“There is no shortcut to experience,” says Trident Automation CEO Yogesh Maheshwari. In a job where the need to adapt and problem solve is a constant reality,

Yogesh Maheshwari, CEO

Trident Automation’s engineers have built up experience to handle the complex challenges of installing and maintaining ethanol plant distributed control systems (DCS) over the past 22 years. Trident was founded in the early 2000s to facilitate the needs of the burgeoning—and increasingly automated—ethanol industry, installing DCS in plants alongside the well-known designers and builders of today’s ethanol biorefineries—ICM, Fagen and others. The three original owners of Trident implemented automation in ethanol plants across the Midwest, from Wisconsin to Nebraska. Today, the company has grown from three employees to 45 and continues to innovate, finding new ways to help ethanol producers leverage plant data and solve problems.

The Brain of the Plant
The DCS is the brain of an ethanol plant, controlling every aspect of operations, from instrumentation to valves. Trident has more than 20 engineers on staff that handle DCS installations and maintenance. The four primary DCS manufacturers are Siemens, Rockwell, Foxboro and Emerson. Trident has active partnership agreements with Rockwell and Siemens and also does maintenance for plants that have Emerson and Foxboro platforms.

“We have 100-plus active ethanol customers that we work with quite a bit, both remotely and on site,” Maheshwari says, explaining that biorefineries need frequent DCS support, which Trident typically handles remotely by logging into a client’s system. The work ranges from simple changes—additions, deletions and the like—to 40-hour, large-scale projects.

Matt Dutka is the plant manager of Golden Grain Energy, one of the ethanol producers that Trident services. He describes what automation contributes to plant operations and the value that advanced DCS technology has brought to ethanol production. Automating a majority of the production process allows one highly skilled person to run most of the plant rather than relying on several operators with varying levels of experience. “If you’re that skilled person, I can let you operate a larger piece of the plant, knowing, as the plant manager, that I’ve got the right person running the facility,” Dutka says. “Now, if I don’t have that technology, and all of a sudden [one operator] can’t control as big a piece of the pie, I’m going to [need] more people and [won’t] necessarily … have all the personnel with the same skill set.”

A few years ago, Golden Grain Energy’s DCS platform was phased out by Siemens, meaning that, without a change, the plant would have risked operating on a system that was no longer fully supported. Plant management decided to upgrade to a Siemens PCS 7 platform, opting for a multi-year incorporation of the system. “Trident did all that work,” Dutka says. “We elected to piecemeal [the system’s] three major components, and we did one per year because it was less invasive for us to do it that way, and it spread out our costs.”

Sticking with the same DCS vendor also helped reduce the expense of the upgrade, Dutka explains. Because Golden Grain stayed with a Siemens platform, the plant didn’t need to replace integrated system components. “We were happy with what we had,” he says. “It just came to [the point where], ‘Hey, you’ve got to upgrade it.’” The upgrade has made the system more operator friendly, faster at pulling data and easier to troubleshoot.

Ultimately, DCS platforms are a vital part of any ethanol plant’s infrastructure, but the degree of automation a producer uses varies depending on the facility. Jeff Meneau, a controls engineer with Trident, says some plants still rely partially on manual control while others prefer very high-level automation, including every aspect of fermentation. “Obviously, it’s an investment to automate, but the good thing about automating repetitive tasks and [functions is that things are] done the same way every time, and it’s very consistent,” he says. “Especially when, in fermentation, … you’re trying to get your chemicals and your antibiotics and [the whole process carried out precisely].”

DCS Installation 

Trident’s engineers are experienced in software support and installations of new DCS systems, both of which are time-sensitive tasks. “Downtime is associated with replacing a DCS, and anytime a plant is down, you’re up against time to bring it back up,” Maheshwari says. “And this is a pretty large endeavor where you go in and rewire the entire plant in a matter of five to six days, so there’s a lot of planning that goes into it; and we have done DCS replacements—from [system shutdown to back] up and running—within about five days.”

Meneau describes the process Trident uses to install a new DCS at an ethanol plant. The process begins with an initial trip to the plant, in which Trident engineers assess the state of the existing system and map out where certain elements of the process are located. With that onsite knowledge, the engineers design a plan for executing the new system before writing the code, which is mostly a rewrite, Meneau explains. Trident uses “base blocks” to code for motors and other necessary plant functions. All of the auto-logic and interlocks—equipment safety shutoffs—are rewritten because newer control systems have more tools to do the same tasks.

“We take pride in trying to figure out what the code was doing by working with the customer. And because we may have a better solution and a bigger toolbox with a new DCS, we can make a better product in the end. That does take a little more time and money,” Meneau says. “But we all feel that it’s better in the long run than just copying what was there before.”

Prior to Trident’s on-site arrival to start an installation, the company uses simulation software to check safety features and make sure the software is working correctly. The engineers will also visit the plant to label wires and terminations in preparation for a migration. Once that’s complete, they return to the plant to begin carrying out the DCS replacement; they shut down the system and remove the existing hardware before commencing with the install, Meneau says. After the new system is in place, Trident’s team does a site acceptance check to verify that everything is complete and operating as designed.

Developing Experience
The training process to become a team member with Trident takes roughly 12 to 18 months, or the requisite amount of time to equip new recruits with the tools and experience needed to assist producers 24/7. “It’s a very long life cycle, but you have to invest the time,” Maheshwari says. One strategy Trident uses to make the team more effective is standardizing code amongst its software engineers to make it easier for staff to support plants that are having issues with their systems. “We work with more than a hundred plants,” he says, explaining that DCS code writing styles vary from company to company and person to person. “But in the middle of the night, if I’m troubleshooting your code, that is not good. Or if you’re troubleshooting my code, that’s not good either.” The code will not be identical, but Trident has its engineers standardize their practices to the point that their work is 80% to 90% similar, no matter which engineer creates it.

Depending on the experience level of a new engineer, they will spend a month or two familiarizing themselves with Trident’s coding style. They will then spend time shadowing a more experienced engineer, part of the training triage team, while responding to support requests throughout the day. “As these day-to-day small requests come in, a new person will rely on key senior engineers for mentoring; they’ll shadow them to gain exposure to the trade and learn how to approach various situations,” Maheshwari explains. Trident uses a “mentoring room” with two 75-inch screens that allow the senior engineer and new engineer to see what the other is doing, trading control back and forth.

Growing into the role, a new team member will join a project group, working their way up from small projects to large ones, eventually becoming a support engineer. In time, they may even mentor incoming employees. Working out a process to train new engineers has been a challenge, but Maheshwari says the process has improved, and new engineers are able to become productive more quickly under the current training system.

Elements of Innovation
Over the years, Trident has coupled its experience with innovations in DCS technology to meet the needs of its clients. One challenge the company has helped its customers address more efficiently is data management. A typical ethanol plant has 1,500 to 3,000 input and output (IO) data points, and the DCS records data from each one every few seconds, explains Maheshwari. These IO points need to be tracked and logged in the system’s historian for regulatory compliance. However, in order for ethanol producers to utilize the data, the information needs to be condensed and conceptualized into a readable format.

To do this, Trident created Trident Workbench, a solution for ethanol producers to easily view and interpret their data. Maheshwari explains that Trident Workbench helps producers aggregate, conceptualize and visualize process data to assist them in decision making. Producers give Trident guidance on which key performance indices they need brought into focus from the vast amount of data the system processes. “Everybody has different ways of looking at the same data, so we work with them; they are the subject matter experts at their plant,” Maheshwari says. “They tell us what data they want to see, and in what format.”

Through Workbench, producers can track data points on things such as corn use, natural gas consumption and the volume of ethanol being produced. “Sometimes a little variation in their overhead of, say, natural gas usage, [can be better controlled]. If they can optimize or reduce the consumption of natural gas just slightly—even a small percentage—and derive some efficiencies, then it goes to their bottom line,” Maheshwari says.

Jeff Meneau, Controls Engineer II

Trident has also developed an algorithm called SievePAC that helps producers more efficiently operate their molecular sieves. “The operation of the sieves, or dehydration units, is simple, but every plant does it differently based on their process piping and [design],” says Maheshwari. The algorithm is layered “on top of the DCS” and gives plant operators flexibility to change parameters within the sieve, allowing them to run it more efficiently and manipulate its operation. “That was also developed based on producer needs. They were struggling. As we were bringing these plants up, they were having a hard time consistently running [their molecular sieves],” he says. “So we jumped in and said, ‘How can we help?’ We devised it, and over the course of the last 15 to 20 years, we have [improved] it over and over again. We have also created newer add-ons to it … based on the needs of different customers. 

Ultimately, helping producers optimize operations and solve problems is a rewarding job, agree Maheshwari and Meneau. The fulfilling part of automation engineering for Meneau is the satisfaction of completing a job. “We get to do drawings and panel design [tied to] the code work, and we even assist the electricians in wiring on the installs, so you actually get to see the whole thing from start to finish on installation,” Meneau says. “It’s kind of cool, and a pretty good feeling when it’s all said and done.”

For Maheshwari, it comes down to loving the job. “We really enjoy what we do,” he says. “At the end of the day, it gives you a sense of satisfaction, you know, like I’m driving down the freeway and I see an ethanol plant with my family, and I’m like, ‘You know, I’ve been to that one. The brain [of that plant] was programmed by us.’ It’s a good moment. You feel accomplished; you feel good about yourself because you know you’ve made a difference.”

Publication: Ethanol Producer Magazine
Katie Schroeder
Contact: [email protected]