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.


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.”

Dashboards, Augmented Reality, Reporting and Field Service for Smart Manufacturing

At the PPMA Show this year, held on 25-27 September at Birmingham’s NEC, Astec Solutions will be speaking to manufacturers about digitally transforming their operations.

The highly successful annual event is organised by the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association, which is currently celebrating 30 years serving UK manufacturers. The 2018 show is expected to be the largest yet, attracting over 8000 visitors from around the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.

Although the inherent nature of the PPMA Show means a focus on production machinery, in recent years the prevalence of digital technology has increased, as its influence on manufacturing heightens. Manufacturing personnel across a variety of functions – C-level Executives, IT, Engineering, Supply Chain, Quality and Production can all capitalise on opportunities brought about by emerging digital technologies.

Technical Director Chris Barlow explains the value of Astec’s Smart Manufacturing Solutions, and where the offering fits within the market:

“The majority of exhibitors at the PPMA Show are machine vendors, as the trade association predominantly exists for machinery manufacturers. Those vendors will generally supply software with their equipment which enables the machine to be controlled. It may also collect important machine data and in some cases, even provide some machine-level analytics. Most of the machines now being developed will have numerous sensors and connectivity built-in, so they have the potential to be incorporated into IoT solutions.

This is where our Smart Manufacturing Solutions come into play. As an analogy, consider the machines as the individual musicians in an orchestra; every member is accomplished at their own specific role but it requires a conductor to ensure the ensemble produces a curtain-raising performance. Connecting machines and orchestrating operations is where Smart Manufacturing can truly transform your operations. Without it, all you have is disparate systems and assets.”

Astec will be promoting a number of recently launched services at the show, which are designed to address common pain points and barriers to digital progression. With clever use of software products from leading vendors such as GE Digital and PTC, the services go beyond the purely operational view of traditional SCADA and utilise predictive analytics, historic insights and augmented reality for preventative maintenance and proactive operations. New services for 2018 include:

Digital Transformation Assessments
Digitisation and Industrial Innovation Platforms
Augmented Reality Solutions
Rapid Response Support Button
Field Services Team

One of the key barriers to adopting ‘smart’ solutions is reported to be cost, with smaller UK manufacturers dismissing the technology as too high an investment, or only for large global corporations. This however, does not need to be the case, as Astec’s focus is working with existing systems and avoiding ‘rip and replace’ overhauls. Now coming into its 19th year, Astec has refined its future-proof solutions so the system infrastructure is crafted to be robust and secure while remaining flexible and extensible. Implementations are carried out with a holistic, IT-centric approach – and the discipline that comes with it. Customers can access fresh functionality and innovative tech while benefiting from fully supportable, off-the-shelf software that extends the value of their original investment.

Astec will be exhibiting on stand C14 in Hall 5 at the NEC in Birmingham 25-27 September. Register to attend the PPMA Show 2018 for FREE >>

How will the workforce benefit from emerging manufacturing technologies?

New technologies are often perceived as too expensive or too demanding to implement for smaller operations. In the UK, even large industry is reported to be lagging behind global competitors in championing digital advancement.

Amid Brexit uncertainty and preparations for a possible ‘no deal’ situation with the EU, manufacturers have now at least, received some guidance from a recently published government white paper on trade continuity expectations. Nevertheless, many remain hesitant to adopt new technology like bunnies in headlights – they know it’s coming (and fast!), but feel paralysed, unable to take action. The good news is however, that it is quite possible to pioneer and embark upon digital transformation, regardless of organisational size or investment budget. It is simply a matter of breaking down the evolution into manageable stages and making best use of the incumbent workforce.

There are multiple opportunities to use data connectivity to benefit a business; examples include improved collaboration, breaking down departmental data silos, obtaining new insights into operational effectiveness, predictive maintenance and worker self-learning.

To leverage rapidly developing digital technologies, manufacturers need a good understanding of how they connect and interact, and how the background skills, interactions and responsibilities of the workforce come into play. To assist with this challenge, Astec now offers a Digital Transformation Assessment service which includes a situational analysis and business case, as well as outlining achievable ‘next steps’ on the journey. As manufacturers improve data connectivity and capabilities across their operations and supply chain, they are able to solve problems at existing pain points in the short term, while starting to address broader transformation changes.

Astec Technical Director Chris Barlow says,

“Our new Digital Transformation Assessments are an opportunity to take stock of the current position of the business, progress already made, areas to improve and identify unexplored areas of potential. Astec have been producing reports to help clients improve their systems for years, and have built up considerable experience in the manufacturing space, so we are looking to meet the current demand for digital transformation roadmaps. Through our partnerships with PTC and GE Digital we can deliver fully-supportable, off-the-shelf, IT-centric solutions with clear, incremental steps towards incorporating new technologies such as AR and machine learning.”

For the workforce, it doesn’t have to mean re-inventing the wheel, but continuous learning is an increasingly critical part of the digital future. Existing knowledge from experienced workers on the factory floor can and should be retained. Modern, intuitive interfaces and dashboards, workflows and AR enhance workers’ current skill set, building on the more traditional skills. Improved data capture, reporting and process management protect the wisdom that has taken years to accumulate, while encouraging career progression and employee retention.

Remote working and real-time data can transform traditional ‘hands-on’ roles, delivering a level of convenience that can help retain valuable older employees and attract the best new recruits. As personnel are able to apply their existing skills while being trained in using specialist digital tools, overall efficiency will also improve. All employees, regardless of department – Production, Engineering, Quality, IT or C-level Executives, can benefit from new capabilities as a result of digital change.

Read more on Astec’s Digital Transformation Assessment.

Using OEE to drive improvements in operational performance

Back in the 1990’s, the discipline of lean techniques helped to lay the foundations of manufacturers’ digital transformation, although they didn’t know it yet. Then came the buzz about OEE, lean production and six sigma, which gave rise to a surge in solution implementations focused on improving overall equipment effectiveness.

For the companies that invested in this way of working, constantly developing and adjusting lean methodology has become second nature; OEE is an integral part of their commitment to continuous improvement. Relatively small percentage savings in availability, performance and quality quickly accumulate, boosting profitability and market share.

Despite this, the well-known productivity metric is still greatly under-utilised in manufacturing today. This view is consistent with a recent report by McKinsey, which reveals most companies today merely scratch the surface of potential applications for the data: on a modern oil-production platform, for example, only 1 percent of the data generated by the 30,000 sensors is ever examined.

One of the common reasons for untapped digital opportunities often lies with ineffective change management. OEE expert and Astec Managing Director Andy Tripp explains;

“It would be reasonable to assume that global organisations would take the lead in strategic and cultural evolution, but it is not unusual to find local sites completely detached from global head office initiatives. Even when a Business Change Manager is employed, this alone isn’t sufficient to galvanise mid-level management into action. Many UK manufacturing sites are either half-heartedly adopting new advanced analytics programs or even worse, ignoring them and missing the opportunity in its entirety.”

To help alleviate change inertia, Astec offers guidance through the process of maturing pilot projects to an organisation-wide approach – the embodiment of the ‘think big, start small, scale fast’ mantra.

“We specialise in cross-functional integration across departments and organisational functions. Our holistic approach takes into account factors from across the enterprise. Large data sets can be combined and visualised so customers can assess the true business impact of process and equipment losses from issues such as unplanned downtime and faulty equipment.”

For larger industrials in particular, the current disruptive climate can certainly present challenges. A recent study from PwC research arm Strategy& found 66% of manufacturing leaders do not have a clear smart factory vision and strategy, and only 25% believe their employees have suitable qualifications to master a digital future.

Beyond the traditional focus on maximising efficiency, the next step in performance improvement will require companies to establish an IT-centric, robust technical infrastructure. One possible route to achieve this is to outsource implementation, training and support. This approach has the benefit of bringing immediate value while simultaneously extending the skill sets of existing employees. With the correct capabilities, infrastructure and management – including benchmarking and new ways of monitoring progress, industrial manufacturers can remain confident in a rapidly changing climate.

About Astec

Astec implements innovative software solutions to deliver a competitive advantage for clients. Using the latest technology from globally respected partners, invaluable operational insight can be extracted for increased capacity, improved quality and reduced operating costs.

Serving industries such as Food & Beverage, CPG, pharmaceutical and utilities, Astec provide a range of real-time, data driven solutions and support services to help many of the world’s leading companies to improve their operations and help strengthen their market position.