August 25, 2017


Risk Analysis: The Zen of Safety and Quality

If it isn't safe it isn't good. If it isn't good it isn't safe. Thinking about safety and quality as fundamental ontological components of each other can help create a framework through which we can evaluate project decisions. This methodology applies equally to comparing bid proposals, evaluating how to divide a maintenance budget, and determining where to spend capital funds on equipment upgrades.

All organizations make an attempt to include safety as part of their culture to a greater or lesser degree and I have never met a manager that would knowingly put their employees in harms way. The problems managers are forced to resolve are the competing objectives within an organization. Different groups have different goals and often short term cost savings are prioritized over other criteria.

When we use Total Cost modelling techniques and treat safety as a cost driver, the real cost of poor quality, low cost solutions can be demonstrated. If something is not well built, misapplied, or not fit for purpose it has an increased safety risk. As a best case this risk manifests as lost productivity due to malfunctions. At its worst this risk results in injury or loss of life. Think of a shoddily made knife; it dulls easily and a dull knife is far more dangerous to me than a sharp one. If I cut myself while working I could miss a few hours of work at the hospital or worse yet I could lose the ability to work altogether.

There is a whole toolbox of risk analysis techniques available to those with the time and effort to research. The tools picked really aren't important, what matters is the process. Get risks down on paper for everyone to see. Start creating a culture of risk analysis. If little hard data is available, evaluate risks using qualitative methods with costs of downtime factored against likelihood of a failure. If this framework is used to compare multiple project decisions the precise accuracy of the risk model is less critical unless there are very large cost differences between the options evaluated.

The future risks created by concessions made during cost analysis need to be factored in as cost drivers. Safety is at the essence of quality and quality is at the essence of safety. A safe system does not guarantee quality; but unless something is safe, it is poor quality. If something is of poor quality it is fundamentally unsafe.

August 07, 2017


Project Management Lite

Let me preface this post by saying that if your daughter's soccer and hockey schedules are in Primavera and you have a Gantt chart of tonight's dinner this will be preaching to the choir. To further clarify, what I want to talk about is how substantial returns can be gained by economically applying project management principles to small construction, maintenance, and fabrication projects. To determine how far to go down the PMBOK rabbit hole on smaller projects, I look at the level of risk, the project's value, and overall level of complexity. While all projects benefit from a total project management approach those with limited resources need to direct their energy on getting the best ROI.

Projects with High Risk benefit greatly from a focus on communication and engagement with stake holders. Use collaborative tools like Slack, Smartsheet and Freedcamp to make the exchange of information efficient and real-time. This will allow all stake holders to participate without spending too much energy on getting everyone together for physical meetings. Relying on email or conference calls as communication tools results in information overload, wasted time and the potential for key information to be overlooked or worse misunderstood.

Complex projects and those with severe time based Risk require a greater investment in scheduling and up front planning. Use Google Docs or Office 365 to create collaborative schedules and project documents. This does not need to be a time consuming exercise. Simple schedules with tasks and durations offer a common framework to discuss scope, timelines and sequencing. Regular schedule updates to the team will prevent surprises and avoid costly delays.

High value projects have the greatest resources available to dedicate to project management. The costs of resources dedicated to project management as a percentage of scope is small. This means that even with diminishing returns, even small incremental improvements result in rapid ROI and significant absolute cost savings over the term of the project.

A lean and nimble project management process can be implemented in small steps. Start creating a culture of planning and process. Focus on low hanging fruit, small incremental improvements in project processes where the effect can be evaluated in monetary or labour units. Implementing project management standards is a project. Get feedback and revise as needed. Conduct Lessons Learned meetings throughout each phase to share knowledge gained and document improvements as they happen.

The most important element in any project are the people. Without buy in and support from the project team the success of a project is jeopardized. Demonstrating the effectiveness of project management techniques can help build engagement and encourage continued investment in project management. Scale the level of detail and formality to suit the project and the team. What's important is the process and the plan.

June 27, 2017


Remote Bin Level Monitoring in the Cloud

The industrial world traditionally lags behind the consumer world in terms of technology adoption. This is done for reasons of reliability, cost, and sometimes fear of change. If ain't broke why fix it?

Why is this relevant? IOT can provide game changing and cost saving data collection, but the industrial world has been slow to adapt. Suddenly devices that were considered "passive" can now be connected to a SCADA or DCS system. This has its advantages. The data is stored and processed in a single location by the system that is running the site. It can be used as part of a LEAN or Six Sigma process improvement project internal to the site's automation environment. It also has its drawbacks.

What if people outside the organization can benefit from the data collected? IT departments are understandably reluctant to grant remote access to their own organizations let alone a 3rd party. Typical process control networks are isolated from the outside either physically or via enterprise level firewall protection. We live in an era where industrial sabotage is a real concern and ransom attacks can cost millions in lost production time.

The solution: The MONODON remote bin monitoring system developed by Tusk Automation is a bolt on addition. It does not need to be routed through any aspect of a site's automation or IT networks. It provides a standalone data acquisition, trending, and logging platform which can provide user selectable alarm set points, downloadable reports, and real time status updates.

By offering a passive data collection system we segregate the data from the process system. The data can be democratized for a variety of applications by 3rd party service providers. We protect the site's network and still allow authorized users to access information that can lower costs and improve performance.

Application Example #1:

A mill is selling wood fiber to a pulp mill in a nearby community. The pulp mill has a trucking company who picks up and delivers the fiber. The pulp mill buys from several mills in the area and they weight the trucks as they come in to calculate how much material they purchase. After an audit the pulp mill discovers that 15% of the weight they have in their yard is composed of stones and other non-wood material. Using our system the pulp mill can go back to each supplier and track the volume and estimated weight of each shipment they purchased and correlate that to what was weighed in at the scales to confirm where the bulk of the foreign material is coming from and charge back accordingly.

Application Example #2:

A plywood mill purchases resin and other chemicals in bulk from a supplier located 10hrs away. They typically receive shipments monthly and maintain storage tanks to hold 2 months supply as a buffer. The mill is upgrading and wants to install new holding tanks. By adding the MONODON system to the new tanks and setting it up to notify the resin supplier when a tank is at 50% capacity automatically, the mill is able to reduce the tanks to half their original size reducing capital costs. This arrangement allows the resin supplier to deliver Just-In-Time inventory reducing inventory costs. Historical data collected by the system allows both the user and the supplier to predict resin consumption and plan deliveries accordingly.

IOT is here. If we embrace it intelligently, we gain tremendous cost savings while mitigating the risks of having web enabled industrial systems. Accurate data enables better decision making. Democratize data.


March 08, 2017


Is it time to move past MCC's?

First, a little background. In 1937 Westinghouse began manufacturing the 11-300 Motor Control Center, a group mounted starter assembly connected using a pluggable horizontal bus. In the early 50's the big 3 auto manufacturers were looking for solutions to help quickly revamp production lines to meet each new model year. Motor control centers allowed for easy replacement and rearrangement of starters as production needs changed.

Dynamic auto manufacturers benefited from the interchangeability and standardization that MCC's offered. Over the next 2 decades GE, Schneider, Allen Bradley, and others began offering their own lineup of plug and play motor control centers. In this halcyon age dominated by across the line and inside the delta starters MCC's rule and their use spread far and wide. There is no better way to manage a few dozen NEMA starters.

Flash forward. The days of the across the line starter are gone but MCC's are everywhere.  Variable frequency drives and other solid state products now dominate the industry.

MCC's show up in a wide range of applications, used as a panacea for every design. “FrankenMCC's”, cobbled together with components from half a dozen different manufacturers, heavily modified to accept products they were never designed for are being specified by engineers daily. Why anyone would feel the need to use VFD Manufacturer X, Transfer Switch Manufacturer Q, MCC Structure Manufacturer A, C or G, and a sprinkle in a few random control and automation components from manufacturers Z, Y, D, and R just for good measure is baffling. It defeats the whole intent of the MCC – interchangeability. By hacking and slashing the structures to accept the random brands requested you wind up with something that is essentially a very expensive, oversized control panel. At the end of the day the end user would be better served with a custom control panel.

VFD's with their cooling and spacing requirements are difficult to manage in a standard MCC section. Stacking VFD's with one mounted above the other on a back panel requires careful planning and heat management to avoid prematurely ending the life of a VFD. Building custom control panels for drives provides additional benefits:

  • Better environmental ratings. Custom drive panels can be easily designed to Nema 4(X). MCC's can be custom built for these types of applications but the cost is often prohibitive. This allows for VFD's to be positioned close to the motors they operate reducing the need for reactors and filtering.
  • Space optimization of the drive cabinet. Not having to deal with the rigid structure of MCC sections means that we can place the drives in an ideal arrangement to manage heat and use the available space. One recent example of a 6 drive package we budgeted: custom enclosure 60"x60"x16" (33 cubic ft), the same package as an MCC required 90"x90"x21" (98 cubic ft).

As electrical and controls professionals we have to acknowledge that additional building space required to house our equipment is one of the most costly elements of a project. Using space efficiently on a large project can result in millions in real savings.

MCC’s have their place. Arc flash hazards, projects that include large centralized E-Rooms, and medium voltage applications are all good reasons to choose an MCC lineup. But if your intent is to cram a bunch of low voltage drives and other miscellaneous hardware into an MCC, consider having a custom control panel built.

March 06, 2017


Equipment design with modular fieldbus

We recently completed a large equipment build. The machine itself was massive, nearly 150ft long and 30ft wide. It was being manufactured as 8 shipping units. Using Ethernet field-bus we were able to reduce the site interconnection time to hours on a system with 100's of I/O spread over 4500sqft.

The Turck BL20's we used were easy to configure using the free PACTware software and integrated flawlessly with the Contrologix environment we were working in.

Building such a larger machine as modular assemblies with Ethernet based I/O made installation, commissioning, and troubleshooting simple. Modular assembly allows for more testing on the factory floor and less discovery in the field.

We assembled 8 marshaling cabinets with BL20 gateways, analog and digital I/O, and isolated power supplies. Each cabinet collected the I/O from its module to a single point with quick disconnect molded cord sets running out to devices.

The site cabling was reduced to 8 Teck90 power cables, 8 Cat 6 armoured data cables daisy chained between the cabinets (Turck BL20's have 2 data ports for just this reason, its beyond me why anybody would put only 1 RJ45 port on an Ethernet ready device). And while there were the normal programming and commissioning issues; at no point was there a need to check wiring terminations and troubleshoot errors. Everything had been shop tested.

For any machine designed to be broken down into multiple sections for shipping, Ethernet field bus can greatly reduce installation and commissioning times. I highly recommend the Turck BL20 for any machine build.

If anyone has any experience using the programmable Turck gateways with Codesys I would be very interested in hearing your experiences.

January 20, 2016


Automation in the smartphone era or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Droid.

It’s a glowing new age where the average homeowner can check out their home’s temperature, make sure all the doors are locked and even stream live feeds from the security cameras from any internet enabled device. Google even sells a thermostat.

Why then is industrial automation lagging so far behind the consumer market in terms of taking advantage of omnipresent wireless internet? A lot of reasons.

In North America the focus has been on reliable robust solutions. Tried tested and true NEMA designs filled this requirement with products that would perform under the harshest of conditions. In Europe, a flexible approach with smaller IEC components purpose built for the specific application is the norm. Europeans have been using smart systems with intelligent controllers for decades but because of the North American reification that old is reliable, we have been slow to adopt new ideas.

Then there is the security argument. There are claims that having remote access increases the risk of hackers gaining access to industrial or process control, and in some applications like power generation this is a very real concern. The reality though, is that due to lack of focus on industrial cyber security most process networks wouldn’t last five minutes against a dedicated cyber attack. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is more due to fact that there isn’t any purpose to such an attack than to the strength of the network’s security.

For most applications, anonymity is the best defence, and if reasonable precautions in network design are taken a process network with web access can be as secure as any other.

Smart automation, local noded process control, and distributed I/O using simple smart relays and PLC’s has already been proven in Europe but in North America we still want to see a control cabinet packed with electromechanical relays and timers. With SMS modules, Android apps, and a web portal, a control system can be more reliable with a single Logo 8 smart relay than with a cabinet of spring wound timers. I Would much rather have a smart relay fail and text me an alarm message regarding the error, than have an Omron timing relay’s contacts seize and I only find out about it when the water treatment plant shuts down.

Stop worrying and embrace the future.

November 23, 2015


The Power Of Numbers: A new era in construction.

Numbers have life; they're not just symbols on paper.
-Shakuntala Devi

The current trend in industrial construction has been towards increased oversight and reporting. EPCM’s and their clients are requiring increased insight into the day to day progress of their building trades. Who can blame them?Owners want to ensure value for money.

Furthering this goal, more and more contracts are being awarded directly to trades without the typical General Contractor-Sub Trade relationship. Having daily quantity reporting and tracking allows project managers to have near real time data on the progress of a project, providing an opportunity to deal with potential construction bottlenecks.

Over the last few months there have been a lot of debates in LinkedIn posts and PM Groups about this trend. A lot focus on what an irritant and distraction scheduling and tracking are from "real work."

I appreciate that the more specialized trades such as electrical and mechanical have high reporting requirements, highly detailed scopes of work, and often a lack of experience working as direct hires. This can make for a rough transition to this new system of project management.

Civil contractors (Civils), who tend to have experience as a General,  are more likely to have skilled schedulers and project managers. Civils also have an advantage in reporting as their scope is usually made up of a small list of large items.

Time to look at the real cost. The flip side to reporting is that because Electrical and Mechanical trades can have such complicated scopes of work, the risk of completing out of scope, or missing in scope work is very real. As an Electrical contractor, how many meters of out of scope cable can you pull before the cost of daily tracking becomes a moot point? Without an accurate construction schedule how can you estimate the time and cost impacts of completing this extra work?

It's a new age, where advanced project management and quantity reporting software have changed the construction landscape. Contractors need to benefit from these amazing tools. Accurate tracking allows for efficient labour forecasting and capture of delays. 

Utilizing the power of project management techniques, the PMBOK guide, and project management software can save a the building trades millions of dollars over the course of a major project. Accurate quantity tracking ensures that all the work performed in the field is part of the scope or is captured as an extra before it is completed.

It is high time we get out of the dark ages and  take advantage of the skills EPCM’s are using to manage their projects better. It's time to make ourselves more profitable .

November 10, 2015


Product Review: Siemens Logo! 8

Logo Smart RelayTo those who have read my previous posts you know that I really like smart relays. The simplicity, ease of troubleshooting, and flexibility make them a winning solution. I recently had a chance to test drive the Siemens LOGO! 8  smart relay

To start, download the free SoftComfort demo software, it is  a complete package, lacking only the ability to write a program to a controller. With the demo you can play around and test out all the functionality, and there is a lot of it to try. 

In the relay itself is as well built as its cousins. The screen is bright and changes colour to notify the operator of the device status quickly. I personally wouldn't want to program a complex program directly using the screen on the relay but it is suitable for making small logic changes.

Altering parameters such as the duration of timers or analog set points is easy and appears in a self contained menu making changes intuitive. Taking the time to name the blocks correctly when setting up a program makes field changes to values intuitive especially if multiple timers or setpoints are used. 

When using the new LOGO 8 take advantage of the android app. It allows full control of an ethernet connected smart relay from a remote device. A great example of applications for this can be found here. 

At the end of the day, a relay is a relay and it all comes down to the software suite to differentiate. The LOGO! SoftComfort software doesn't disappoint. It is modern looking, gone are tiny text boxes and courier font infographics often seen in . Built-in it includes dozens of pre-built function blocks making it simple to develop logic quickly, the drag and drop interface is  convenient.

Using a network cable to program the unit takes a bit of tinkering, setting up the IP addresses correctly in the unit and software is critical to getting the system to talk. The defaults are fine if the the computer you are using has only one network connection, if your PC is connected to the internet and a smart relay at the same time you may need to hit up IPCONFIG in a command line to get the IP address and Subnet Mask in use and make the necessary changes within the Network Menu of the LOGO. 

Available for download are numerous application examples which provide a great introduction to function block program design. The SoftComfort software will convert ladder logic to function blocks which is great for trial and error learning. 

To sum it up, this is a great device. It allows an entire control panel of timers, relays, and dedicated controllers to be replaced with one small (71.5 x 90 x 60 mm) package. 


James Jenkinson, 


© 2015 Tusk Automation Inc. All rights reserved

October 28, 2015


Industrial B2B Customer Service the right way

Business to business customer service has lagged behind B2C. Resolving client issues should be a top priority for any business; in the B2B space it should be THE top priority.  The costs of acquiring a new client or losing an existing one or too high to take lightly and how a business performs when something goes awry can make or break a customer relationship.

A recent Gallup Study found that B2B companies have more incidents of problems than B2C and are less efficient at resolving those problems. Businesses have an opportunity to gain an enormous competitive advantage if they can improve upon the 50% average problem resolution rate that Gallup discovered.  

How to go about this can be incredibly difficult; B2B problems are often more than simple shipping errors and it's hard to know what to do when the ship carrying a 36 week lead time motor sinks. What is important is to acknowledge the problem, take concrete measures to try and fix it, to engage the client in open communication about what went wrong and what is being done to rectify it. In the industrial world our clients are our partners. It is crucial to keep clients informed as to the status of their project and keep the process transparent. 

Steps to effective B2B customer problem resolution

  1. Understand. The number one thing when resolving a client's concern: clearly understand what the problem is. Ensure the problem is clearly defined and treat it like a goal with deliverables.  The crisis isn't that the e-house is late, the problem is that the sawmill can't energize it's new log sorter without it. With the problem clearly defined, possible solutions can be evaluated accurately.
  2. Own the problem. It is critical to acknowledge the problem and accept responsibility for it. The Mill Super that can't start a crusher because the VFD is late doesn't care if the factory was flooded and shipments are delayed. All the Mill Superintendent wants is his crusher line up and running. 
  3. Own the solution. The solution will need to be walked to the finish line. It's rarely easy and in industrial B2B it is never going to be. Turn the problem into a positive. Demonstrate how your company can handle a crisis, prove to your customer that you sincerely care about the problem and are willing to do whatever it takes to resolve the issue.
  4. Be Creative. Offer alternatives. If the MCC's are going to be late, can temporary starters be used to energize critical systems for commissioning? Look for salvage and refurbished units, Beg, borrow, steal, from other customers (with their approval of course!). Its a small world out there and everyone is willing to help. 
  5. Be Realistic. Under promise and over deliver. The awful truth is that some problems can't be fixed. Its critical to be honest and transparent with your client to manage expectations. 

In B2B our problems can seem insurmountable, the true test is in how we deal with them. Temporary solutions, work arounds, and quick fixes won't resolve everything but by demonstrating a genuine desire to own the problem to and to work with the client, we can show our commitment to customer service.

© 2015 Tusk Automation Inc. All rights reserved

October 13, 2015


Its time to embrace the Smart Relay.

Traditionally control panel design has been based on ice cube relays and timers, with PLC's only being used for highly complex systems involving hundreds or thousands of logical functions. Relays were seen as cheap, simple and very reliable, PLC's were seen as being highly technical and expensive. 

Enter the smart relay. A small device not much larger than a traditional timing relay and capable of replacing a hundred electro mechanical relays and timers. Smart Relays are an excellent replacement for control logic as small as a dozen bits and any panel with 2 or 3 timing relays can be candidate to be designed with a smart relay in place of electromechanical devices.

Advantages of smart relays:

Cost:  In panels using multiple timers, external sensors, and other logical devices, smart relays can provide significant cost savings in both materials and labour. The reduction in physical wiring needed to operate the control logic saves panel building time. This is especially relevant where a more than one copy of a panel is being built. You only need to write the logic once and copy it to each new panel, many programs can be reused on new projects. Using traditional methods, the logic needs to be wired for every panel.

Reliability: By reducing the number of physical wire connection and keeping the logic digital Smart Relays reduce the number of potential failure points. The number one cause of panel problems are loose wiring connections. 

In the unlikely event the Smart Relay fails, diagnostic and troubleshooting is simple. Most Smart Relays offer an ethernet port and a physical display screen. Connect to the relay remotely, or bring up the error code on its screen and check the problem. If the Smart Relay has failed, quickly download the program into a new unit and plug it in. The system is back up and running, no one had to get out a multimeter. 

Future Proofing: By using a Smart Relay even simple control panels can be quickly upgraded to perform new functions by changing the code and adding on new functions. In the case of most panels relying on ice-cube relay logic there may not be enough room left in the enclosure to add much in the way of new logic and changing the existing logic requires physically rewiring the panel.

Smart Relays with ethernet allow remote monitoring and control for even the simplest control panel. The internet of things is touching more and more of our world. Having a mine dewatering pump controller be able to call for help in the event of a failure or having all the water wells in a regional district upload their run data to a central controller could save money and provide valuable data to engineers and planners.

For all the engineers and designers reading this, don't be afraid of the Smart Relay, any time you consider a panel with more than 3 relays and timers consider using a smart relay.



James is the owner and founder of Tusk Automation, a provider of control and power distribution solutions.