Asset Management: Plants Look Off Site For Insights

Jan. 27, 2021
Pandemic fosters use of remote access and virtual attendance

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced chemical companies and their vendors to find new ways to carry out activities. The experiences of INEOS Styrolution, Endress+Hauser and Emerson exemplify innovative efforts to share valuable information.

“Similar to most companies, at the start of and continuing through the pandemic, INEOS Styrolution significantly reduced and, in some cases, completely eliminated travel. As a result, we recognized early on that we would need to find new ways to complete activities that we normally accomplish in person,” says Melissa Cohen, vice president supply chain and procurement, INEOS Styrolution, Americas, Aurora, Ill.

With most non-operations personnel working from home, the company clearly needed to find technology to allow staff to view activities and equipment virtually.

After assessing several commercially available options, INEOS opted for HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1 devices from RealWare, Huntsville, Ala. The units, regular and intrinsically safe, respectively, include a camera and snap on to hardhats.

“The intrinsically safe model was very important as this is a requirement for some of our manufacturing areas. Their cameras have great clarity, a very important requisite for remote monitoring, and they have a great deal of software capability including integration with Microsoft Teams. We are still working through a couple of issues to get the technology to work completely. For instance, in our very large sites, Wi-Fi is not always available everywhere,” notes Cohen.

At the beginning, the plan was to use the RealWare technology primarily to complete safety and environmental audits. However, the company has continually found new applications for using remote monitoring tools, she reveals.

Here, she cites their value for factory acceptance testing of equipment for a new plant currently under construction at the firm’s Bayport, Texas, facility (Figure 1).

Texas Application

Figure 1. New camera technology eases handling of a range of activities at the site. Source: INEOS Styrolution.

“Normally, the engineering team schedules an in-person visit to certify that the equipment meets specifications before it ships to the site. Since some of our equipment is being manufactured overseas, it is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to complete this testing in person. With the new technology, the vendor can walk us through the testing of the equipment in real time and we can ask questions or direct them to make changes according to our needs,” explains Cohen.

Another use is during routine safety and environmental audits of the company’s plants — including as part of its membership of Operation Clean Sweep, an international program designed to prevent and help keep plastic litter materials out of the marine environment.

“Earlier this year, we tried to use iPhone technology to reach a wider group of auditors and, although this worked to some extent, the new technology will allow us to be much more efficient.”

“There are many possibilities for utilization of the technology that we have not explored yet. Another of our primary objectives is to conduct customer trials remotely, as it is significantly easier to arrange the time for a remote trial based on the customer’s availability versus trying to synchronize multiple travel schedules. Other options for use include interior and exterior vessel inspections, and warehouse cycle counting, to name a few,” Cohen states.

INEOS Styrolution currently is rolling out the technology both in the Americas and Europe. If the technology continues to prove successful, the company plans to extend its use to its Asian sites as well.

Because of its benefits, the technology likely will continue to play a role even when travel restrictions lift, believes Cohen.

Remote Support

Instrumentation and automation supplier Endress+Hauser, Reinach, Switzerland, found that many of its customers were struggling to conduct critical service work on instrumentation at their sites during the pandemic. Fortunately, the outbreak coincided with pilot tests of the company’s cloud-based Visual Support technology that enables audio-visual support for diagnosis and troubleshooting, commissioning and regular maintenance of field devices (Figure 2). With the help of live video transmission and screen casting, its technical support team can work almost as if they were on-site, helping customers in a reliable and flexible manner with their service tasks via remote access, says the company.

Remote Support

Figure 2. Off-site experts use live video streams to help plant personnel deal with instrumentation issues. Source: Endress+Hauser.

The pilot involved integrating Visual Support into its support services portfolio, giving customers access to in-depth technology and product knowledge, including guaranteed availability and response time from Endress+Hauser’s global network of technical experts.

For ten weeks from March to May last year, the company offered the pilot service free of charge to customers. During that time, Endress+Hauser conducted more than 250 Visual Support sessions worldwide.

“Customers gave us a lot of positive feedback,” says Franck Perrin, corporate director service excellence. “They are enthusiastic about this new form of support and have experienced how Visual Support can save time and money.”

The positive response to the pilot spurred the company to speed up integration of Visual Support into its support service offering.

At the heart of Visual Support is a visual assistance platform developed by Sightcall, San Francisco, targeted specifically at improving the efficiency of field services.

“The application runs on Android or IOS smartphones as well as Windows-based computers. This tool is fully embedded into the Endress+Hauser CRM and service delivery platform. From here, our service engineers have access to all necessary technical information about field devices. Important information from the visual support sessions is captured to give transparency and provide a documented case resolution to our customers,” notes Perrin.

“We have seen numerous cases where problem identification took place much quicker and issues were solved faster respectively using the new technology. We learned that we could indeed solve issues remotely that used to require a field service call-out from a specialist,” he adds.

For example, he cites the success of the approach in solving a flow measurement problem in the water treatment plant of a food and beverage maker. There, the water flowing through wasn’t measured correctly. The local technical staff couldn’t detect any visible problems or damage when checking the device; so, they assumed the meter must be damaged because no readings were displayed. The Endress+Hauser technical support team used Visual Support to inspect the installation and check the settings via the device display.

“Our expert identified a problem due to incorrect commissioning of the device. After adjusting the low flow cutoff value, the unit worked properly again — only three hours after the call to Endress+Hauser, with the remote session lasting only one hour from the visual inspection to the adjustment of the unit settings. Most importantly, the customer was able to avoid a field service visit from an expert and the time and cost associated with that,” stresses Perrin. Moreover, the rapid solution of the problem meant the customer didn’t lose any production.

Now, the company is working on the next extension of its support service offerings. This will enable establishing a remote connection on the Endress+Hauser device configuration tablet, the FieldXpert.

“Remote connection via screensharing to FieldXpert has been piloted extensively and it is clearly seen as an added value. Globally, we launch the new offering together with the FieldXpert bundle in the next coming weeks,” he notes.

Virtual Roadshow

Meanwhile, Emerson, St. Louis, has introduced a virtual option for its annual roadshow, in which a mobile service center equipped with the latest advances in digital transformation for machine safety, machine automation systems and fluid control, tours multiple countries (Figure 3).

Mobile Roadshow

Figure 3. For the first time, visitors can tour the center virtually as well as in person. Source: Emerson.

The idea is to give both in-person visitors and virtual attendees access to materials and videos highlighting new products and technologies from the company. How to use Industrial-Internet-of-Things-based technologies as part of a digital transformation strategy, and how to use machine safety in pneumatics to reduce risk without compromising productivity get particular emphasis.

“Due to current travel limitations, we created a digital event that allows us to connect globally with customers in new and exciting ways by virtually touring the mobile service center,” said Wolf Gerecke, director of pneumatic product marketing for Emerson’s Automation Solutions business, at the launch in November.

The mobile roadshow runs for 11 months across multiple countries. It already has travelled to several customer sites in Germany, with other visits planned for France, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Spain into the spring of 2021.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can email him at [email protected].

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