Plant of the Future: Whither Wireless?

Futuristic plants aren’t far off and herald even more dramatic changes.

By Jeff Becker, Honeywell Process Solutions

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The benefit will go far deeper than saving the reliability technician a long walk. The much richer pool of information and much greater time for analysis will result in more productive use of valuable technician time — and thus in more-reliable equipment, which means less downtime, decreased maintenance costs and increased production.

For example, many lower-cost bearings on pumps tend to fail before larger secondary damage to shafts or couplings occurs. Identifying a bearing problem early can avoid significant expenses. It might cost around $10,000 to replace the bearings — while a plant might spend $30,000–$50,000 to repair and balance a damaged shaft. Research shows that using wireless instrumentation to monitor assets more frequently sometimes can cut maintenance costs in half.

In addition, knowing a certain pump is soon going to fail allows appropriate planning — e.g., making changes to the process, not running the pump as hard to prolong life, ordering replacement parts to minimize downtime or even switching over to a backup pump. The reliability technician can be prepared to service the pump when it eventually fails with minimal impact to plant operation.

Wireless networks also will speed troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining equipment by providing real-time access to crucial information. Today work on equipment often gets delayed because the proper routines and procedures documentation are in the office, not in the field. With a wireless connection to the plant’s systems, the technician can save considerable time by downloading the appropriate procedures or process data to a mobile device such as a personal digital assistant.

The Process Engineer
Grappling with process problems often requires installing devices to provide necessary data. This now can take weeks and incur high costs. Wireless will enable a process engineer to quickly and very inexpensively deploy new measurement points, troubleshoot problems and tune system efficiency. It already permits getting data cost effectively from standard dial gauges without physically being at their locations — by using clamp-on wireless gauge readers. The speed in getting data can make the difference between continuing production and a plant incident.

The Operator
A console operator will gain freedom to venture out of the control room without losing control over the processes being managed. A mobile device will provide access to all necessary data such as control system alarms and set points to provide better visibility into what’s happening inside the plant.

One major refiner recently employed wireless to help a facility better comply with safety requirements that direct personnel to respond to process alarms within 10 minutes. The facility was so vast that an operator making rounds on the opposite end of the plant wouldn’t likely be able to get back to the control room in time if an alarm tripped. This had meant that half of the operators had to remain in the control room waiting to respond to alarms while the rest worked in the field.

The refiner mounted mobile devices in vehicles. The devices provide a view of the control system — a mobile control room for all practical purposes — that enabled operators to quickly respond to alarms no matter where they were. The company estimates it gains $1.2 million/year in efficiency improvements, which is a significant return for a system that cost approximately $200,000 to deploy.

The Plant Manager
Wireless offers bottom-line benefits to the plant manager. It typically will reduce the capital cost of an automation project by 50%–80%. In many cases in today’s economic climate, going with wireless technology can mean the difference between continuing with an upgrade or placing the entire project on hold for the foreseeable future. While the lower investment is compelling, it’s only one of several business benefits of moving to wireless technology.

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