Revisiting the Core Concepts of Industrial Automation | Future of Field Service
Digital Transformation

Revisiting the Core Concepts of Industrial Automation

Kevin Starr, North American Service Development Manager at ABB, joins Sarah for a conversation around Industrial Automation and how the education of today’s workforce must evolve while maintaining the core principles. 

Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro. Today we are going to be revisiting the core concepts of industrial automation. I will be honest, I have a lot of conversations on this podcast that I feel I know a lot about and I’m very comfortable with, this is not one of them. So this is good though because the reason this podcast exists is to learn and grow and expand. And so I’m excited for today’s discussion. So today I’m welcoming back Kevin Starr, who is the North American service development manager at ABB. Kevin was interviewed for episode 59, so it’s been a while, Kevin. Welcome back.

Kevin Starr: Thank you. Thank you. Well, I’ve got a great book for you to help with your understanding.

Sarah Nicastro: Yes. Yeah, and that’s what we’re going to be talking. By the end of the episode I should be an expert, so.

Kevin Starr: That’s right.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So before we dig into the topic, tell everyone just a bit about yourself, your role, et cetera, and then we’ll get into it.

Kevin Starr: Sure. My name’s Kevin Starr. I’ve been with ABB for a while. I’d say it’s 35 years. I tell people I started when I was five. It’s been an amazing journey of automation troubleshooting and seeing the evolution of automation. And I’ve had the opportunity to work all over the world in all kinds of industries. And along the way I was able to learn process control and industrial automation and loop tuning. And I’ve been able to present the material, develop training classes, develop tools and software and solutions. And a book that I wrote, that was close to 30 years ago, has really resonated with the community and it’s sort of having a resurgence as we’re going into this kind of industrial revolution. So I get to work in the service space. I get to help customers improve production quality and reduce the cost to produce and help grab onto and hold onto our tribal knowledge.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Okay, cool. So you recently re-released this book that you wrote for the first time, I think you said close to 30 years ago, right?

Kevin Starr: Yeah.

Sarah Nicastro: So, tell us a little bit about your journey writing the book. What was sort of the catalyst for the first round of writing it and how does that compare with the version that was recently rereleased?

Kevin Starr: Well, it’s been amazing. When we started this journey, it’s been, well a long time ago, 37 years ago, I was what they call a systems engineer where we do process control and startup of a paper machine. And we had a control system that you would have to configure. And I go into college and had a background in electrical engineering and a minor in process control where we had learned about root locus and Bode plots and poles and zeros and a lot of mathematical rigor, but the application of the real world just wasn’t really there. And I went to this paper mill down in Vicksburg, Mississippi and the process control manager said, “You can’t touch my machine unless you tell me how these numbers work.” And I was like, “Oh, well here’s my binder.” I was given this binder, and we call it the golden binder. “Plug these numbers in, everything will work.” And he says, “No, you can’t touch my machine.”

And I knew I wanted to go home eventually. So, I went and started cramming and studying and trying to figure out how to answer, what’s a proportional gain, what’s an integral gain, what’s dead time? And so I was able to tell him that I knew what I was talking about. He let me set up his machine and it ran good and I could go home. And that was the spark really is like, “I wonder if anybody else is struggling with this?” And then as I was happened to move into instructing and teaching and people started asking questions about tuning, that’s when we were going from pneumatic and four to 20 milliamp current loops into the distributed control system. And so the controllers were no longer operating once a minute, they were operating every five seconds or every second.

So some of the maybe sloppy techniques that we had grown up with weren’t working. And those, I started teaching classes and then the students would say, “Hey Kevin, could you write this stuff down because we’re taking too many notes?” So each class I would write it down. And then Jim Flading once said, “Kevin, if you would just write this as a book, we would buy it. And then I had a boss at the time that let me take several months to compile the information and the Single Loop Control Methods, loop tuning book was born. It is kind of funny, is the first book we sent it to a wordsmith to have them edit it and it came back with so many corrections. Their question was, is English your native language? I still find that funny, because I can’t spell, I’m terrible at English. And yet I wrote a book. And that was 30 years ago and now this is the fourth edition that’s coming out.

And I would say I was fortunate, I had some extremely talented mentors that kind of took me by the hand and showed me some of the tuning and to tune by feel. And I was able to write that down and then help other people understand tuning from a much more practical perspective. The theory’s great, but it has to make sense. So I was able to work with hundreds if not thousands of people. And then as the controls took off and things grew, people sort just used auto tuners and oh, we don’t need tuning. And they moved to advanced process control and now people are coming back and saying, “Hey Kevin, all of our advanced controls sit on this thing called a control loop. Can you help us again?” And that was really, we said, “Well, let’s dust this thing off.” And it’s amazing once you hit the resonant of the theory of control tuning, it’s applied to every application, every industrial controller. It’s non platform dependent, it’s vendor agnostic. And that’s what’s helped me stay relevant and have such a long career.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So how would you describe the current sort of state of the industry?

Kevin Starr: I still work at ABB, and we’re constantly working with our customers. And I would say after we’ve all gone through this pandemic and hopefully are coming out of it, but what I would say we’ve seen beyond our wildest imagination was the remote work. Doors have just opened up for remote capability, remote access, being able to apply application of technology remotely. Loop tuning is one of those things that years ago customers were like, “You have to be sitting in front of my machine. If you’re going to do an evaluation or a step test, you have to be here.” That stigma has been removed and we’re doing remote tuning and commissioning from anywhere in the world.

And you couple that with the other change that the industrial revolution 4.0 has introduced is one person used to be able to know everything about the technology they were working on, that has passed. They say 2015 was about the point where the industrial revolution really started, and if you look at the amount of knowledge that a person has to have from loop tuning is one thing, but so is cyber security, so is IT and OT and alarm management. And the list goes on and on. And so what’s happening is people are only getting smaller and smaller pieces in an academic setting. So no one’s really an expert, but everybody’s supposed to know everything. So what we’re seeing is the state of the industry is our clients are saying, “Can we have a sliver of all these expertise? And we can’t have just one person, how do we do that?” And that’s where we’ve introduced the concept of the right person at the right time with the right solution drives the right value.

It’s kind of another spark along the way here is my son, who’s now, five or six years out of college. He took a class at a Ohio University on loop tuning. And he goes, “Dad, I can now talk to you.” And I said, “Okay, let me see what you’re doing.” And I’m like, “Oh my goodness, that’s all you’re learning?” And they showed me their videos and I said, “Well, your dad used to do this stuff.” And he goes, “Really?” So we got a videographer. And I said, “Get your camera, let’s go.” And we recorded every chapter as a YouTube video and primarily showed him how to pass his class. And that has exploded.

And people, your listeners can go to Kevin Starr ABB PID, search that in your YouTube and you’ll see, ABB allowed us to make those available to the industry for free. And one of them has over 400,000 views, which is kind of crazy is to see that that has really prompted part of the state of the industry is we’re a Google… If you can’t learn it through Google, it doesn’t matter. And so now people are finding this technology and finding how to do things and we’ve made it available. And then almost always people will read us, well I’d like to have a reference book. So they’ll send us a note and then they can get the book now through ABB.

Sarah Nicastro: Very cool. Okay. So let’s walk through some of the components that are covered in the book. So the first one is around process identification and modeling.

Kevin Starr: Yeah, it’s challenging. A lot of people get into loop tuning, they want to talk about Ziegler-Nichols or lambda control or direct synthesis or pole-zero placement and that goes kind of over people’s head. And then you say, Well, I have an ABB or an Allen Bradley or a Fisher or a Yokagawa or a controller. And then there’re different types. So people get kind of caught up in the math really, really quick. And I take it back to we start off with processes. Every input output, relationship, like if you go to steer your car and you turn a steering wheel and the car doesn’t turn, you don’t speed up, you stop.

And that’s the way it is with actuation devices. You have to inject energy or figure out some way of looking at historical data to find the causality between that input and how’s the process going to respond? Is it going to move really, really slow? You think of a like fire hose or a garden hose. You can’t adjust those the same. So there are techniques and methods that we cover for identifying process types and how you come up with numerical numbers to represent how much did it move and how long did it take to get there? So we really try to boil things down. This all goes into calculus and differential equations, but not in this first book. We just say, okay, these six or so different types of processes. Was yours self-regulating or non-self-regulating, and here’s how you would do an identification using current lump test techniques or historical data. And if you can’t identify what’s going to happen when you move the actuator, you’re not ready to go into the next levels of tuning.

Sarah Nicastro: And then you talk about the technology that’s being used.

Kevin Starr: Yeah, the technology is, we’d like to think that everybody has an ABB controller out there, but industry’s been out there for 35 years or longer than that. And so you have to be able to adapt the language to the type of control that’s being used. There’s actually three main branches. There’s parallel, classical, and standard. Those are the three classes of the mathematical formula, which is interesting. If you go clear back to the pneumatic controllers with sniffers and baffles, they literally developed software around physical components that they took into the digital world and there was three versions.

So, there’s the MOD systems, the Taylor MOD, the ABB, the Allen. Different companies have different embodiments, but if you understand that you can map your tuning into their language. That’s where a lot of people get messed up with tuning is they may have two different controllers and one is set up with a particular equation, one is step with another, and they put the same numbers in both. One explodes, one doesn’t. And there’s this stigma of process control that it’s black magic and you can’t understand it. We really try to demystify that with the book.

Sarah Nicastro: And so how are you helping people take the process identification and the modeling, understanding the language of the technology they’re using and then getting to the desired outcome?

Kevin Starr: Well, that’s great. It’s tuning a lot of people it’s a guess and check. Well, I’ll just throw some numbers in. And see that’s how I was brought up, just throw these numbers in, it’ll work. Well, no, that tune by feel, in the old days you could actually feel the knob and you could feel the system calm down. In today’s world electronics, you don’t have that feel so you have to rely on the numbers and the response. And the response is, do you want the response when you change the reference to happen fast or slow? Imagine when you get in your car, if it’s cold out and you want it to get hot, well you kind of have an idea of how the heater works. So normally you turn the heat way, way up and you’re trying to speed up how fast a car can heat up.

So you don’t just put the valve where it ends up, you go really fast and then you come back into it. The reason you can do that in your car is you understand the dynamics and you understand you’re doing it by hand. We can do the same thing with automation. We can make a process respond fast or slow. We can give it a percent overshoot. We can actually tune out a particular frequency. I guess that’s what I find fascinating about tuning. Once you understand that the control will respond to the way you tune it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, if you know what you’re doing, you can do incredible things with process control.

Sarah Nicastro: So, you mentioned when we were talking about the catalyst for the book, you had gone to college and when you got into the act of actually doing the work, you know realized there was sort of a gap between what you were taught and what you were expected to do. And so the content was geared at not only closing that gap for you, but for other people as well. So then when you talk about present day, it seems like the gap still exists, it’s just different than it was. So there’s still this need to sort of close this gap between the textbook learnings and the real world. It’s just the realities of that look a bit different. So you mentioned that in today’s workforce we know that people are stretched to find talent. You mentioned that there’s this desire for a little bit of all different types of expertise versus someone that’s an expert in one thing. What does this kind of lead to in terms of how we need to educate the workforce and provide training and knowledge and enablement that fits what companies have to accomplish today?

Kevin Starr: That’s great. That’s a lot there and I keep coming back to spheres of influence. There’s only so much one person can do. And you can chase rabbits if you’re not careful. And so I always try to boil it down to what’s the core value. I’ve had a chance to work in a lot of industries and so production quality, cost perdu, safety, transportation. You figure out what’s core. What are the turns in their factory that makes money? And then how can you take your knowledge and help leverage that goal? Instead of getting caught up in, well let’s use this dashboard or this tuning tool or this, whatever. Those change, but the cores don’t. And so how do you link to that?

And that’s what I found with this is that the tribal knowledge that we grew up with. A lot of people were fortunate enough to work in an industry for 20, 25 years. You kind of grew up with this. New people are coming in and they have a different paradigm. It’s like, why are you doing? And which is great, we want that, but we have to be able to adapt to that, to be able to bring information to a heads up display so they can be taking data, convert it to information that they can take action on that creates value. If you can’t do that link, then you just have a fancy dashboard or a treadmill that you hang your clothes on in your bedroom. It’s not really any good.

Don’t get sucked into technology for the sake of technology. How does it apply to taking action that creates value? And I know that’s a lot there, but as we’ve transitioned and our industry has grown and the technology has grown and the demands of the people have grown, we call it work-life balance, that’s been disrupted. It’s people are like, “When that phone rings, what do I have to do?” And when I walk into the building, there’s so much, how do I prioritize so that I can give the person the right things to do at the right time?

If, for example, loop tuning, when I first started to tune one, two loops, it’d take a couple days. And we figured out how to do 10 loops in a week and people paid us a lot of money for me to run around and tune 10 loops, 10 control loops like a flow or a pressure, a temperature, a level or machine speed or consistency, those types of things. And then all of a sudden technology kept growing and now we could do 100 loops. And then if you couldn’t do a hundred loops in a week, they wouldn’t buy it. And then now we’re up to two, 3000 loops and you need to do it instantly.

So the theory of control hasn’t changed, but it’s a little bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. If you have a brush, you can do it, but by the time you get finished you got to start over again. And how do you know? That’s the thing with control loops is there’s so many now and if you don’t figure out how to grab a hold of all of them to give you a heads up display, say, “Okay, these five are broke, go.” And then I can distill and still apply, I don’t want to take shortcuts on the theory and the tuning, but I can’t spend so much time diagnosing 5,000 control loops. I need them come to me and then apply the knowledge to that and then get the desired outcome that is important for my client.

Sarah Nicastro: So, when you think about the challenge to provide employees that have bits of expertise across areas versus a lot of expertise in one area, how do you see that sort of playing out?

Kevin Starr: I think that’s what the information age and the digital age and the industrial revolution that we’re in is, what we’re seeing is if you force everybody to know everything, then not everybody can know everything. And so then they always feel a little bit like, for example, we were sending a guy to go do a feed study and he was talking to the customer and said, “Okay, show me where this valve is.” And the customer says, “You’re sitting on it.” And the guy was really smart, but he didn’t know that particular item. And so then it made him look bad and he was embarrassed. And so it’s like, well you can’t know everything. I don’t know about… There’s a lot of stuff. So how do you get access? So that’s where the distribution of the workforce and the regional and kind of think of the Uber of service. You need to go someplace, if you have that app, they come and get you. It totally disrupted the cab industry.

That’s kind of where we’re at in the service space is, you had to send one person to know everything. Well, it made sense to me in the oil and gas sector where when an offshore oil rig had a problem and they called in for help, you just didn’t have 100,000 people that could go. You had a group of people and then the guy was like, “Well it could be this, this, or that. So let me grab a great big box of parts and hope that when I get to the site I’ve got the right one.” Well, that’s where I can still remember sitting with the customer saying, “This isn’t okay.” I need to be able to make sure that when that person comes to site, he’s equipped with what he needs. Or better yet if I can fix it without them even flying on the… Because that’s kind of a dangerous… Why put people in this danger when we can remotely bring them in.

So that’s what we are seeing back to the state of the industry is technology and remote is changing so that we can kind of self-adjust so that maybe you only need one or two advanced process control experts in your company. But you need 20 or 30 control guys and you need 30 or 40 cybers, but you don’t need them all in one place and you don’t need them all at the same time. So learning how to dispatch them and orient them based on the need and getting their access and their scheduling, that’s what we’re seeing is the big change that’s happening.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Now we talked a little bit about, you were mentioning when your son was taking that class and was showing you what he is up to and you’re saying, “Well, that’s it?” And just the need here of making sure we don’t overlook the core principles. That’s kind of what your book does in a way is make sure that people get the emphasis they need on what those core principles are. And you can update it so that it’s reflective of present day, but the underlying principles stay the same. It just makes me think there’s probably other areas of service and manufacturing and the things that we talk about here often where that’s applicable. Are we trying to do all things and overlooking some of the core elements? I mean, can you think of any other areas where that idea is applicable?

Kevin Starr: Oh yeah. I mean, I’ve been fortunate as to apply the concepts of process control. Once I started putting the inputs and outputs and realizing that once you can compare those, then you can put a control loop. A control loop is simply a device that takes action based upon an input, That’s what’s special about a PID. It literally makes a decision and makes… Most everything is a diagnostic tool. Control loops convert it into action and that’s why it’s also scary for a lot of people. If you set up the wrong things and that actuator starts moving and your machine breaks down, then that’s kind of scary. But I’ve been able to apply this.

One example is I was, in one of my positions, I was the software development manager for the global software development. And I started seeing the relationship between developers and throughput and I use the book here and the tuning for a tank to tune the backlog based on the capacity of my teams. And I was like, holy smokes, this stuff applies everywhere. You don’t have to guess. So I was able to use these methods and apply them to the extended agile scrum team backlog and prioritization, which people are like, “Oh really?” Oh yeah, it worked. And I’ve seen that with even down to like this, this podcast. You’ll see if you get a million views, you’ll probably have me on sooner than later. If you get 10, this is probably my last view. But so we all take inputs and take action. That’s a control function and that can be optimized. And that’s what I find fascinating still is the optimization of all these processes.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. No, I agree. Now if you think about, you mentioned the YouTube videos you created and how much traction you’ve seen there. So, you started 30 years ago with writing this book, you had the opportunity to more recently create those videos and relay the content of the chapters there. It just makes me think people learn in different ways. So when we think about empowering our teams with knowledge, what are some of the things we need to have in mind about how best we do that today?

Kevin Starr: I suppose in summary is to assume that everyone learns the same way is the biggest mistake. Is to allow people to learn how they learn because the information and turning it into action is so important. And I guess that’s where people need to recognize is, there are different ways, whether it’s video or text or remote or in person or mentoring or apprenticeship. What we’re doing in industrial and industrial control is important, and the safety of our people are at the utmost. But driving our clients to improve production quality, and cost produce, sits on the back of knowledge. And that knowledge is something that leaves when people leave. We need to figure out how to capture that, and training and capture is one of the ways we can do it.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think, you spoke earlier Kevin, about how technology has allowed organizations to do so much of this work remotely. That also goes for sharing knowledge. You don’t have to have access to experts that are in person, you can have access to them remotely. So, there’s a lot of different ways teams can collaborate and have that over the shoulder reassurance that you mentioned without that needing to be a physical presence. So, I think that’s a good point.

Okay. So, I’ve certainly learned a lot so far today. Any other insights, comments, or lessons learned that you would like to share with our listeners?

Kevin Starr: Oh, I suppose, one of the lessons learned, I suppose it’s somewhat of a personal journey. In my quest to help solve industrial problems around the world, I had let the biggest industry kind of go on back burner, which was me and my health. And my doctor said, “Look, if you don’t turn things around, you’re going to have a stroke or a heart attack.” And that was when I turned 50. And so, I was like, “Oh my.”

And I said, “I go around using these techniques of troubleshooting and fixing industrial processes. I wonder if I can apply these skills to me?” And so, I did. I started recording the data, I found what inputs were outputs, I tracked everything down, and I went to my doctor and got physicals and asked for advice and applying it to myself, basically doing the bump test, identifying my process type.

And all of a sudden, I started losing weight and people started asking me questions. And then I started sharing the information. I said, “I’ve been on this journey before when I wrote the control book, so I wonder if I could take this experience and write a book?” And I did. I just released it called Tuned Fit an Engineer’s Journey into Health and Fitness. I lost 50 pounds and became a master’s athlete, and I never would’ve dreamed these possible. And I credit it to this book and going back 30 years ago and putting that together. So, it’s been amazing, is what you allow yourself to learn and then to put it into action. And that book’s on Amazon if anyone’s interested, you go to Amazon, and type Tuned Fit.

Sarah Nicastro: Well, congratulations, Kevin. That’s awesome. I think it is interesting how sometimes what we can put to work in our professional lives, how it can be mirrored in our personal lives. I wrote an article not too long ago about everyone wants the transformation, but are you willing to change? And the idea of how that applies both to organizations, but also to us as individuals. I know I shared with you, so I turned 40 in March and at the beginning of this year I realized I had put on some Covid weight. And so, I’ve lost probably 35 or so pounds since the beginning of the year. And it is very much just, are you putting the focus in that you need to? Are you paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, and making adjustments and all of that stuff? So yeah, there is definitely some parallels there. And I think it’s really cool that you benefited from the hard work you’ve done and sharing your knowledge with others in a very personal way as well. So good for you.

Kevin Starr: And congratulations to you as well, that’s a lot. But if your why isn’t big enough to overcome your reasons, then you never change. And I think back to the industry stuff, I’m so fortunate to have written a book that has lasted this long, and people are asking for it again. But the pandemic, the growth of an industrial automation, people are recognizing the core values and the core components and knowledge and training and application, they’re all kind of new again. And so, this continuum, I was fortunate to touch it at the beginning with some great mentors. I feel like the flag was carried and now we have stuff for the next generation to take with them. So, technology is exciting, and knowledge is something we should never stop trying to gain.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, for sure. All right, Kevin, well thank you so much for coming and sharing with me. I appreciate it. If anyone is interested in checking out Kevin’s books, you can reach out to him on LinkedIn. So last name is Starr with two Rs. And you can look him up on LinkedIn, send him a message, and he’ll point you in the right direction for either of the books. So, thanks so much for coming on again and spending some more time with me.

Kevin Starr: Oh, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure. Appreciate it.

Sarah Nicastro: All right. You can also find more by visiting us at future of field service.com. You can find us on LinkedIn as well as Twitter @theFutureofFS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more at ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.