Astec IT Solutions relocates to accommodate expanding workforce

Astec IT Solutions relocates to accommodate expanding workforce

In January 2019 Astec IT Solutions relocated from their premises within the Venture Point business centre in Rugeley, Staffordshire, to Edric House on Towers Plaza which offers over 5000 square feet of dedicated office space to support their growth plans over the next few years.

Over the last 12 months, Astec have expanded their workforce, meaning more space was required to accommodate new staff. The new building will comfortably accommodate 50 employees and has been configured to support a dynamic, agile business with open plan meeting space and numerous, dedicated meeting rooms. Directors Andy Tripp and Chris Barlow have further plans to take on even more staff over the next few years, creating vital jobs in the Rugeley area.

As a company that highly values its employees, Astec ensured minimum impact to existing staff by relocating to premises just 200m away from the previous office. Managing Director Andy Tripp said “The new site symbolises the next stage in the development of Astec. We want the new premises to create a dynamic and inspiring working environment for current employees as well as new recruits.”

Founded in 2000, Astec IT Solutions provide software solutions to a wide range of industries from Food & Beverage Manufacturing to Broadcasting and Utilities. Key software partners include GE Digital, Novotek and PTC, and the company regularly works on projects for Molson Coors, Sky and South Staffs Water.

 

Case Study – Huntsman Advanced Materials

Huntsman Advanced Materials is a leading global chemical solutions provider, specialising in epoxy, acrylic and polyurethane-based polymer products. Astec’s initial project for Huntsman took place during 2017, and focused on updating the system infrastructure at their Duxford facility.

The site occupies 150 acres and employs 140 people across the spectrum of production, quality, engineering, warehousing, logistics and technical roles. Its research, testing, manufacturing, filling, warehousing and support functions benefit from automated processes and new technologies.

Existing hardware, systems, software licences and system performance were audited by Astec, and a series of recommendations for improvement were put forward, with future supportability as a key area of focus. Several improvement possibilities regarding the SCADA systems, network topology and replacement of obsolete parts were highlighted. The SCADA system used an in-built iFIX security facility which provided usernames and passwords for the system but did not enforce password complexity rules or expiry periods. System users regularly left themselves logged in to operator terminals when they vacated their work areas, which posed a security threat where unauthorised personnel could effectively control the production equipment.

Project 1: Active Directory

Following recommendations from Astec and an internal security audit, Huntsman initiated the Active Directory project. Active Directory is a Microsoft product that consists of several services that run on Windows to manage permissions and access to networked resources. The main objective was to improve the level of control over operator access to vessels.

The initial phase was to configure a staging system. This was carried out off-site at the Astec offices, and provided an accurate representation of the real system so general operation and ‘look & feel’ could be observed.

In addition to rigorous unit and system testing, Astec conducted acceptance test campaigns at the start and end of system delivery to ensure Huntsman’s parameters were met. The new physical servers and the completed Active Directory were then installed. The domain controllers were configured as VMware guest machines, hosted by two new VMware host hypervisors. This introduced a virtual architecture and provided a foundation for future virtualisation of the software infrastructure. It also provided a level of abstraction between the hardware and software layers, mitigating future risk of operating system obsolescence and significantly reducing the time required to replace server hardware.

Once the two domain controllers (for redundancy) had been introduced, an Active Directory Domain was implemented in two of the production areas. Astec investigated the existing network architecture in detail, and then designed the Active Directory Domain architecture. The system design included the security model; security groups, group membership, password complexity rules and SCADA integration.

By implementing a Windows Active Directory domain for the control system network, the old in-built security model was discontinued and changed to a domain security model. Operators must now log in to the system with a Windows username and password that is subject to password complexity, expiry and retention rules. This overcame previous concerns for system security, and provided a foundation for more formal procedures. The new IT-centric system architecture is now capable of meeting Huntsman’s current and future needs.

Support

The Engineering team at Huntsman already had an existing support service in place with another provider, but were looking for more flexibility. Astec were able to design a tailored support package to meet their needs, and provided a guaranteed cost of support. The 3 year SLA agreement includes access to the Astec support helpdesk during standard operating hours and out of hours, with query acknowledgement within a 2-hour timeframe and investigation within 4 hours.

Project 2: Historian & Alarm Management

Work began for the second, most recent project in June 2018. An existing physical server would be reprovisioned to house a Historian and a guest server would be configured as a new Microsoft SQL instance, for the new Alarm Management solution. The Historian archives process data from the existing SCADA, and provides additional data for the Alarm Management reports. Astec virtualised the existing physical server using VMware ESXi as the hypervisor, with the new guest server hosted on the physical server. Huntsman provided their KPI data so it could be used to produce useful visual representations for a ‘helicopter view’ of their operations.

Astec’s Alarm Management Reports consolidate data from alarms and events captured in the SQL database. The standard reports with configurable filters for date/time, type, operator, area, etc. include: –
• Top 10 alarms by frequency
• Top 10 alarms by duration
• Alarm Summary by area
• System Audit Trail

A new report was created to provide a key alarm information from the production system, and conform to the EEMUA 191 guidelines. KPIs for this report included: –
• Average alarm rate
• Peak alarm rate
• Number of standing alarms
• % of alarms of each priority
• Priority distribution

The new report’s drill down structure with additional hyperlinks provided users with access to more insights, such as alarm priority counts, tag descriptions and top 10 most common alarms. On completion of the report design work, the existing Webspace and Reporting Server was configured to enable access to reports from outside the Huntsman Production LAN.

The SQL Server databases that held the alarm and event information were configured to automatically purge old data. This limits the indefinite expansion of the database tables so the database is kept from growing to an unmanageable size. The SQL Server makes automatic daily backups of each of the databases used for capturing alarms and events. A rolling 7-day backup ensures that the database can be fully restored in the event of system failure or data loss.

Installation of the Historian was completed over a 3-month period including design, development, testing, installation and commissioning. The commissioning was completed following the installation within a 4-day period. The new servers can house existing and future servers and clients in virtual machines, cutting down on storage space and hardware maintenance costs. The Historian now logs a comprehensive number of signals so the client is able to carry out targeted investigations into incidents and quality issues, using accurate and reliable data. The Alarm Management Dashboard enables more effective interpretation of KPI data, and a range of automated reports deliver multiple benefits around efficiency of operations.

The project was delivered within budget and agreed timescales, with only minor teething problems with the reverse proxy. Astec provided regular weekly updates to the client during the project via email reports and was delighted to receive positive feedback from Huntsman’s lead Electrical & Automation Engineer on the project, Carlos Cardoso.

“We were very satisfied with the outcome of our information technology project with Astec. Their team responded well to the challenges we were facing, particularly those involving licensing delays. Overall, documentation of the project was of a very high standard and we would not hesitate to recommend Astec as a software partner for future projects.”

Case Study – Lewmar: it’s not all about greenfield

The company’s Portsmouth-based manufacturing facility contacted Astec last month to update their legacy SCADA system to the latest version of GE’s iFIX.

Lewmar is a world leader in quality deck hardware and marine equipment for sail and powerboats, with products ranging from pulleys to winches and hatch seals. Their SCADA system is used to oversee specialist production machinery, including an impressive glass forming machine. The machine is designed to produce large curved sheets of toughened glass for high-end craft, and has proven to be an important asset, enabling Lewmar to supply high value glass parts as part of their product portfolio. Although the machine is only in use infrequently due to its high value-low volume demand, mechanical or system failures would force the need for outsourcing. This would have a dramatic impact on the profit margin on this particular product portfolio.

The SCADA system (being used as an HMI and parameter recipe system) was running on old computer hardware with an outdated Operating System and obsolete versions of the SCADA software. A failure of one component rendered the HMI and the machine inoperable, but due to the age of the hardware and software, no quick fix was available.

Within 2 weeks from order placement, Astec was able to:
• Review and understand the Italian-designed system
• Procure the relevant computer hardware and SCADA software
• Migrate the customer application to the latest versions of software
• Successfully install and commission onsite

Astec MD Andy Tripp comments,

The work we have recently completed for Lewmar is another great example of how we can provide fast turnaround solutions for customers needing upgrades or enhancements. While it is always going to be desirable for any System Integrator to work on new systems, a significant proportion of Astec’s revenue comes from maintaining legacy assets – and ensuring our customers meet their customer’s demands! We appreciate manufacturers need agile solutions that meet their immediate need. Our domain expertise and knowledge means customers can stay operational, make use of their existing infrastructure and benefit from a greater return on their original investment.

About

Astec’s enterprise-wide, smart manufacturing solutions provide invaluable operational insights, enabling customers to remain agile and competitive through increased capacity, improved quality and reduced operating costs. As widespread adoption of Industrial IoT intensifies, Astec remains at the forefront of change, using the latest automation and analytics technology to digitally transform production processes, factories and plants.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Europe awards Astec Control System upgrade at Saltend Power Station

Astec has been awarded a contract to update the legacy GE FIX32 SCADA system for three Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems gas turbines at Triton Power’s cogeneration plant in Saltend, Hull.

The power station produces up to 1200 MW of electricity and 240 tonnes per hour of steam to Saltend Chemicals Park and the UK power market, so in the event of critical system failure the financial impact of lost revenue and unscheduled engineering support can escalate quickly. To mitigate the problem of an aged and increasingly unsupportable turbine control system, Triton Power and on-site contractor Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Europe (MHPS) initiated an upgrade project. MHPS holds primary responsibility for turbine maintenance, general engineering work and supporting the control system and associated hardware. With an impressive track record of successful GE software migrations, Astec were engaged by Triton Power to carry out a preliminary feasibility study. The aim of the study was to understand the best route for an upgrade that would allow the control system to communicate with the legacy turbine controllers. This involved in-depth investigation and close collaboration with Triton to find the most effective solution and system architecture.

Astec Team Leader Stephen comments,

“One of the main challenges so far has been to identify a viable solution for communicating with the turbine controllers while maintaining the existing communications infrastructure. We wanted to ensure the longevity of the system without an extensive ‘rip and replace’ approach which would have introduced an unacceptable level of risk. As an outcome from these investigations, we have found a solution which meets all of the project objectives and will provide Triton with an up to date control system.”

The feasibility study highlighted the challenges around obsolete drivers and comprehensively investigated alternatives. It was concluded migrating the old GE FIX32 software to the latest iFIX version carried the least risk. Having already demonstrated a high level of competence, Astec was selected as preferred supplier to deliver the migration.

To date, Astec has compiled the initial Project Plan and produces weekly reports to identify and communicate the issues, risk, dependencies and successes. A customer collaboration portal has also been set up by Astec for document sharing and regular conference calls are held to review progress and provide a forum for sharing ideas and findings.

Astec Technical Director Chris Barlow says,

“This project is a great example of Astec’s ability to forge strong customer-supplier relationships, as there is shared responsibility for effective communication and project development. Being selected to deliver the control system migration phase reflects the high standard of our engineers’ work, and we look forward to providing a secure and fully supportable system that Triton Power and MHPS can rely on in the future.”

A number of key individuals from each company are involved in project delivery, in various roles to ensure success and quality. The project is currently in progress up to design approval stage, with the key milestones being met within agreed timescales. With completion of Factory Acceptance Tests (FATs), commissioning and installation planned before the end of 2018, the system has already become more consolidated, greatly improving its maintainability and extendibility.

Read more on Process Control and SCADA solutions from Astec, or contact us.

Astec forms strategic partnership with global software company PTC to improve customers’ operational performance

Astec have announced a new partnership with leading technology provider PTC to complement their Smart Manufacturing Solutions portfolio.

As part of a wider goal to provide additional value to Astec and PTC’s respective and mutual customers, Astec has recently completed a reseller agreement with PTC which entitles Astec to supply PTC SaaS products. This includes PTC’s flagship IoT solution ThingWorx, which delivers market-leading Augmented Reality capabilities to industrial organisations.

As part of the GE Alliance ecosystem and UK Premier Solution Partner for GE Digital, key strategic partnerships continue to be a significant driving force in Astec’s roadmap for future growth. Leading the way in physical and digital convergence, Astec implements software solutions for partners such as Microsoft, Novotek and Ideal Systems. The PTC-GE Digital partnership was formed in 2015 to pursue a ‘ThingWorx for Predix’ technology suite, designed to facilitate custom applications for the Industrial Internet. ThingWorx offers practical ease using drag-and–drop style development, allowing customers to leverage the powerful platform capabilities of Predix and run analytics at scale.

“We are delighted to be formalising our alliance with PTC for 2018. The new partnership is an integral part of our IoT strategy and supports our growth plans, bringing a new dimension to the business,” said Chris Barlow, Astec’s Technical Director. “It will allow us to expand our current IoT solution offerings into Augmented Reality (AR) and other areas, including industrial automation connectivity, remote service, machine learning and predictive/prescriptive analytics.”

Working alongside PTC, Astec plans to develop an integrated offering for ‘Smart Manufacturing’, incorporating IoT software. While adoption of IoT solutions in the UK is reported to be somewhat lagging, taking a comprehensive stance on digital transformation promises pay-off in terms of customer satisfaction and market share. Both companies expect to benefit from reciprocal opportunities arising from new and existing business, through presentation of a joint service offering.

Read more on how you can apply digital technologies and take your process from base-level connectivity and automation to optimisation.