Bit-Banger Does Process at AX

Oct. 4, 2007
Refineries can blow up, but with the square footage and sheer magnitude of the systems, the process control engineers have to get it right.
By Jeremy Pollard, CET

I’m a discrete kind of guy—you know, photoeyes, on/off, and machine control. In the same manner that I participate in Control Design’s AutomationXchange, I was asked to do the same at Control’s Process Automation Xchange in August.

I jumped at the chance. The attendees still are geeks, but they’re process automation end users. I thought I knew what that difference was, but maybe not.

My escort duty for the first day was Paul Castañuela, a controls guru for Johns Manville, a Denver-based company that makes insulation and other building materials. His main focus was on how well the automation suppliers presented their solutions to some of his problems. His solution decisions would come later.

Some of the solutions he was looking for weren’t product-based, but were service-based. I also learned a bit more about hybrid solutions (process and discrete) from him. The very large overlap of discrete and process has led to a new type of hybrid system integrator, a company that is a subject-matter expert in both disciplines.

I was also on the supplier-meeting trail, visiting with different companies that I thought I could learn more from. I visited with Iconics. Russ Agrusa, president of the Foxborough, Mass. company, and I have known each other since the early ’90s from the discrete world. Iconics is/was an HMI company, and I was curious about his presence at a process event. “Flow and pressure,” he said. “That’s what an HMI does.” So anything with an analog transmitter can be considered process, I now realized.

At that point I wished I’d had this conversation earlier in the event. But it certainly helped with subsequent conversations I had with some of the other attendees. Emerson, Foxboro, and Bailey were some of the process guys from years past—Fisher, as well. Companies buy companies, so Invensys is a big dog in process. They also bought Wonderware, a well-known HMI software developer, a while back. So are Wonderware and Iconics in the same process game? Indeed they are.

Later, the old argument about DCS versus a PLC or PAC solution resurfaced. I asked the Rockwell contingent about their process offering. ControlLogix and an HMI was the answer. So the same hardware and software you would use for discrete machine and line control was being used for process as well.

When I discussed this with Paul, he said for smaller operations you could approach the application in varying ways. I could relate since, based on Agrusa’s definition, I have done process apps, such as extruders. We used a PLC, a touchscreen HMI, and analog I/O.

But for the big process dogs such as oil and gas, you have to use what’s designed for it. Legacy DCS systems used function blocks for programming and connecting the dots. PLC/PAC hardware can do the same. But are they good enough?

Not according to my buddy, Paul. He says the software, firmware, and interface need to extend into advanced control for a true process solution, like those from Honeywell. “It’s all about the software,” said Paul.
It looks like the real process automation companies have that built-in. With the scale of some of the processes, and the number of loops and analog points, you don’t want to be “bolting on” code to make up for some of the deficiencies.

The common thread for all of the attendee/users was doing things better. I have a better understanding of why they have this passion. Refineries can blow up, and maybe terrorism potential plays a part in the zeal, but with the square footage and shear magnitude of the systems, the process control engineers have to get it right.

We bit-bangers can learn from our brothers and sisters on the other side. I’ll be at the ISA conference with a different attitude this year. See you there, maybe. We can even talk some process if you’d like.

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