In the five years since the formation of Digitronik, we’ve seen our broad range of skills pointed in so many different directions that not much surprises us anymore. But to say that finding ourselves in the jungles of Gabon working for Shell merely raised our eyebrows would be a definite understatement. We’re pumped and we’re proud, so we decided to interview the pair of high-tech studs who rose to the occasion and wrote a new chapter in our company’s history, principal engineers and partners Shawn Mott and David Coon.
What were the circumstances leading up to this project and how did Digitronik first blip on Shell’s radar?
SM: We had established a partnership with the local Siemens distributor (Auburn Armature in western NY), and we were referred to an end-user that had purchased some equipment and was having difficulty designing and configuring the safety subsystem. This led to us working to support a contractor serving Shell in Gabon, and eventually working directly with Shell to perform final commissioning.
DC: Yeah, years ago we started working with the Siemens PLCs with some local partners, and we ended up on speed-dial.
Were there specific certifications that you needed to take on these responsibilities?
SM: Yes, both David and I have Siemens Safety Integrated Level 3 certification.
How was the weather?
SM: [laughs] Very hot! You step out of your room in your cover-alls and you instantly start sweating all over. We were supposed to wear regular clothes underneath, but after the first couple of days I ditched the jeans and just went with boxers!
Is that something we can admit?
SM: [laughs] Sure!
How long were you over there?
SM: We were scheduled to be in the camp for 2 weeks, and that got extended another week.
And how long were you home before the phone rang and it was Shell calling to ask you back for more?
SM: Three days!
What was the original scope of work in Gabon, and how did it get extended?
DC: Our original responsibilities were focused around PLC programming. When we got there, it quickly became clear that there were a lot of valves to reconfigure and we took on the responsibility of coordinating that effort. In addition, there was a complex machine safety module (Bently-Nevada 3500) that was not set up correctly. I had to spend 3-4 days figuring out how to make it work, and more importantly, make it safe.
SM: The original scope was to support the control panel commissioning efforts, the Unit Control Panel (UCP). We ended up conducting several in-depth training classes for site personnel, which included operation of the compressor package and the compressor package design philosophy. We reviewed and presented the technical documentation of the UCP, and did presentations on general troubleshooting tips for the PLC and pair of distributed I/O racks.
It sounds like you had your hands in a lot of different things. Is it correct to say that your focus was extended beyond just programming controllers to helping deliver a fully operational system with all the bells and whistles?
SM: Yup! We made modifications to the HMI and data trending, and we ended up assisting with troubleshooting and redesign efforts on other vendors’ equipment in the field. And we did a lot of work inside the motor control center.
DC: Anytime you hand-off a project like this to an operations team, you really need to help them understand what is where, and what the functions on the HMI really mean. They need training on ‘what’s a problem’; if a pump doesn’t come on in 30 seconds, is that a problem, or is that by design? Conducting a thorough hand-off is crucial going into the operations phase.
And when you guys left, was it a successful project?
SM: Oh yeah, absolutely, it was a very successful project. The commissioning and turning the system over to operations happened three months ahead of schedule.
What were the most valuable attributes that you guys presented to the customer, and how were they received?
SM: They valued our commitment to the team effort. For example, there was one day that was 103 degrees with 98% humidity, and it also happened to be a physically demanding day for much of the team. I had wrapped up the electrical portion of the job and was on break, but I could see how badly everybody was sweating. I started making trips back and forth to the mess hall and carrying back cases of bottled water. At the end of the day, a couple of the guys came to me and said, “Hey, that was freakin’ great today. Thank you!”
DC: I have to say that our ability to construct the PLC code in a robust fashion was really great. I’m glad I spent time on those details, because there were changes in the field and I hadn’t programmed us into a corner. Things were up and running a lot quicker due to that flexibility. I think they really liked the HMI, too! And on another note, Shawn’s ability to go out into the field and learn an instrument on the same day as he’ll be troubleshooting it is very well-received.
How many times could you have been killed by African wildlife?
SM: [laughs] I never really felt in danger. The Gabonese really respect the wildlife; they don’t like to kill anything. They’re conscientious of their surroundings, and they cherish that resource, the jungle and it’s beauty. Several of the guys on the crew grew up in jungle villages, so when they see elephants in the road, they pull the truck over, shut off the engine, and wait until the elephants go back into the jungle. If you try to drive by them, they’ll flip the truck over, so stories like that teach you to respect the animals very quickly.
DC: Um, let’s see. There were two near misses (that I know about). One, the elephants in the road that Shawn mentioned. The second was when an elephant came into camp, and at the last second someone told Shawn to turn the flash off on his camera before snapping a pic. Word is they really don’t like the flash, so we could have had an elephant rampaging all through camp!
How similar was this assignment to the services Digitronik normally provides in automated manufacturing environments?
SM: Well, in a lot of ways it was identical. We pride ourselves on doing whatever it takes to get the job done. We understand that we don’t necessarily know everything, but we always have the willingness to learn, and we’re committed to delivering excellence and customer satisfaction. The difference is, this was the first time we were ever tested on those things in the middle of a jungle! [laughs] It was definitely an adverse work environment compared to what we’re used to.
DC: Yes I agree, very similar in a lot of respects to the things we’ve always done. There was, however, a lot less programmatic debugging, as the software was really solid. So our debugging skills were put to work on sensors and other hardware.
What skills and characteristics allowed you guys to succeed at such a challenge?
SM: We have the ability write complex process logic and code on the machine level. We understand data collection and we’re able to implement some very nice data collection schemes. We have guys with multi-disciplinary talents who can program machines, but also troubleshoot stuff electrically and produce electrical designs on the fly with limited resources.
DC: Willingness to go into an uncomfortable situation and do our darndest! To be working on equipment and instruments that I’ve previously barely touched, there was a lot to learn in those first couple days. Then I think, well, who else could they have sent? And not to toot my own horn, but there’s really no one else involved in the project who could go there and do that.
How was it working in a team with guys from all over the world?
DC: It was a real trip! I really liked that, despite the fact that my French is very rusty -- OK, it was never good to begin with. Fortunately the official languages of camp were both French and English. There was a lot of diversity; you got to see people from different cultures working together. And Shawn has an amazing ability to befriend all different kinds of people. I really love going out on these sites with him.
So did you make some new friends?
SM: Yes! We made a lot of friends there. People from all over the world: Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, and of course from there in Gabon. The Health and Safety Inspector, Mohamed, told me that I wasn’t what he expected in an American. He made me throw out my mess hall coffee, and he brewed me some from his private stash. It turned into a little coffee club, and it connected guys that might otherwise not have gotten to know each other.
As partners in Digitronik, are you looking to have the company do more work in the oil and gas industry?
SM: Certainly! We’ve hired a chemical engineer who comes to us from a very large oil and gas firm. She’s helping us learn more about the process behind the programming, and we’re teaching her to program the process.
DC: I’d say yes, with the caveat that we choose our projects responsibly. We’re all concerned about the future state of the earth, but I think we can strike a good balance between working in this sector and looking for new possibilities.
How would you rate your trip to Gabon as a life experience?
SM: [in his best Spinal Tap voice] Gotta turn it up to 11! I’m proud of all of Digitronik: of the work we accomplished, of the fact that we wound up working for a global energy company, and of the rest of the crew back home who kept the house in order. Another great thing was the opportunity to learn from Shell, in particular the way that they manage an agile commissioning crew: highly organized, and things moved quickly.
DC: I loved working with new cultures, so that in particular was one really cool thing I’m glad to have done. But at the same time, this was really just the logical continuation of what we’ve been doing.
What can Digitronik deliver for large multinationals like Shell that sets you apart from the rest?
SM: The number one thing that I know sets us apart from many organizations is the breadth of talent and skills that we bring to the table. We’ve got physicists and chemists and mathematicians, electrical, mechanical, and software engineers, and some of those are the same people! We’ve got mechanical engineers who’ve learned controls, and that combination of skills in one brain leads to better results than needing two people. We’ve got software engineers who bring that background to controls, and they write the most organized ladder code you’ve ever seen. We’ve got mathematicians who’ve learned software, and user experience designers building our HMI screens. The list goes on. So despite our size, we can take on a wide range of responsibilities and deliver a project that would usually take engineers from four different departments.
DC: We deliver a drive to quality. When you get to be the size of Shell, you rely on a lot of people to do a lot of things, and quality control becomes a really big issue. And so getting a smaller company that’s focused in one area to do this kind of stuff is really great, because we know our business! Shell doesn’t care how these PLCs are programmed our how these things are set up. They want to be dealing with managing output, and focusing on their larger goals. They don’t want to be in the business of vetting programmers and commissioning equipment. That’s OUR business. And it’s not just that we were able to produce a solution for the client, but it’s that we were able to support that solution, and we stood by it.