Outsourcing analysis of key plant data helps to increase efficiency, reliability and profitability
Vladimir Nitu, connected services manager at Emerson, explains how highly secure connections to plant automation systems and intelligent field instruments are enabling automation companies to provide remote monitoring services, helping processing companies and manufacturers to achieve significant operational benefits without having to develop in-house data analysis expertise.
Outsourcing IT support to a remote specialist company with a team of experts on call around the clock has been common practice among businesses for many years. Organisations have become comfortable in allowing third-party support services to access their IT network via secure remote connection, to manage their IT systems infrastructure and software, and quickly and efficiently diagnose and resolve any issues. Within a manufacturing environment, the emergence of smart sensors and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has enabled original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to gain remote access to their machines once installed and provide lifecycle services to their customers. Machine builders can help the customer to diagnose issues or perform proactive maintenance to identify impending issues and prevent them worsening or causing costly downtime.
In the process industry sector too, plantwide ecosystems have enabled organisations to gather more data than ever before relating to the performance, health and status of process equipment and automation systems. Such data only becomes useful when it can be properly analysed and acted upon. However, analysing potentially complex data can be difficult, especially if there is a lack of suitably skilled resources on-site. Consequently, many organisations have turned to automation vendors to provide data analysis and support services. Typically, because of sensitivity around network security, data has been collected on-site and then periodically provided offline for analysis by the automation vendor, with recommended actions sent back to the organisation.
Critically though, following recent advancements in cybersecure solutions for remote connectivity, companies are increasingly having the confidence to give external experts access to their automation systems and sensing networks, without fear of exposing themselves to data breaches or disruptions. Allowing automation vendors remote, real-time access to process equipment and automation systems data enables organisations to achieve faster and more comprehensive results, without having to develop specialised in-house expertise. Personnel are free to respond to more urgent daily priorities, and maintenance activities and shutdowns can be better planned. Let’s look at some typical applications in which remote services provided by automation vendors can be used to achieve significant benefits.
Control system health monitoring
Suboptimal performance of distributed control systems (DCS) can lead to serious process disruptions and costly unscheduled downtime. However, manual system health checks can often miss intermittent issues and underlying health warnings that could lead to a system disruption if left unmitigated. To help optimise DCS performance, automation vendors can provide system health monitoring as a remote service. Such a service provides continuous centralised monitoring of control system assets, including controllers, servers, switches and network components. An on-site monitoring device automatically checks important health information, enabling issues to be detected quickly and alerts routed to the automation vendor. The vendor’s experts can then diagnose the root cause of the problem and recommend actions to mitigate the issue.
Knowing that their DCS is being monitored 24/7 by expert engineers with extensive knowledge of the system provides organisations with reassurance and peace of mind. Faster issue detection and resolution results in reduced equipment failures, data loss and downtime, thereby increasing asset availability and profitability. Maintenance managers can shift from a reactive maintenance strategy to a proactive one, enabling improved personnel efficiency and resulting in fewer safety issues, repairs and labour costs.
Valve health monitoring
Control valves play a key role in safe and efficient plant operation and ensuring process availability. A malfunctioning or failing control valve can cause process fluctuations that are sometimes not perceived. Such variability reduces yields and efficiency, and can degrade product quality through contamination or becoming off-specification. Poor control response from a critical valve can even lead to a complete unit shutdown. On average it costs about $5,000 (€4,500) to pull a valve, yet it is commonplace for all valves to be pulled during a turnaround, despite around 30% not needing service or repair. Therefore, knowing when valves require attention enables organisations to optimise turnarounds, minimise downtime and make considerable cost savings by ensuring that only the valves that actually require maintenance are pulled.
Digital valve controllers are positioners that ensure valves are operating according to the control signal, and also provide access to diagnostic data. However, not only can vast amounts of data be captured, but it can be so complex that it requires deep expertise to undercover the specific corrective actions that will be required. Many companies simply do not have such expertise in-house, but they can overcome this challenge by using a remote monitoring service. Automation vendors can securely gather, visualise and aggregate real-time diagnostic data from valves. A global network of analysts can then view a valve’s health data and inspect its condition history to determine trends and predict impending deterioration. This allows them to provide valuable insights, and data-driven recommendations that enable maintenance to be scheduled and performed well before an alarm is triggered and operations are significantly interrupted. This then leads to improved plant safety, availability and profitability.
Machinery condition monitoring
Whilst the importance of monitoring the condition and performance of critical plant assets such as pumps, compressors and turbines is universally recognised, it is not without its challenges. Organisations need to prioritise which equipment to monitor and when, and they must choose the right monitoring technology for each plant asset. They need to ensure that the data they gather is accurate, and if they want to implement an in-house condition monitoring and data analysis programme, they must have both the resources and the requisite skill sets to do so.
Alternatively, automation vendors that provide a plant’s analytics software and solutions can also take on the responsibility of building a comprehensive performance and monitoring strategy for its critical assets. This way, a team of highly skilled analysts with extensive product knowledge provide remote condition monitoring. Having access to real-time key machinery health data enables these experts to not only deliver insights into performance anomalies that could lead to a critical failure and costly downtime, but also recommend resolutions. The experts will provide a documented analysis that identifies any mechanical fault conditions or beneath-the-surface issues with production assets before significant disruption is caused. This leaves plant personnel free to focus on taking corrective action, thereby reducing operational and maintenance costs. In addition, knowing the efficiency of key assets enables companies to adjust their operating parameters and improve the planning of their maintenance schedules to achieve further benefits.
Steam trap monitoring
Steam systems are designed with steam traps to remove condensation from the piping, thereby protecting plant equipment and allowing efficient process operation. When steam traps fail, there is a significant impact. Extreme damage can be caused to plant equipment, personnel can be put at risk, and product quality and throughput can be affected. Sporadic manual surveys and limited effective maintenance can lead to steam trap failures going undetected and unrepaired for months on end. Steam trap leaks can account for 10% of a plant’s energy costs because of the time delay between trap failure and proper diagnosis and maintenance.
Real-time automated monitoring of steam trap health and performance is therefore vital for both safety and financial reasons, and this can be provided by automation vendors as a remote service. The service includes installation of the necessary hardware and software, plus continuous monitoring by steam system experts. These experts analyse the data that is generated by wireless acoustic transmitters attached near each steam trap, collected through proprietary software, and transmitted to the vendor’s monitoring service. The vendor then provides actionable information so that corrective steps can be taken immediately – not in weeks or months, as losses mount. Even steam trap repairs and replacements can be handled as part of the service, making the process completely hands-off for plant personnel. Remote steam trap monitoring helps to increase safety; improve product quality and process throughput; reduce equipment damage, energy loss and costs; and ease pressure on plant personnel.
Corrosion and erosion monitoring
Corrosion and erosion are extremely dangerous because they invisibly attack plants from the inside. If not well understood or controlled, they can lead to poor plant availability, high reactive maintenance costs and potentially major incidents due to loss of containment of the process fluid. Corrosion and erosion also affect operational performance because they limit how hard a plant can be driven. If organisations are unaware of the true extent of corrosion damage, large safety factors must be applied to operational decisions, to avoid excessive damage, and this results in the process being run below its maximum capability and potential profit being lost. If the corrosion is more aggressive than anticipated, leaks and unplanned outages can occur, incurring extreme financial and safety ramifications.
It is therefore critically important to implement an effective corrosion and erosion monitoring system. However, in industries such as oil and gas, refining and chemical, obtaining measurements is challenging due to the extreme temperatures of the equipment being monitored and the hazardous and inaccessible locations involved. There are also many variables that affect the rate of corrosion – such as feedstock changes, temperature and process adjustments, and flow rates – and these can alter daily.
Automation vendors can help organisations to meet these challenges by providing automated corrosion and erosion monitoring systems, along with experts to monitor and analyse the generated data as a remote service, helping the effective planning of maintenance tasks. At the heart of the latest monitoring systems are compact, non-intrusive, ultrasonic wall thickness measuring sensors that monitor areas at elevated risk of internal corrosion or erosion. The sensors deliver wall thickness measurements with unparalleled accuracy and frequency, providing much greater visibility into the condition of the plant.
As part of a remote service, expert analysts will combine data from all the corrosion monitoring equipment installed on-site, analyse it and then interpret it into actionable information to ensure process integrity. If excessive corrosion is identified, then maintenance can be scheduled appropriately, for example during periods of planned downtime, helping to avoid costly leaks and shutdowns. Crucially, the frequently updated data provides much greater understanding of the effects of feedstock variations and process conditions. This provides organisations with the information and confidence needed to run their plant more aggressively and closer to its maximum capacity but still within safe limits, therefore increasing profitability.
In many cases automation vendors are now being asked to take full responsibility for the lifecycle management of their systems, software, valves and intelligent field devices. This includes managing and performing software updates, testing, recalibration, servicing, repair and replacement. Outcome based contracts focused on maximising equipment and process availability utilises remote connections to diagnose potential issues, but instead of providing insight and direction on actions to resident maintenance personnel, the automation vendor will handle all maintenance tasks on site. In some cases, vendors will even provide resident engineers.
Text: Vladimir Nitu, connected services manager at Emerson
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