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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Meanwhile, plants will continue to rely on a technology that’s been around for years — simulation — to better cope as the skill base of staff changes and operators face unfamiliar situations. For instance, because many units now stay online for very long periods, some operators never have executed a shutdown or startup. Simulation will play a crucial role in helping operators decipher vast amounts of information to make better decisions in the control room.

IT-Process Control Convergence
IT and process control historically have operated in their own silos. But as the overall plant becomes integrated, so will these two departments. Stable and emerging standards such as ISA’s SP95 are enabling this integration and clearing a path for capabilities such as:

• service-oriented architecture that delivers common services to support collaboration between manufacturers and partners;
• virtualization that delivers and maintains software while reducing the pain of technology churn;
• cloud computing infrastructures that collect and process data through central locations; and
• software that allows plants to centrally manage open systems despite a shrinking workforce.

Cloud computing is especially intriguing for its ability to tie multiple sites into a common control room and centrally manage many maintenance functions.

The approach has implications for system performance and monitoring, integrated production processes and applications expert support. Many forms of cloud computing are in use today to provide automation and loop-management support. However, pushing cloud computing further into the mainstream will require high-bandwidth networks, advancements in cyber security and greater computing power.

Unifying Automation Layers
The lines between plant automation levels are becoming increasingly blurred every day — business functions, advanced applications and control system platforms are more interconnected than ever before. As a result, more manufacturers are designing programs that link the entire enterprise and, therefore, connecting raw material availability to demand variability.

This strategy will play a major role in delivering specific information to the right people within an organization, along with the right amount of function and control. It starts with gathering data in a common database, establishing standards (e.g., for look and feel) and then distributing those data to various parts of the organization. The idea here is to eliminate time spent by different departments sorting through information that isn’t of value to them.

Specific examples of this unification can be found today in the batch manufacturing industries, such as specialty chemicals and life sciences. Integrated batch solutions, for instance, can deliver increased reliability with batch execution at all levels on a control-level redundant platform. It’s also proven to improve plant efficiency by reducing batch cycle times; this can lead to an annual 1% increase in throughput.

Likewise, great opportunities now exist for pharmaceutical manufacturers to bring manufacturing execution systems into the control rooms to help improve productivity, decrease errors and enable paperless plant operations that significantly reduce regulatory-compliance-related costs.

Going Beyond Plant Boundaries
Plants of the future need better connectivity across the enterprise if they’re truly to drive business results. Wider-spread adoption of common databases and platforms is essential for this trend to take hold. Now, different departments have dissimilar views on operating parameters, including alarm and shutdown points. Building a common database will enable groups within the organization to better collaborate to establish standard limits for processes and operate them in a safer manner.

Going beyond the plant control room can result in a demand-driven supply chain that ultimately maximizes profit. Consider this recent example: an Asian refiner sought to plan the supply chain for complex crude scheduling across multiple facilities. The network included 10 refineries, 200 depots, 40 terminals, 17 pipelines, six transportation modes and 80 crudes sourced worldwide. Using a modeling system, the refiner leveraged input from operator up to executive level regarding supply chain optimization. The company integrated five refineries in only 10 months and implemented a planning process that takes advantage of synergies among procurement, manufacturing, sales and distribution.

The Future Is Officially Here
Going forward, the most critical process that manufacturers will need to optimize may well be data-to-knowledge conversion. As market demands continue to fluctuate amid an uncertain economy, the status quo for process operation simply isn’t the most-efficient, or safest, path to profitability.

The tools plants need to rapidly adapt to these changing demands are largely still taking shape, but manufacturers must begin planning today (if they haven’t already) to incorporate them. Plants that make room now for future technologies will prepare themselves to gain a competitive edge that ultimately can lead to business success.

Norm Gilsdorf is president of Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix, Ariz., which can be contacted via hpsnews@honeywell.com.


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