Process controls: More with less

Process controls and instrumentation need to be more intuitive with more integrated intelligence, and they are, out of necessity, because of retiring talent with too few replacements. Three improvements and 10 benefits of next-generation technology are highlighted.

By Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering June 18, 2018

Out of necessity, since the 1970s and 1980s, technology advancements in advanced controls and alarm management have increased the number of control loops per process plant operator by more than six-fold. With fewer experts available and more installed assets, safety also has increased as much as 10x since the 1970s, according to Jason Urso, vice president and chief technology officer (CTO) at Honeywell.

In advance of the 2018 Honeywell Users Group meeting in San Antonio, Texas, June 17-22, Urso previewed Honeywell technology announcements and conference themes.

He said operators are enjoying a new era of benefits produced with software-driven automation. In the 1970s and 1980s, panel controls allowed about 30 control loops per operator. Digital control systems in the 1980s through the 2000s increased that to 100 loops per operator. Urso said more than twice that number is available now.

Standards, longevity, connectivity

In the past, projects were heavily customized, which drove up risk and cost. Three ways that has improved today are with:

A. Project standardization. Moving away from customization allows project execution in less time with lower risk.

B. Infinite longevity. System upgrades are in place so that no rip and replace efforts are needed for upgrades, which dramatically alters lifecycle costs. Systems have lasted 40 to 50 years in some cases, creating parts obsolescence. Customers have sought ways to upgrade in place so they never worry about a "rip and replace" scenario. This protects customer intellectual property (IP) in the system while providing new capabilities.

C. Connecting data to knowledge. Making knowledge more uniform and accessible to those who need it when they need it. Every person needs to access the world’s best knowledge to maximize production, improve equipment reliability, and efficiency for personnel.

With universal input and output (I/O) connections, and project execution in the cloud, using software emulation allows a 40-year-old platform to be run on any hardware. Knowledge is built into the system, allowing customers to take advantage of metrics from thousands of process units, improving knowledge access and best practices compared to only pulling knowledge from six or seven refineries that one company may own.

Built-in knowledge and monitoring capabilities don’t eliminate the need for process knowledge, Urso said. Using a calculator still requires learning math.

Connecting process industries to the enterprise and to suppliers delivers more context for those making decisions. Such connections provide the ability to be more predictive about processes and asset management by capturing knowledge in digital form for reference and improving plant controls, monitoring, and management, in real time. Digital online maps provide drivers with real-time knowledge about the best routes, traffic, and conditions. Modern process controls can do the same, allowing every day to be the route to the best day of production. Over the lifetime of process assets, Urso said, those improvements equate to tens of millions of dollars of benefits.

Tools are available for on-demand training to ensure every person has the ability to know what flawless operations look like, with knowledge about processes, assets, and people.

That means ensuring a seamless handoff from shift to shift with little impact to process performance. These benefits arrive at a time where issues related to retiring talent increase risk. New systems better address process safety issues through monitoring, and they suggest remediation steps. 

Next-generation benefits

Urso discussed 10 benefits of next-generation technology below.

1. An operator may notice an issue, and ramp down a process a bit to assess what’s happening. With a heat-exchanger problem, one option might be to bring the process down immediately or run at a lower capacity until repairs can be made. New systems may predict when issues might happen earlier, allowing more preparation, better timing, and less downtime.

2. With implementation of a digital twin and augmented reality (AR) simulations, those doing repairs or upgrades can train and optimize their performance prior to doing the work. Technicians can avoid efficiency struggles in recalling how a procedure is performed when it has not been performed for six months or longer.

3. AR enhances safety. A technician can verify if a pipe is in a safe condition (empty) prior to cutting into it.

4. A process controls vendor detected increased network traffic because of a malfunction in third-party hardware before it caused a denial of service outage from network saturation.

5. Close monitoring of burner performance can result in energy efficiency and lower emissions.

6. Flowmeters used for custody transfer can maintain accuracy for a longer period of time.

7. Intelligent wearables can empower field operators or technicians with process knowledge far beyond what a clipboard and radio connections to the control room could do. Operators can perform more efficiently and safely with hands-free wearable mobile computers built into their helmets, certified for use in process areas.

8. Extracting the software from a safety logic solver allows hardware to run independently in the cloud to check all logic, appropriate to the application, prior to installation.

9. Multiple layers of cybersecurity have extended protection, taking malware threats such as Triton and others seriously.

10. New batch offerings include new visualization capabilities, quickly showing differentiation from a normal or an ideal asset. It includes a greater ability to see the impact of how decisions now will affect future batches based on future equipment use. It gives operators a clearer view of downstream implications, that is, what traffic jams could result from changes now.

Think again and dispel old notions of old-school process controls. Initiatives and introductions like these embrace the best of Industrial Internet of Things and the fourth industrial revolution, Industrie 4.0 efforts.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


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Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.