Process Control Systems: Widespread Wireless Beckons

Unprecedented amounts of data promise real value but security remains a concern

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The rise of wireless sensing technologies that are multivariable and self-powered, cover wide areas, and are easy to configure and maintain presents both solutions and challenges to the chemical industry. For operating companies, such technologies allow access to hitherto unknown levels of process data, opening a vista of vastly improved process control and management. For vendors, the challenge is to both improve and increase the range of existing sensors, and to ensure that all the data from them is presented in such a way that customers can drive plant efficiency and profitability. Ultimately, though, wide acceptance will depend upon making these new technologies totally secure.

The benefits of such sensing regimes already are emerging. At the Emerson Global Users Exchange in Grapevine, Texas, last October, a speaker from the Flint Hills Resources refinery in Pine Bend, Minn., explained how using wireless vibration transmitters for continuous fault detection had reduced maintenance costs dramatically and prevented possible catastrophic failures. Similarly, a speaker from Fluor, Irving, Texas, recounted how one of its customers used wireless acoustic transmitters to provide instant alerts about failed steam traps, saving $36,000 in the first year.

For Emerson, these are tangible outcomes of its new "pervasive sensing" strategy that stemmed from a review of customers' requirements to improve plant safety, reliability and energy efficiency. The company believes it has found a "business critical" space next to its traditional process control space — one that could be worth $16 billion.

"Pervasive sensing is an outcome, not a set of products," notes Eric Milavickas, wireless, sales and marketing director, Emerson Process Management, Chanhassen, Minn. "These business-critical results are achieved with incremental investments that acquire new insight without adding complexity, all while increasing profitability and productivity."

Pervasive sensing has three basic elements: sensor technology that enables data collection, industry expertise that analyzes the data, and actionable information that communicates to the customer what action to take and when (Figure 1).

Milavickas cites the example of stream traps. A typical chemical facility might have more than 4,000 of them, 800–1,000 of which are critical. "For an $800,000 investment, a typical return can be achieved [in] anywhere from 6–14 months depending on the cost of the steam and the size of the various traps. In addition to the energy savings, there is an incredible safety and reliability message that helps the customer avoid a water hammer situation and keep their overall system working more optimally. Once you analyze the steam trap and generate the right information about that individual piece of equipment, we are then able to take that data and convert it into actionable information for the customer."

It's a similar story with capital equipment such as heat exchangers, pumps and compressors: with pervasive sensing, it's possible look at the oil level in a pump seal and also to monitor changes in vibration in the pump. "Using software analysis of the data, we can give customers actionable information," he explains.

One unnamed customer — the operator of a next-generation process plant — is determined to seize the opportunities offered by pervasive sensing to substantially increase the number of measurements. The facility already has installed 20,000 process-critical instruments. Now, it aims to boost measurements by 60% for business-critical applications, adding an extra 2,000 personal-safety, 8,000 reliability and 2,000 energy measurements.

Pervasive sensing also is attracting interest from customers that transport products. One barge owner on the Mississippi requires 24-hour remote monitoring to verify accurate custody transfer of oil. "The customer wanted to know if we could continuously monitor level transmitters for them, something which is critical to ensure proper business practices are taking place. We see this more and more on moving tanks, such as on rail or trucks," says Milavickas.

One major hurdle with pervasive sensing is making sure that customers can reap the benefits of all the new data to which they have access.

"This is one of the basic challenges for us," admits Milavickas. "We have the basic software and, at the moment, we are working on making it easier to get to the information. In the visionary case, we are looking at web-based solutions, i.e., you could download an app to get the interface you want. In October we launched a PC Navigator, which is essentially hardware with software enabled on it that allows the customer to manage their entire wireless system. This is our first tool for marrying wireless infrastructure together. We will continue to develop this product and have a more definite perspective on it by the end of 2014."

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