Control Systems: Plant Benefits From Augmented Remote Operations

Sept. 6, 2021
First commercial implementation of prepackaged system showcases its value

Plant management at the Honeywell Specialty Materials’ polyethylene wax production facility in Orange, Texas, wanted to maintain business continuity for manufacturing operations while abiding by social distancing policies. The plant was faced with pivoting its operational practices rapidly to deal with the challenges of today’s ever-changing environment.

The Orange facility had gone to a split-shift arrangement where half of its engineers were at the plant and the other half worked from home. The site needed a way for personnel to stay connected to process operations while working remotely. The goal was to limit the interaction between engineers and operators who were on site in the central control room.

Plant engineers conferred with remote operations specialists from their sister division, Honeywell Process Solutions, and decided to implement Experion Augmented Remote Operations (ARO) to enable, if needed, off-site locations to control the Orange plant.

Prepackaged Solution

While the setup of a dedicated remote operations center can take years to plan and commission, drop-in deployment of ARO requires only about a day’s time and no re-engineering. Users can employ the same human/machine interface (HMI) displays, configurations and menus as their control room station. Pre-built ARO virtual machines can be downloaded and deployed in virtual infrastructure and configured on site to meet the needs of a specific facility.

With the ARO approach, a dedicated server augments the plant distributed control system (DCS) and provides remote operations capabilities to authorized users. A single ARO server can host multiple concurrent users of control room stations, enabling the performing of operational support activities from a different area on site, from another operations center, or even by users working from home who access the system via a secure virtual private network connection to the corporate information technology network.

Engineers or operators working remotely have the same integrated user experience as if they were in the actual control center at the site. They can view the process in real time by looking at the same graphics and warning signals they normally see in the control center. The system is configured to require credentials to view certain processes or to allow the same control of the process as the operator in the plant.

ARO provides high levels of cybersecurity restricting unauthorized access to the system. This allows for more secure remote plant operations — not just remote engineering like homegrown or customized remote options. The ARO platform includes safeguards such as digital certificate authority records, encrypted https communications and multi-factor authentication. Access permission can be granted to authorized personnel on a per-user basis. Users can be restricted to read-only access for monitoring capabilities or granted read-write access for full remote operations tasks.

The applications for augmented remote operations can extend beyond monitoring or operating control systems — including, for instance, to bringing in video virtual support from off-site experts or via virtual or augmented reality. Likewise, personnel can pull in digital information to enhance a process. In addition, use of digital twins to replicate all physical assets can enable engineers to remotely work on plant projects in a cloud data center using a software representation of the physical equipment.

Furthermore, augmented remote operations can help to improve efficiencies across areas on the same site or different ones. Users can repurpose equipment such as existing engineering and training stations at other locations or utilize operator consoles that may be available at these facilities. The ARO approach also allows multiple sites to securely share their operations with other control centers or operational staff working from another office location or home.

Initial Implementation

This project, the first commercial implementation of ARO, began in late March 2020 and was completed in less than two days. The ARO package consisted of a virtual server containing software and remote desktop gateways, which were connected to the plant DCS to augment the existing process control scheme. The virtual server was located on the demilitarized zone network between the process control and business networks to afford expanded monitoring and control capabilities. This approach provided additional stations that personnel outside the main control room can access remotely, when appropriate.

By leveraging remote desktop technology, the use of ARO allowed the plant to have DCS clients on its business network without the installation of any control system software whatsoever.

The ARO software setup took approximately 10–15 minutes for each user and was easy to accomplish. A single person was designated to coordinate setup activities with all the stakeholders on site. This individual served as a dedicated resource who scheduled meetings with each shift supervisor, engineer and leadership team member. Having such a clear roll-out plan helped everyone see the benefits of ARO more quickly.

Control system engineers and process experts can use ARO to monitor production processes and provide operational support from outside the control room. A remote operating station, set up in an administrative building conference room, replicates the control room console HMI and allows temporary control of the plant during emergencies when evacuation of the main control room is necessary. The remote workstation currently is being used for incident investigations and process hazard analysis. This capability has been very useful for workers in the administration building. The control system HMI is accessible for designated users from anywhere on the business network.

Thanks to the availability of ARO technology, management at the Orange plant could restrict access to the control room to minimize the potential exposure of board operators to health hazards. In the past, operations staff and engineers went into the control room multiple times a day to get control system information. The use of ARO allowed enactment of strict social distancing measures.

Additional Benefits

ARO also has proven valuable for operational troubleshooting and collaboration between engineers and operators. A large project implemented over three phases added the technology for each reactor train on site. The first weekend after implementation of ARO, the lead project engineer was called because the site had an unexpected shutdown on one reactor train. A board operator was attempting to start up the unit and needed help to get it running. The lead project engineer logged in to the ARO dashboard and, while on the telephone, walked the board operator through both the outside and inside steps to get the unit restarted. This saved at least four hours of downtime on the reactor by allowing immediate troubleshooting collaboration between operations and engineering.

The knowledge that remote operation of the Orange facility is possible during an emergency has given plant leadership a certain peace of mind. Previously, security was the main concern with remote operations and, consequently, the technology never was used at the site. The ARO system provided enhanced security that allowed for the implementation of new software and hardware to make this capability available.

ARO also promises to reduce emergency response time at the plant by enabling process experts to quickly access the control system HMI when offsite to provide rapid troubleshooting assistance.

The initial deployment of ARO technology at the Orange plant was seamless and non-disruptive. Installation activities were completed within a few days with the help of a dedicated implementation leader, who provided troubleshooting assistance and helped individual operators and engineers become familiar with system log-in, start-up and other aspects of the new remote capabilities. As this was the first installation, ARO deployment at future sites likely should take less than half a day.

CHRISTINE CRAIG is technical manager at Honeywell Specialty Materials’ Orange, Texas, plant. COLIN HAMS is Brisbane, Australia-based offering manager, Experion HMI, for Honeywell Process Solutions. Email them at [email protected] and [email protected].