Understand the Real Benefits of Virtualization

The technology can reduce risk and improve capital efficiency for automation projects

By Paul Hodge, Honeywell Process Solutions

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Virtualization, coupled with cloud engineering, provides significant advantages for deploying process control systems at chemical plants. The technologies can prevent cost and time overruns — and thus improve overall results — on automation projects.

Today, when it comes to implementing process control systems, modular construction techniques are driving the need for early hardware shipments and reduced time to integrate components. In addition, global sourcing, geographically distributed engineering, and remote locations of construction sites make the project lifecycle increasingly dynamic by nature.

Unfortunately, execution issues afflict many projects. Indeed, according to the International Journal of Project Management, 70% of projects overrun their cost or schedule by 10–30%. This trend has gotten worse as larger and more complex projects involve a wider variety of engineering expertise and occur in areas of the world where standards vary and local expertise may be sparse.

Chemical firms must simplify what traditionally has been a long and expensive automation design process to get plants up and running quickly. Last-minute changes are inevitable and may mean a design must be altered, the build or configuration modified and, potentially, the testing of components repeated. However, major changes coming in the midst of control system deployment can result in months of delays and millions of dollars in costs and lost production.

During new construction, particularly on mega-projects, it’s crucial to minimize risk, increase flexibility, shorten schedules and, most importantly, keep automation systems off the critical path. This requires eliminating non-value-added processes — ones that essentially waste resources. Typical examples include rework and redundant tasks.

The growing demands placed on automation system suppliers to accommodate evolving project execution models have required reassessing traditional delivery models, which are sequential in nature. In fact, the processes employed in delivering control systems have changed little in the past 30 years, although the technology in these systems constantly has been evolving over that time (Figure 1).

Now, though, the workflow on projects can differ dramatically. New approaches to project execution can optimize processes and eliminate non-value-added activities that once were highly problematic. These techniques aim to drive effectiveness — not efficiency — because to efficiently do what is not required is not effective.

New System Design Approach

As business demands escalate, chemical companies are seeking ways to refocus and optimize their automation project strategies and, in so doing, achieve greater agility in hardware and software design. They also want to break down task dependencies on project teams and simplify control system implementation.

Rising hardware costs are prompting concerns among plant management about the number of computers in the facility as well as the total cost of ownership for its control system infrastructure. Deployments of manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and human/machine interfaces (HMI) require dedicated physical server hardware, which frequently is under-utilized by a given application. In contrast, virtualized control system infrastructure can be run on multipurpose hardware that supports a greater variety of functionality with fewer but more versatile components.

Recent changes in project implementation strategies support the traditional workflow for physical hardware components and an independent workflow for functional software. This approach moves beyond lean execution by removing the traditional dependencies that restrict project workflows. It drastically improves the overall project schedule to keep automation systems off the critical path.

Separating the physical and functional aspects of a control system into independent hardware and software design activities enables performing both tasks in parallel. Breaking the dependence of software configuration from hardware delivery also allows undertaking configuration activities much sooner, prior to design completion. The functional and physical designs then are bound together at the conclusion of both workflows (Figure 2).

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