Where Is Process Automation Headed?

Six technology trends promise to transform plants and entire enterprises.

By Norm Gilsdorf, Honeywell Process Solutions

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flying sensors. This safety-enhancing technology is becoming a reality today. If a facility experiences a problem, operators can dispatch a remote-controlled flying device to visually inspect the affected area. These devices can include sensors that, e.g., can detect gas leaks.
video as a process input. Many plants already have cameras pointing at their flare stacks. Going forward, video will provide more than images — color analysis capabilities will allow operators to use video as an alarm point and variable, for instance, for changes in flare composition.
embedded sensors. Work is currently underway to develop such devices, which perhaps represent the Holy Grail of process sensing technology. One example is embedding a sensor on a tray in a column to relay information such as liquid loading, temperature and pressure.

These advancements provide more than just additional data points — rather, they furnish more-specific data that truly give operators a greater understanding of how processes are functioning. This type of knowledge ultimately can help operators continually improve production while maintaining a safe environment.

Wireless As An Enabler
Wireless technology has changed how we conduct business and go about our daily lives. And it undoubtedly will alter how manufacturers operate their plants by allowing them to gather data from remote areas (tank farms, for example) where hard wiring is cost-prohibitive. Pipelines stretching across thousands of kilometers, for example, experience thousands of break-ins each year that ultimately lead to costly shutdowns for leak repairs Wireless pressure transmitters, though, provide a cost-effective solution for monitoring pipelines even from hundreds of kilometers away.

But reaching data in remote locations, while probably the most-discussed advantage of wireless, is only one part of the story. In reality, wireless technologies offer several functions that can help plants obtain the most-relevant information.

One major benefit that will take hold as wireless adoption increases is improved two-way information flow between operations, maintenance, engineering, HSE (health, safety and environmental) and other departments that historically haven’t collaborated. With this type of collaboration, wireless can help deliver the right information to the right people at the right time for safer, more-accurate startups and better equipment monitoring. This, in turn, will result in cost and production savings. A major North American refiner, for example,   as part of a control-room centralization project, recently installed a wireless network solution that has allowed various departments to better view and analyze data related to tank farm levels, which has led to greater coordination in production, equipment maintenance and employee safety.

Wireless is bolstering safety and security functions within the plant. As previously mentioned, wearable sensors can help protect workers from potentially hazardous situations. Additionally, they allow managers to more easily track individuals during actual emergencies to better coordinate with first responders. In the future, systems will be able to perform functions such as identifying a vehicle located in a unit where startup is imminent and then preventing the startup to ensure safety.

Converting Data To Actionable Knowledge
Unfortunately, gathering information is only half the battle. While improving that process is a strong start, simply providing more data that aren’t actionable certainly does no good. How then can plants make better use of information collected through better sensors and wireless technology?

This is an especially critical issue: statistics show operator error prompts approximately 40% of plant incidents and following incorrect procedures causes 30%.

A key technology trend, therefore, is the move to embed more knowledge into the technology itself to enhance operator decision-making. This approach can help operators take preventive actions to avoid process incidents that could lead to personal injury, costly repair and lost production.

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