Process control refers to the methods that are used to control process variables when manufacturing a product.
For example, factors such as the proportion of one ingredient to another, the temperature of the materials, how well the ingredients are mixed, and the pressure under which the materials are held can significantly impact the quality of an end product. Manufacturers control the production process for three reasons:
- Reduce variability
- Increase efficiency
- Ensure safety
Process control can reduce variability in the end product, which ensures a consistently high-quality product. Manufacturers can also save money by reducing variability.
For example, in a gasoline blending process, as many as 12 or more different components may be blended to make a specific grade of gasoline. If the refinery does not have precise control over the flow of the separate components, the gasoline may get too much of the high-octane components.
As a result, customers would receive a higher grade and more expensive gasoline than they paid for, and the refinery would lose money. The opposite situation would be customers receiving a lower grade at a higher price.
Reducing variability can also save money by reducing the need for product padding to meet required product specifications. Padding refers to the process of making a product of higher-quality than it needs to be to meet specifications.
When there is variability in the end product (i.e., when process control is poor), manufacturers are forced to pad the product to ensure that specifications are met, which adds to the cost. With accurate, dependable process control, the setpoint (desired or optimal point) can be moved closer to the actual product specification and thus save the manufacturer money.
Some processes need to be maintained at a specific point to maximize efficiency.
For example, a control point might be the temperature at which a chemical reaction takes place. Accurate control of temperature ensures process efficiency. Manufacturers save money by minimizing the resources required to produce the end product.
A run-away process, such as an out-of-control nuclear or chemical reaction, may result if manufacturers do not maintain precise control of all of the process variables. The consequences of a run-away process can be catastrophic. Precise process control may also be required to ensure safety.
For example, maintaining proper boiler pressure by controlling the inflow of air used in combustion and the outflow of exhaust gases is crucial in preventing boiler implosions that can clearly threaten the safety of workers.