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Factory Controllers: Hargrove Engineers + Constructors

“Our people must be educated not just in computers and engineering but in the customer’s plant... Engineering school doesn’t teach you how to swing from a rope to land on an oil rig." — Matt Burton

Matt Burton, corporate director of automation technology, with panels just fabricated in Hargrove’s shop.

Matt Burton, corporate director of automation technology, with panels just fabricated in Hargrove’s shop.

Most Royal Street pedestrians are oblivious to the workings underneath the road. But in the subterranean basement of Hargrove Engineers + Constructors is an underground fortress contributing to 10-12 percent of the company’s business: Controls + Automation (C&A).

Hargrove’s approach to C&A ranges from some to all, neophyte to Star Wars. Services cover industrially autonomous baby steps to full-scale implementation. Startups configuration, retrofitting, integration, migration of existing systems and more are part of the company’s portfolio. Controls + Automation is a good place to be.

In the 1990s, automation control was introduced to plants in $60,000-plus panels. Today it is replaced with $5,000 PCs and very complex software. “The emphasis is not just on software but its versatility and how it can be shared,” says Hargrove’s Matt Burton, corporate director of automation technology. “And that is a game changer.”

Hargrove joined the C&A movement in 2013. The Mobile-based engineering company’s approach is the same as the company’s motto — “One team.” The engineering firm is a one-stop shop for all things automated.

Company technicians make the panels — taller than your kitchen cabinets — housing the electronic nerve centers. Programmers write computer code allowing meaningful conversations between operators, maintenance workers and chemical reactors. They also install, test firewalls, and troubleshoot the system.

“There is no one school of training for this job,” says Burton. “Our people must be educated not just in computers and engineering but in the customer’s plant, factory, refinery, anywhere we are working, offsite or on. Engineering school doesn’t teach you how to swing from a rope to land on an oil rig.”

The chemical industry, oil and gas, and pulp and paper are currently primary clients. Most work is engineered in the U.S. in Mobile and other Hargrove locations, for domestic and overseas customers. “We do all of the work and provide a single customer contact,” says Burton.

The company’s areas of expertise include distributive control systems (DCS), graphics and programming, robotics, testing and validation, EPA daily reporting, custom application development, SAP/plant information integration, cyber security, domain servers, wireless networking and LAN/WAN design and implementation.

Hargrove has a saying regarding Controls + Automation: “Nothing stands alone.” And that has leveled the playing field. Back in the day, DCS was the domain of operators. Huge wads of information were collected but only the tip of the iceberg was utilized. The distributive function of DCS was under achieved. Not anymore.

Sensors are added to field equipment. Live data feeds transmit to operators, engineers, maintenance supervisors, plant managers or any other designate. Burton notes, “Control automation has many more advanced functions now, especially in batch plant operations. Each step is automatic.”

For example, a chemical plant system may be programmed to make 10 batches of product today. The operator starts the process, monitors the progress and responds as needed. Meanwhile, automated controls at predetermined programmed intervals add raw materials, mix, heat, cool and package product like an episode on the Food Network.

As the process runs, DCS-enabled critical equipment is ever monitoring, ever reporting, ever relaying information about itself. Receiving data from the field enables those responsible to make operating decisions based from reliable sources — the equipment said so. It is in the realm of possibility for a supervisor, in the plant or another country, to say, “Excuse me, I need to read this email. It’s a message from one of our pumps.”

Burton notes, “Sensor history builds a health profile and reports a piece of equipment’s operational state.” The data provides answers to questions it also raises — Am I starting to degrade? Vibrations increasing? Maybe we should take down the unit for repairs?

He adds, “It’s usually much less costly performing preventative maintenance than waiting for something to break.” But it is also important to note control automation requires a human touch.

“Operators are still needed,” says Burton. “DCS does much of the work, but the operator ensures it does and responds to alarms when something goes wrong.” In fact, operators will do more.

ABOVE Burton and Karen Griffin inspect automation panels.
 

When factories were more of a manual operation, each process had a team, control room and workers. But that was so 1990. With automation, a single operator can manage several processes simultaneously. Plants will staff their entire field operation in a single control room.

In addition to making operations more efficient, it’s safer. Operators no longer have to be embedded in the process, sitting in a control room surrounded by massive chemical tanks. As robotic values and pumps perform much of the work under jurisdiction of a computer, the operator can be safely out of a potential blast zone or cloud release.

But there are challenges, not so much in automation but finding time to do it. As Burton explains, “Plants don’t shut down for computer upgrades. Usually you wait until it shuts down for something else.”

But even then you have an extreme time window to perform specific work and get back online. Hargrove, nor any other vendor, wants to be the contractor explaining to a plant manager why they delayed a startup. “We have a 99.9 percent uptime for our systems,” says Burton. “It is vital.”

Hargrove expects the C&A business to explode in growth. To accommodate that new business, the company is expanding its Royal Street facility to a 23,500-square-foot complex at 208 Government Street, at the mouth of the Bankhead Tunnel. The former WALA TV broadcasting building will start Hargrove with 19,000 square feet of space, leaving 4,500 for potential lease — and not a moment too soon.

“Our new facility will enable us to build high-technology control panels that will ship all over the world,” says Amy Driskell, Hargrove marketing leader. “It will bring operators and leadership from Fortune 500 companies to downtown Mobile to hold factory acceptance testing of their control systems upgrades.”

It is where the future is applied to today’s manufacturing.

In addition — and imperative for downtown — the new facility will have one of the largest balconies in Mobile, overlooking the epicenter of Mardi Gras parades.

From monolith mainframes to personal computers, mountains of data to text messages on iPhones, and Royal Street to Government Street and beyond, Controls + Automation has come a long way.

So has Hargrove.

“DCS has so much more capability now than when it began,” notes Burton.

“There were few players in C&A when it first came on the scene in the early 1990s. The Controls & Automation business was dominated by a select few.” Burton notes, “With technology, eventually everybody else catches up.”

Emmett Burnett is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma.

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