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The control philosophy: what it is, how it works, and why every manufacturer should have one

A control philosophy defines your organization’s vision for digitalization and helps your team align current and future technology-related decisions with that vision.

What is a control philosophy?

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Whether you operate a single facility or a global network of sites, your control philosophy—sometimes referred to as a control systems philosophy—is the key to mastering the “integration” part of control systems integration. Instead of one-off decisions that lead to islands of automation and data that’s siloed or (even worse) missing altogether, a control philosophy empowers your engineering, operations, and IT teams to establish a consistent and robust system for harmonizing your plant from the factory floor to the executive boardroom.

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To see what we mean, imagine a restaurant. Are you picturing a five-star establishment or a fast food joint? Both meet the definition of “restaurant,” but each one has a very different philosophy behind it—and that philosophy impacts everything from kitchen equipment (sous vide or industrial Frymaster?) to tableware (cloth linens or a paper towel dispenser?). Clearly defining that philosophy from day one helps each restaurant differentiate their market position, make strategic spending decisions, and eliminate efforts that don’t support their overall goals.

In a manufacturing context, having this level of clarity is game-changing. Your control philosophy not only defines what your organization is today, it also lays out what you do and (more importantly) don’t want to become tomorrow. It gives you the insight you need to navigate complexity, rapidly assess new opportunities, and make decisions that are consistent with your tolerance for risk and your vision for future growth and digitalization. As a result, instead of chasing shiny new technology, your organization is able to stay focused on systems and digitization that drive value.

What’s included in a control philosophy?

At its core, every control philosophy answers the same broad question: “What does digitalization mean for our organization?”.

Your answer to that question will depend on a variety of factors, such as the nature of your industry, the products manufactured at your site, your business goals, and even your location and what that means in terms of access to skilled workers, supply chain inputs, and distribution networks.

These factors are the key to establishing a control philosophy tailored to your organization’s unique vision for digitalization. Through a workshopping process, outlined later, you’ll define that vision and lay out the parameters that will make it a reality. The result is a control philosophy which that covers such details such as:

Your automation strategy. How close to the bleeding edge of automated technology will you be? Some manufacturers see themselves as early adopters, carving out a competitive position on the forefront of innovation. Others rely on validated, standardized manual operations and don’t have immediate plans to change. Understanding your organization’s identity in relation to that spectrum is a key driver of future decisions.

Your tolerance for risk. How much redundancy will you require to mitigate potential downtime, and where does that redundancy fit into your facility? Will you install redundant processors or keep spares in stock at the plant (or will you have an agreement with your local distributor to stock them)? Will you rely on a just-in-time supply strategy, or do you plan to maintain inventory in case of a disruption? Articulating details like these in your control philosophy will help you manage your risks as your organization evolves.

Your data strategy. What data will you collect, and in what format? How will you leverage that data? By codifying your answers, your control philosophy will help you implement the operational systems necessary to get exactly what you need from your data—now and in the future.

Your partnering strategy. Which capabilities will you develop in-house, and which will you seek out in a vendor? This has a direct impact on the scale, cost, and timeline of your future projects. Making these decisions during the control philosophy phase will help you plan those projects and ensure they deliver ongoing value.

What are the benefits of a control philosophy?

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A more profitable business plan

The process of writing your control philosophy will empower you and your team to acknowledge the narrow line between your operational needs and your aspirational wants when it comes to digitalization and future automation.

 

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A more efficient operation

Without a control philosophy in place, you may find yourself with disconnected instances of automation instead of a harmonized whole. That leads to competing systems and user interfaces within the same organization, each of which requires specific training and tailored maintenance activities.  

 A control philosophy will help you avoid or remedy this situation by defining the boundaries of each of your systems, as well as the interface points between them. This reduces the waste of double data entry and duplicated system interactions, helping you operate more efficiently.

These efficiencies are especially impactful when it comes to primary systems like your enterprise resource planning system (ERP), manufacturing execution system (MES), supervisory control system (SCADA), process control system (PCS), building management systems (BMS), and machine-based control systems. By following the framework laid out in your control philosophy, you can ensure that these systems operate efficiently, driving streamlined results and ensuring that resources such as training, maintenance, and technical support are shareable across your organization.

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Purposeful flexibility

When a disruptive new technology promises to revolutionize your industry, should you integrate it? Or will you wait to see how it performs elsewhere first?

Your control philosophy will help you navigate questions like these. Some companies have good reasons to adopt a conservative approach—take manufacturers of personalized medicine, for example, who rely on standardized and validated systems to keep patients safe. Others thrive at the forefront of technological innovation. Understanding your own position on that spectrum, and defining that position in your control philosophy, will give you the flexibility to rapidly integrate new technologies when it’s appropriate and the confidence to say no when it isn’t.

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Greater resilience

Your control philosophy can help you avoid certain failures and expertly navigate others by establishing the framework for an appropriate risk mitigation strategy—but as any manufacturer knows, failures will inevitably occur.

Here, too, your control philosophy is a valuable resource. By defining control system risk tolerance, it enables your team to establish the procedural logic necessary to respond rapidly and decisively in case of a failure, which could mean the difference between a brief interruption and a catastrophe.

Who needs a control philosophy?

From an organizational perspective

All organizations, from small-scale startups to large multinational corporations, will benefit from having a control philosophy in place.

Take a cultivated meat innovator with an R&D operation, for example. In their control philosophy, they’ve laid out plans to scale from their lab to a plant capable of manufacturing commercial volumes. With that vision clearly defined, they can align today’s decisions to support their future success and achieve their speed-to-market targets. That means, for example, choosing lab software that’s capable of scaling with them. They may spend more upfront to do this, but it will spare them from the costs, delays, and headaches of migrating to a different system once they commercialize. Their control philosophy makes this clear—and makes them feel confident in their decision-making from day one.

For more established companies, the control philosophy can play an equally valuable role. Companies with multiple sites and a large, decentralized workforce face immense operational complexity. Simplifying that complexity through systems integration can generate valuable returns in terms of productivity, efficiency, and overall profitability. The key to that simplicity? A robust control philosophy.

From the perspective of specific roles

Typically, the Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer has ownership over the control philosophy document, which is a key input as they align important technology-related decisions with the organization’s vision.

Alongside the CTO or CIO, leaders in the organization’s operations, engineering, and IT divisions will likely consult the control philosophy document regularly, which helps them to continuously synchronize day-to-day decisions with the organization’s overall push for integration and harmonization.

When should you create a control philosophy?

Typically, there are two scenarios which incentivize companies to establish their control philosophy.

  1. You’ve identified digital transformation (Industry 4.0) as a strategic initiative.
  2. You are about to launch a capital project.

Sometimes these scenarios happen simultaneously. Organizations may also choose to establish a control philosophy without a strategic change or a capital project on their horizon—they simply recognize the benefit of harmonizing their existing systems and technologies.

Whatever your reason, the key to generating value from your control philosophy is to establish it at the beginning of your project or initiative.

For capital project teams, that means developing the control philosophy during the first weeks of project planning so that it can guide every subsequent step. You’ll use it as a guardrail for steering your Basis of Design, as a compass for navigating and right-sizing project estimates, and as a framework for developing and delivering flexible and integrated control systems in tandem with your project’s engineering, construction, and turnover activities.

chart that depicts the lifecycle of a csi project chart that depicts the lifecycle of a csi project
Establish your control philosophy early to help you navigate the project delivery lifecycle.

What’s the process for creating a control philosophy, and who’s involved?

The team

The project or strategic owner drives this process. Participation from executive leaders is also crucial, given the relationship between an organization’s overall business goals and the guidelines laid out in the control philosophy. Engineering, operations, and IT stakeholders are also key members of this team. Their perspective will help determine and define specific parameters included in the control philosophy.

In CRB’s case, our control systems integration consultants guide these key stakeholders through the process of building a control philosophy.

The process

This process can vary, depending on the partner you engage to help you define and deliver your control philosophy. At CRB, we’ve developed a three-step approach:

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During the information gathering phase, our control systems integration team shares a detailed questionnaire with stakeholders. The goal of this phase is to begin thinking about the organizational drivers that will shape the control philosophy—some of which you may be considering and clarifying for the first time.

During the team workshop phase, stakeholders gather with our control systems integration team to share insights, collect cross-functional feedback, and hear from key stakeholders and operators who will help put the control philosophy into practice.

The goal of this phase is twofold. The first goal is to draft the philosophy document itself. The second goal is less tangible, but just as important—it’s about building consensus among different teams, including operations, engineering, and IT, and making sure that all key stakeholders leave the room as advocates for the vision articulated in the control philosophy.

The review phase is just as it sounds. Our control systems team circulates the draft control philosophy, gathering feedback and applying revisions until a final, approved document is ratified.

Now you have a control philosophy. What’s next?

As you move ahead with your capital project, digital transformation journey, or any other initiative that creates an opportunity to harmonize operations across your organization, you can call on your control philosophy to continuously guide you toward the next right decision.

It’s important to note that your control philosophy is not a static document. Think of it like a dynamic source of information; as your organization and the context in which it operates evolves, so should your control philosophy. For that reason, be sure to review and revise it each time you kick off a capital project. Or, if there’s no capital project on the horizon, plan to revisit.

To move forward with confidence, start with a control philosophy

Whether you’re a large organization or a small one, an innovative startup or an established powerhouse in your industry, you face immense complexity. Which technologies will move you forward, and which will hold you back? Where are the roadblocks preventing you from achieving true data integration across your plant, and how can you remove them? What will you do tomorrow, when the market shifts and you face a new level of demand?

In this complex landscape, your control philosophy puts an “X” on the map and gives you the navigational tools you need to reach your business goals. You’ll have new momentum behind you, and you’ll get where you want to go sooner—with fewer detours along the way.

To kickstart your control philosophy development process, reach out to our control systems integration team.

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