Something to crow about

You couldn't say BASK Control Systems has a typical office setting. For a start, there are hens running around on a nearby lawn, and you're more likely to hear birds singing than city traffic. The unlikely setting is in the country at Pukekohe, near Auckland, where BASK director John Baker developed software called SoftTune, a training kit for process control in industrial plants. He explains the principle behind SoftTune by comparing it to a car that isn't tuned properly. It'll use too much fuel, and will cost you money.

You couldn’t say BASK Control Systems has a typical office setting.

For a start, there are hens running around on a nearby lawn, and you’re more likely to hear birds singing than city traffic.

The unlikely setting is in the country at Pukekohe, near Auckland, where BASK director John Baker developed software called SoftTune, a training kit for process control in industrial plants.

He explains the principle behind SoftTune by comparing it to a car that isn’t tuned properly. It’ll use too much fuel, and will cost you money.

Baker says a similar concept applies to tuning process controls in plants, but it’s overlooked.

“Any improvement you can make with an existing process, through tuning the process itself, directly correlates to the profits of that company.” Process control is all about managing control loops — which regulate things such as flow, liquid pressure, levels, gas pressure, temperature or vapour pressure in plants. When such loops are tuned properly, the process is optimised, and it can save plants money. For example, in dairy industry plants, various ingredients are blended together to make a specific standardised product — if the process isn’t tuned properly, then the process gets out of specification.

“When a firm’s control system is installed, it often never gets optimised and tuned up. There’s a lack of knowledge in most industries of how to tune loops properly.”

SoftTune is aimed at process operating staff in plants, maintenance staff, technical officers, design engineers and production managers.

It’s suitable for any process manufacturing plants.

Baker set up Bask Control in 1987, trouble-shooting and optimising industrial control plants. He says it soon became apparent there was a need for training operators. He started off by training operators at one company, and it “snowballed” from there.

“The thing that came to the fore the most was questions like ‘How can we optimise our processes?’ ‘We don’t know how to tune the loops properly’.”

Baker built a simulator which followed the various processes which occur in a plant, but it wouldn’t do everything he wanted.

“So I started to look for a software package that I could use to train people and there was nothing on the market, so I decided to develop my own.”

Using a graphical software programming language he set about designing control loops. The entire process took about 18 months.

Although it was originally designed to use on his courses, he soon realised it could also be a standalone product, for people to train themselves at their own pace.

He set up 10 loops, starting with the most basic ones of flow control and liquid pressure control, and moving up to more complicated ones.

The SoftTune package teaches people how to analyse the processes in their plant. They can enter their plant’s settings into SoftTune — or use SoftTune’s default settings — and practice making adjustments on a range of loops off-line, without affecting production, or “blowing the plant up”. SoftTune will simulate what happens in the plant.

“They might not get it right the first time. There is a learning curve to tuning plants. The best learning comes with experience.”

Fellow director Susan Askew says if people have to develop tuning skills actually using a plant (rather than off-line as with SoftTune) they have to be very careful because it can be dangerous.

“Some of these plants are worth tens of millions of dollars and if they make a major mistake, then it costs.”

SoftTune runs with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, and costs $1995 ex GST.

BASK launched the software just over a month ago and has already had two sales in the dairy industry — one in Australia and one in New Zealand. Baker doesn’t wish to name the companies yet.

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