Retiring chemical industry workers taking with them a wealth of knowledge on every aspect of industrial process management and control is a familiar story. The latest generation of workers is more digital savvy but, as most chemical plant managers know, computer knowledge doesn’t always help new personnel deal with established instruments like liquid analyzers and sensors. Indeed, less-experienced employees often lack the knowhow on how to handle routine events such as calibrating a sensor or determining whether to use pH or conductivity measurement to find the concentration of a chemical. At too many sites, the retirement of seasoned staff means that new workers don’t have the opportunity to learn from an experienced colleague.
Fortunately, plants can adopt relatively straightforward best practices to ensure that inexperienced employees and time-honored sensor technologies interface smoothly. Here, we’ll look at seven simple ways to build new employees’ familiarity and competence in dealing with liquid analysis.
1. Simplify wiring and connectors. At the most basic level, plants can make tasks easier for employees by using standard connectors, such as Variopol, between sensors and transmitters. Liquid sensors are frequently changed out, posing risks that inexperienced workers could cause damage to the wiring or instrument during a routine procedure. A connector that locates all connections in the right place automatically and helps reduce human errors is worth far more than its small investment.
While a large number of chemical plants continue to employ analog systems, it’s worth mentioning that a move to digital communications can markedly reduce overall wiring as well as the associated costs and installation time. Going wireless can provide even greater cost and time savings, as many plant managers already can attest. The use of a wireless network can decrease infrastructure costs and maintenance for gathering measurements from remote or difficult-to-access locations. Compared to wired alternatives, using a wireless architecture can save up to 60% per device. Equally important, wireless simplifies life for the workforce. Wireless eliminates the need for costly trench digging and wires, and makes adding new analytical instruments easy and straightforward. Many analytical instruments now can operate wirelessly through highly reliable mesh networks.
Figure 1. New workers already are attuned to using mobile devices and apps.
2. Employ easy-to-use instruments with common user interfaces whenever possible. New workers often don’t have the inclination, let alone the time, to read lengthy manuals cover to cover. To combat this, instrument manufacturers are making their products more user-friendly and intuitive. Look for transmitters with built-in help menus that allow digitally oriented hires to touch the display to get the answers quickly right on the device. In addition, instruments that enable inputting functions with only a few touches reduce learning time and cut down on mistakes.
Another reason to use as many instruments with common interfaces as possible is to decrease learning time. Some manufacturers design transmitters that are common among all liquid measurements. Learn it once and you’re done.
Also, consider purchasing instruments with built-in functions, such as data logging and control, that otherwise would require a separate device. Some liquid analyzers include data and event loggers that can capture measurement data from the process and the instrument. Control functions in sophisticated analyzers provide a number of capabilities — like date and time activations and relay triggering— that can save plant operators’ time. While these kinds of capabilities primarily lessen costs, they also prevent workers from having to use two or three instruments when one can do the job.
3. Use smart sensors with built-in calibration and other features. Today, sensors that store and auto-recognize calibration data are widely available. They’re particularly important in pH technology because, before the emergence of smart technology, the only way to calibrate a pH sensor was to carry all the calibration equipment into the field. In many facilities, this meant toting at least two buffer solution bottles, two beakers and one rinse bottle to someplace close to the sensor installation to perform calibration. The task took place whenever necessary, whether rain or shine, sleet or snow, or hot or cold weather. Smart technology changes all that. A smart pH sensor’s memory holds calibration information, eliminating the need to carry equipment to the field. Calibration can occur in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory or maintenance shop, with the calibration information uploaded into the sensor. The sensor then can be installed on-site or stored on a shelf (keeping sensors wetted) until it’s time to replace one in the field.
Many sensors implemented with smart technology also use a special cable-to-sensor connector system like Variopol. In such cases, a technician simply plugs the pre-calibrated sensor into the field equipment and it’s ready to measure. This is especially advantageous for facilities with remote instrument locations or multiple installations. In addition, it enables sensors to be rotated in and out as needed with minimal downtime. This quick and easy sensor exchange keeps the process up and running. Of course, plants must consider their hazardous location requirements before selecting smart instruments.
4. Use sensors with built-in diagnostics to reduce time in field. Many plants take advantage of the advanced diagnostic data available in today’s instruments — e.g., pH slope, reference offset, and glass and reference impedances. These advanced diagnostics flag operators when a sensor is performing marginally or failing, preventing potential loss of process control or production downtime. In addition, they allow plants to estimate probe life and plan maintenance schedules based on live data and thus avoid replacing or cleaning sensors more frequently than required. Predictive diagnostics free up time for technicians to do planned and productive work rather than constantly respond to emergencies.
5. Select sensors with built-in secondary measurements. Virtually every pH sensor today includes temperature compensation, which is a necessity because pH is temperature-dependent. Having the secondary temperature measurement is an obvious boon to the plant and its workers. In some cases, the temperature function can help prevent damage to delicate sensors, for instance, by setting off an alarm when samples are very hot.
Chlorine is another analysis where secondary measurements save time and money. As plants switch to amperometric measurement of chlorine to avoid the ongoing costs of refilling reagents associated with colorimetric analysis, secondary pH measurement is essential. Suppliers now offer integrated systems that package chlorine and pH measurement together so inexperienced workers have one less analyzer to worry about.
6. Take advantage of workers’ digital expertise by making instruments accessible through handheld devices. Keeping up with maintenance tasks like inspection, data collection, and review and analysis of field data to ensure reliability of the plant and avoid losses and overconsumption of utilities and chemicals poses substantial challenges to plant personnel. Lapses could result in noncompliance, fines, maintenance budget overages, disruption of production or safety incidents. This is an area where newer workers’ digital orientation fits in nicely with the quest of many plants to take advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). By automating wireless data collection, plants become more productive, saving time gathering data that then frees up personnel to perform more value-added activities like fixing small issues detected before they turn into big problems. This enables maintenance to become proactive and predictive.
New workers in their personal lives already rely on apps to deliver information. So, they readily take to apps that provide a view of measurement points on their mobile phone or other digital device (Figure 1). Such apps enable checking equipment from anywhere, greatly reducing the need for time in the field as well as personnel exposure to hazardous environments.
7. Utilize available systems integration capabilities to provide turnkey systems in a cabinet. Traditionally, chemical plants relied upon a combination of in-house expertise and systems integrators to produce the fully integrated liquid analysis systems required. This approach generally leaves the plant staff with a certain amount of systems integration to perform. However, as the number and experience of plant personnel has declined, analytical instrument companies have risen to the challenge, providing more-complete integration services to users. Today, some vendors offer turnkey packages that boast fully integrated capabilities, greatly reducing the burden on in-house staff.
In fact, a chemical plant can overcome issues posed by an inexperienced workforce by relying more on its analytical instrumentation partners. They have responded to the changes in the workforce by increasing their applications and support capabilities, which usually are offered at minimal cost to the user. Because analytical instruments are essential but complex, it makes sense to let the analytical experts take on some of the burden.
Head Off Hassles
Chances are that every chemical plant already is taking advantage of some of these seven steps. Many plants use smart instruments with diagnostics and quick connectors. However, the chemical industry is changing in more ways than just the shifting workforce. Evaluating these seven aspects of analytical measurement can pinpoint opportunities not only to lessen the impact of an inexperienced workforce but also to reduce costs, improve reliability, enhance uptime and more completely prepare the plant for the industry of tomorrow.
JASON DALEBROUX is director of product management for Rosemount liquid and combustion analysis products at Emerson Automation Solutions, Shakopee, Minn. Email him at [email protected].