.

We have automated flow control strategies that modulate valves, or variable frequency drives to maintain or split flow based on a specified calculation. A major process for many treatment facilities are filters. These filters are constantly working to provide clean water, and as with any filter they must be cleaned on a periodic basis. Signature Automation has provided automation to control the filter flow and to wash the filters automatically based on runtime or instrumentation readings.

Finally, we have automated chemical feed control systems. These feed systems inject the appropriate amount of chemicals based on plant conditions such as flow, chemical concentration, and instrument readings that provide feedback on how the chemicals are reacting.

I noticed you’ve done a lot of PLC programming on various projects. For people that don’t know, what is PLC programming, and what are some ways that it can be useful as well as save time and money?

Control systems are comprised of computers and servers that are used to store historical data and provide the graphical user interface to the operations staff as well as industrial grade computers, referred to as controllers, that we program to monitor and control the treatment processes. Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) are often used in the water/wastewater industry. There are various manufacturers for these devices, and each has its unique programming software.

As time goes on, and the world becomes increasingly sped up and competitive, what are some reasons that a company can’t afford to NOT automate their processes? What are some opportunities they might miss out on? Also, what kind of resources do they stand to save with optimal automatization?

Effective automation is not a requirement in our industry, but it does make the job of the operations staff easier and allows them to spend more time monitoring the entire facility, rather than keeping a close eye on a single process. The savings gained may not be immediately visible, but automation does help from the standpoint of more consistent treatment processes, which in turn improves the quality of the end product.

The systems themselves monitor the status of instruments and equipment, then make intelligent decisions based on the programs developed. Data is recorded historically and often is populated onto reports that staff can use to help them optimize their maintenance and treatment efforts.

In fact, in some cases, the data automatically populates reports that are required by a facility to maintain their operating licenses from the controlling entities. These issues result in more accurate data collection and more consistent treatment processes, since they reduce the chances of human error with regard to data entry and the decisions made from user to user for treatment processes.

Additionally, the systems can have permissives built in to prevent starting of equipment under certain conditions, thus protecting the equipment and possibly protecting the safety of the staff. These items are the basic benefits of automation in use by many in our industry.

A potential area of significant savings is energy and chemical consumption. The largest cost for a treatment facility is their energy costs. Schemes such as demand limiting can be put in place to help a utility reduce their energy costs, and treatment processes can be manipulated to optimize the use of their chemical injection in order to reduce the costs of their chemicals. The automation that is provided allows the systems in place to continuously make proper adjustments in an effort to save the utility money, while maintaining environmental and quality requirements from the state.

For engineers that are looking into this kind of work, what skill set would you recommend they cultivate, such as useful programming languages? Is any kind of mechanical know-how necessary?

Those that do this type of work have a varied skill set. To be successful in our industry, you must have a solid technical understanding of networking, instrumentation and control systems. In recent years, the networking has become a bigger component, as more emphasis has been placed on open architectures, cyber security and sharing of data from the control system to the enterprise level networks. This is true for both our designers and programmers.

Our designers also must have a good understanding of computer-aided design software packages like AutoCAD and MicroStation, as many of the design drawings we develop are done with these. Our programmers must have knowledge of good programming techniques. Many of the graphical packages we use are loosely based on Visual Basic for Applications, but not all. Some use their own proprietary language which must be learned. On the controller side, each manufacturer has its own programming software, and we have to become knowledgeable regarding these. Generally, they are pretty similar, since most adhere to the IEC-61131 standard; but they all also have their unique nuances.

These are just some of the technical skills required by our engineers, but not all. In addition to staying abreast of the hardware and software technology, our engineers must also have a solid soft-skill set. We spend a lot of time talking to our clients, and being able to take their perspectives and incorporate them into our designs and programs is critical to meeting and exceeding their expectations. To accomplish this, good verbal and written communication skills are required. Many who come into our industry are surprised at the amount of documentation we produce. This includes Master Plans, Preliminary Design Reports, Specifications, Submittals, Training Manuals, and Operations and Maintenance Manuals, just to name a few.

As far as mechanical know-how, there are several skills that can be beneficial from a field troubleshooting standpoint. Many times, the electricians or integrators that installed the equipment and performed the construction will be available to provide troubleshooting efforts. However, it still helps to understand how to use a multimeter to determine certain voltages, currents, and resistances. It’s also important to have some knowledge of electrical circuits and the care needed when handling 120VAC versus 24VDC.

In a field like yours which is very tech heavy, why is it important to never stop learning?

Our industry is constantly evolving, from improvements in instrumentation to upgrades in hardware and software. Our clients rely on our staff to help guide them through the decision-making process when it comes to what they should do with their control systems. Our solutions must not only be well-thought out to make the most use of the technology available, but must also be cost effective to stay within our clients’ budgetary needs. As such, we are constantly learning about the latest offerings in the industry.

If someone were looking for work in the field of automation, what are some key words or phrases they should keep an eye out for? Also, how should they go about best showcasing their abilities to potential employers?

Key Words: Instrumentation, Motor Control Center (MCC), Variable Frequency Drives (VFD), Human Machine Interface (HMI), Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), Distributed Control Systems (DCS), Remote Telemetry Units (RTU), Industrial Control Systems (ICS)

For experienced individuals, they can showcase their abilities best by describing the projects they have worked on, and specifically what their role on the project was. If there were any unique nuances to the assignment in which they helped resolve, being able to describe these in detail is helpful. For entry level individuals, demonstrating a willingness to learn in a team environment is a key component; along with technical writing, organization, and demonstration of problem solving.

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