We saw it at the Chem Show in New York City

Dec. 17, 2013

It was cold walking the streets to the Jacob Javits Center for last week’s Chem Show. Inside, a warm feeling pervaded as tough times are past and the industry outlook is modestly upbeat. The idea that consumers want a solution, not a product, is not a new one. But there is a quickening of the pace at which various plant functions are being out-sourced to third parties.

It was cold walking the Manhattan streets to the Jacob Javits Center to attend last week’s Chem Show.

Inside, though, there was a nice warm feeling amongst suppliers and attendees. Some tough economic times are now clearly in the past and the outlook for North American processing and manufacturing industries is modestly upbeat. 

The idea that what consumers want is not a product but rather a solution is not a new one. The notion translates well to business-to-business markets. For goods makers, provision of services can deliver healthier returns than a simple product sale. Every OEM tries to capture its own spare-parts business.

In recent years however there has been a quickening in the pace at which various plant functions have been out-sourced to third parties.

Again it’s nothing new. In recent past decades, IBM remade itself from a maker of what were quickly becoming commodity boxes into a purveyor of information based on hardware, software and services. All the largest automation and process-control suppliers have in similar ways refocused their revenue sources. Another compelling development has been that cloud computing makes it easy to outsource even your all-important desktops.

Still it was striking at the Chem Show the extent to which this trend has become pervasive. Suppliers cited the rate at which expertise and knowledge are retiring out of industry. Goods makers are turning to suppliers to do things they typically did themselves not long ago. The availability of a trained workforce has become a big factor in locating – or not locating — chemical industry capacity expansions in North America.

Lawrenceville, Ga.-based WIKA Instrument, the maker of pressure and temperature measurement instrumentation, says it has done more than 350 audits of plants to ensure proper operation of pressure gauges, as part of its FAST, full audit service team, program.

With the onset of distributed control systems and advanced automation not as much attention is paid to local indicators, which also remain in place for long periods of time, said Jason Deane, a senior instrument engineer. This is a risk, as in upset conditions these indicators are redundant to the control systems and provide a clear reading in which the operators can have confidence.

WIKA engineers find that about 25% of pressure gauges currently in place are either failing or in immediate danger of failing, with another 40% in the “yellow” zone as not exemplifying best practices.

Another supplier at the show, Flo-Tite Valves and Controls, says the new breed of engineer, while highly trained in some areas, doesn’t have the same base of expertise as those retiring. The company makes its money by being a one-stop shop for highly engineered valve applications, stocking large inventories that include multi-port valves and delivering a level of service the largest valve manufacturers struggle to provide, said Martin Gibbons, president and CEO.

Another trend is more systematic addressing of safety concerns. Watertown, Mass.-based United Electric Controls has introduced the first SIL 2-certified transmitter solely for safety system applications. With its low cost relative to other type transmitters, companies can take a more comprehensive approach to safety.

Its use means “fewer nuisance trips and greater safety, an internal high-speed safety relay for the fastest emergency shutdown, greater affordability than adapting a process transmitter for safety applications, and a higher safe failure fraction that simplifies SIL achievement,” said Wil Chin, a company vice president.

We’ll have more Chem Show coverage in the January issue of Processing magazine.

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