Huffman Engineering Simplifies Control Systems Engineering with Synergis Adept

Process plants depend on highly specialized control systems. They are an integrated product combining software, mechanical equipment, and sensors. Huffman Engineering, Inc. has become a leading partner to manufacturers, utility plants, and the pharmaceutical industry in the US Prairies region by delivering high quality custom process control manufacturing and integration.

“No two projects are alike,” says Jay Steinman, a mechanical engineer at Huffman. The company is a full-service vendor, building control panels and the interface equipment between plant equipment and computers, and providing the software to run the system. Much of their work is for heavily regulated industries including water/wastewater and pharmaceutical. A typical project in water/wastewater would be to build controls for every value and gate, and to install sensors that monitor flow and water quality. A project in pharma might be to install the control mechanism for a new machine that bottles pills. In both cases, Huffman does not build the machines, but adds the controlling technology to the devices.

The processes are complicated, and most of their clients work under intense regulation pressure, requiring strict adherence to manufacturing and testing protocols. And it all must be thoroughly documented, says Keith Mandachit, a senior engineer and Huffman’s IT manager. “We can’t just build it and send it out. We have to provide a lot of [manufacturing] documentation and a lot of testing documentation.”

For electricity utilities, Huffman also provides infrastructure security controls. Recently Huffman was brought into consult on cyber security for an electricity provider. Huffman discovered the utility was using the same computer network to run both their facility and their business operations. The business side was open to the at-large Internet, putting the security of the power facility at-risk. Huffman created a completely separate network to cut off the utility’s internal power processes from the outside world.

A need to nail down the single source of truth

Each project creates a tremendous amount of engineering data and reference information, in the form of CAD drawings or models, project management and work process forms, certifications, documentation of systems, documentation of testing, PLC programming, and more. On the network, projects were organized into separate folders, but there was no standard protocol for how to repurpose documents or to manage revisions. As Huffman did more and more programming for their clients, as well as creating control mechanisms and sensor systems, there was no consistency in how the software code was managed as part of the project.

Over time, Huffman created an ad hoc manual revisioning system for CAD drawings using network file folders. “And then with the engineering side, we were storing programs and specifications within our project folders. Sometimes people would make revisions, but you never knew. Many of our projects touched the same systems,” says Steinman. As projects moved along and control software was reused or modified, it was not being tracked as a separate product. “We didn’t have that single source of truth with those programs.”

It is not uncommon for Huffman’s clients to ask for CAD drawings or other documentation years after the work has finished. “Even though we give them a copy of everything, they still rely on us for their stuff,” says Steinman. Every time a drawing is copied and shared, it creates another version that can, over time, be modified. Having more than one copy of any particular drawing or model means there is no single source of truth.

Project numbering as a tool for record keeping was another area where Huffman realized they needed a new way to work. For years, projects were just named for the numerical order they came to the company, by client. Often a client would request bids on three separate projects; Huffman engineers would simply name them Project 1, Project 2, and Project 3. “But they might not actually happen in sequential order,” says Mandachit. “Project 3 might be the first one we did; Project 1 might be the last one we implemented.” It might be easy enough for those working on the project to keep track through the sequence mismatch, but when others in the company became involved, projects were easily confused. Employees were wasting time looking for data in the wrong places.

The company realized it had much to gain from getting its engineering document management under control. At first, Mandachit and others looked at GIT and SubVersion, open source tools designed to automate file management for software developers. But they were not suitable for most engineering document types, and employees who evaluated these products found them hard to use. Next, they looked at a software product that did only one thing, create a versioning system for PLC programs. But it lacked configuration management. Then Huffman explored the use of Microsoft SharePoint technology, but found it needed too much customization — which was nobody’s area of expertise at Huffman.

Control systems integrators like Huffman are required to be audited for engineering processes every three years. “Every time we have been audited and we got to the section on configuration management, we would pass but with a ‘C,’ not with an ‘A,’” says Mandachit. “We wanted to get an ‘A;’ we felt it was very important.”

Finding the answers in Synergis Adept

At a regional meeting of Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), Steinman and Mandachit heard a presentation about Synergis Adept from another CSIA member. They were doing all the things Huffman was looking to accomplish with the various point tools. After examining its capabilities, a decision was made to invest in Adept. “We wanted that ‘A,’” says Steinman. “We did not do any financial calculations. We knew it would be difficult to estimate ROI because it is incremental amounts of time being saved. We knew we had to spend some amount of money to get what we needed.”

Huffman chose to go with the Quick Start form of initial implementation. With help from one Synergis implementation engineer, they were up and running in three days. A server crash only a few weeks into implementation meant they needed to start over; this time Steinman rebuilt the implementation of Adept on his own.

Huffman has chosen to pull older data (legacy data) into the system on an as-needed basis. A couple of years earlier, the company did a serious archiving project, and now Steinman and others pull older project data into the Adept system when needed. Projects that were in process when Adept was reinstalled are not being migrated; all new projects are starting in Adept. Unlike complex PLM systems that require all engineering data to be uploaded before anyone uses the new software, Adept’s unique “wrap-around” approach makes it easy for users to add new files and folders to the system as needed.

Like most Adept users, Huffman is managing CAD drawings and related documents such as specifications. They also use it to manage the computer code created to run programmable logic controllers (PLC). Each software file created is stored with the related project, but easily made available in Adept to be repurposed for new projects.

Huffman uses AutoCAD for most design and engineering, and their typical method is to do one sheet per file (some users will have all sheets generated in the same file). So the number of AutoCAD .dwg files grows rapidly. Mandachit estimates that after only a few months, Huffman has added tens of thousands of drawings to Adept. As employees become more familiar with Adept, Huffman will start implementing automated workflows for transmittals, hang orders, and other workflow processes. They also plan to create a quoting workflow in Adept, not something that ships with the product, but can be created by the client.

Huffman also takes advantage of an Adept feature called Unlinked Records, and are being rather inventive in their implementation. Unlinked Records is a feature in Adept used to include various records not in electronic format, such as drawings on paper, a box in storage, or other documents on paper regarding a project. Unlinked Records could also be filenames and record numbers being saved for future use. An Unlinked Record is the electronic stand-in for the record, with a note on where to find it and what the connection is to the project.

Huffman organizes its records method based on pieces of equipment, since they are tracked and maintained after they are manufactured and installed. Unlinked Records are created for every paper-based document but also for every machine. When auditors next examine Huffman’s procedures, they will find a continuous electronic link between Huffman and the client that clearly shows the role of every document, every form, every procedure, every bit of software code, and an Unlinked Record that connects all of this to the piece of equipment. “Prior to Adept, we didn’t really have all this information so easily accessible. We would be hunting around on our server trying to find where all these different files were, so we could put them together,” says Mandachit.

When Mandachit and Steinman told their Synergis contact how they had implemented Unlinked Records, they discovered their use of the feature was not being used elsewhere. They had attended CSIA webinars on configuration management, and thought they could do better; with Adept and the Unlinked Records feature they found their missing link. “We believe to truly satisfy the [audit] requirements, [it] requires the solution we have in Adept,” says Mandachit.

Another surprise for Huffman in its exploration of Synergis Adept was how easy it is to publish drawings as PDF files using the PublishWave add-in. Not all Huffman engineers have a copy of AutoCAD, just a viewer. Before Adept, anyone who needed to view a drawing would find the original and make a copy. Those copies proliferated and were often changed. Now anyone who needs to view a drawing — but whom is not authorized to change it — requests a PDF version, created by PublishWave. “It is a huge time-saver for our CAD manager, who has to respond to every request,” adds Mandachit. Adept with PublishWave also manages when the PDF was created, so that if changes occur to the original AutoCAD drawing, it is easy for a user to know there is a newer version.

In the past, Huffman’s backup protocols and internal security were rooted in 1980s methods. With Adept in place, Huffman now has a comprehensive back-up procedure and a complete disaster recovery plan in place, utilizing a virtualized server.

A better way to manage control systems engineering

Huffman Engineering now has a complete system in place to manage its complex web of process control engineering documents, procedures, and software code. The company believes its use of Unlinked Records gives it a best practice for configuration management unrivaled in the control systems integration industry. “We looked around, and found Adept is able to do everything we needed,” says Steinman. “We have best practices for maintaining revision levels, and we have our single source of truth.”

If you’re considering how to better manage your product, facilities or plant data, contact us to learn more about how Adept can help your organization.


Randall S. Newton is the principal analyst and managing director at Consilia Vektor, a consulting firm serving the engineering software industry. He has been directly involved in engineering software in a number of roles since 1985. 

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