Technological advances in the form of smaller and more powerful computers, cheaper data storage and faster, more pervasive communication networks are improving the way process plants operate. At this year's Emerson Global Users Exchange, held in October in Orlando, Florida, Doug White, director refining industry solutions, Emerson Process Management, described why these phenomena are resulting in progressively smarter plants. "Smart plants take advantage of wired and wireless measurement, field and safety devices," White said. "Predictive analytics and human-centric design also take center stage in the smart plants of today and tomorrow."
To set the stage, consider a recent application outside the realm of process control. Transferring information to the Curiosity Rover on Mars takes 13 minutes, but the craft's trip through the atmosphere to the planet's surface took only seven. "To synchronize control, mission engineers had to preprogram every single action and response to unexpected situations. Since then, related technologies have continued to evolve such that they can better support plant endeavors to efficiently boost production, ensure asset reliability, make operations safer and slash maintenance costs."
According to White, eliminating serious incidents tops plant management's list of important issues. "Technology addresses this by moving plant operations from reactive to predictive approaches. Smart plants can perform real-time measurements using relatively low-cost sensors for tasks such as condition and efficiency monitoring. Together with more powerful microprocessors and computers, smart plants have the capability to leverage huge amounts of digital data. Real-time data analysis frees them from having to react to events after the fact and helps them forestall potential disasters.
"For example, consider the series of explosions that happened in 2005 at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal in the U.K.," White continued. "Because the site did not have an overfill detection method, when a tank spilled fuel, it caused a series of explosions that led to Europe's largest peacetime fire. Fortunately, no one was injured. However, had the plant implemented a separate overfill protection method, it could have prevented the fire from happening in the first place."
Smart plants also address the problem that working in cooling towers is both unsafe and unpleasant, yet ensuring their smooth running is critical to many operations. "Cooling towers are wet, cold and slippery, so operators balk at traveling to the towers to ensure they are running correctly," said White. "This meant that most individuals never took the necessary readings. In contrast, a smart facility puts monitors on its cooling towers to measure process and equipment data, which then goes into a preconfigured software algorithm to reveal potential issues to the control room. In once case, a predictive approach eliminated 6,000 man hours of maintenance, boosted plant efficiency by 10% and helped avoid unscheduled outages."
Another challenge that current technology has also brought with it is new kinds of data in the form of videos, thermographic images and vibration spectrum information, continued White. "We need to figure out how to handle these kinds of data so it is easily retrieved and presented to engineers and operators to facilitate their taking action. In addition, issues of cybersecurity demand we come up with ways to recover after an intrusion."
That said, using smart technology helps process plants reach modern operating objectives, which can be summed by "the four zeros," said White. "These fall in the areas of zero serious safety incidents, zero excess energy use, zero unscheduled downtime and zero lost-profit opportunities."