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Apex Automation and Controls: Smooth Operation Systems

Apex Automation and Controls (Apex) has been building and installing electrical automation and control systems since 1996. The Virginia-based company specializes in complex computerized systems that monitor and control the operations of processing and manufacturing plants. Apex has performed design, installation, start-up and operator training on projects across the United States, including Puerto Rico and Canada.

The company has built a vast product and service portfolio, including small, single-operation systems and large systems that control almost all process components of a facility. Apex goes to work on all aspects of the project and offers full-performance or single-phase assistance for new construction or retrofitting. Apex performs everything in-house – from manufacturing control panels to full system development – working alongside customers to achieve individual project goals and standards.

Jonathan H. Keene, president of Apex, has been with the company for four years. Though Apex has been established for 10 years, Keene has made some impressive leaps since his involvement. “My current business partner, also part owner of Apex, wasn’t seeing a lot of growth,” he explains. When the previous owner pursued other ventures in Colorado, Keene was offered a stake of 50-percent ownership of Apex. The business has been growing ever since.

Connecting People to Processes

Even following its recent success, Apex is still a fairly small company. “It’s just me and three other electrical engineers,” says Keene. He goes on to explain that the company is in the process of expansion, however, with plans to hire two more engineers by the end of 2013.

In the meantime Keene will be working in Toronto on a project for a major client, where Apex is performing start-up and operator training for a sludge incineration system for a large water pollution control plant that treats wastewater for one of the largest growing suburbs in the area. The booming population demands a major upgrade at the plant, and Apex’s automation systems will help workers in the plant monitor and maintain systems with the aid of sensors and a fully networked Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to allow the operators to view and control the process.

The Apex team is focused on the control development for the plant’s sludge incineration system, which makes up only a portion of the automation present. “We are involved with programming three GE RX3I Programmable Automation Controllers (PAC) with over 1,800 total input/output points,” says Keene. The SCADA system consists of two redundant GE iFIX servers and six iFIX clients distributed between the main control room and the process floor.

Apex performed a project in 2003 at another waste treatment facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The company was contracted under Infilco Degremont – a repeat client – to assist with the programming and start up of the sludge incineration system in San Juan. These systems are used to incinerate bio-solids that are created during the process of treating wastewater. Apex spent over two months on site performing the set up and training of plant personnel in the operation of the system.

In 2009 Apex was contracted to retrofit an existing SCADA system at a wastewater plant in Fredericksburg, Va., where the original system was nearly 20 years old. The system had stopped functioning properly and was costing the city both time and money in maintenance. Apex manufactured custom, efficient panels for the facility that were designed to be more effective and last longer than the former system. The system consisted of seven independent Allen-Bradley (AB) CompactLogix Automation Controllers with over 600 total input/output points.

The new SCADA system consists of two redundant AB FactoryTalk View SE servers in addition to two SCADA clients that are located in the main control room. The company programmed and tested the panels at the shop before delivering to the field, where local electricians at Apex’s direction installed the panels. Once the panels were installed, Apex performed the required commissioning and training for the facility. The entire system is now connected through fiber optic Ethernet cables, allowing information to transfer both faster and safer.

Communication Skills

Keene and his fellow engineers find the biggest challenge on many sites stem from poorly designed or improperly installed existing systems. “Sometimes our scope of the work involves quick reprogramming that borders on violating the laws of physics,” he jokes. The team of experienced engineers has the know-how and the patience to deal with all aspect of projects, although sometimes, according to Keene, shifting customer demands require a bit of diplomacy.

Navigating project and customer requirements is where Apex excels, however, and the final product is consistently a better-wired machine. “In the water/wastewater treatment industry, our systems help purify water to a degree usually better than their discharge locations,” explains Keene. Improved automation systems help workers at the plants better control and monitor how the processes function, which allows for better maintenance, more efficient performance, as well as a quicker response to hiccups in machinery.

In order to uphold the company’s reputation, Apex is constantly making advances in its research-and-design department. Keene reports that current projects include improving network wiring solutions to speed up information exchange. Many of the sensors and devices in these systems are going wireless and the company is working on durable, high-speed, integrated solutions.

Power efficiency regulation is another focus, and the company is researching advanced metering solutions for generation and distribution. Apex is finding better ways to use the data exchanged between devices and interfaces through improving communications so that information is more easily available by plant owners in the public and private sectors.

Apex has found sustained growth through reliable expertise over the years. “What gives us the greatest sense of pride is when our clients receive more than what they were expecting in terms of service, system capabilities and efficiency of design and implementation,” says Keene proudly. The team is constantly seeking out the latest in interface and systems technologies, delivering high-quality service and equipment to industrial and civil projects all over North America.

Nothing comes shop standard at Apex; every system is designed to meet the specific needs of the client. Apex Automation and Controls offers a continued guarantee of successful implementation on every project, regardless of scope or complexity, and is positioned to experience sustained growth.