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Chemical Makers Embrace Virtualization

Dec. 21, 2015
Approach can provide significant advantages for automation projects

Chemical makers are realizing real benefits from virtualization, an approach to automation that separates the physical and functional aspects of a control project into independent hardware and software activities. Implementation of automation projects can go more quickly, safely and efficiently, report BASF and vendors such as Siemens, Honeywell Process Solutions and Emerson Process Management.

However, using virtualization technologies can pose a number of challenges, cautions Michael Krauss, senior automation manager at BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany.

“Cost is certainly one, along with time and efficiency, because it can be quite a lengthy process with today’s simulation products,” he says.

Engineering efforts are high at the beginning of a project and also during its lifecycle, he explains. For example, keeping the simulation of a plant up-to-date is a big challenge — doing that might require up to one full person per plant.

In addition, setting up a project simulation requires significant preparation time. Often the model might not be fully ready at the time of plant startup, especially if project details change — as often happens — along the way. “So you do need to set an earlier project freezing date for the simulation,” he adds.

On the other hand, given well-trained operators, virtualization technology helps to keep a plant online and optimized. This is very important from the point of view of overall efficiency because, for example, it can reduce the amount of off-specification product. “It also allows us to test certain things in advance using the simulator. For example, if high fidelity is in place on the simulator, even very complex processes can be modeled. So it’s a good test bed for your plant optimization work and means you can potentially do more optimization, too,” Krauss says.

Faster Commissioning

Figure 1. Virtualization technology cut time from a typical 3–4 weeks to under a week. Source: Siemens.

Successful Project

To further develop its virtualization capabilities, BASF has been working with Siemens, Dusseldorf, Germany, and design, engineering and construction company M+W, Stuttgart, Germany, on how to make commissioning even safer and more efficient — while at the same time exploring new ways to test process variations without risk or disruption to operations.

The two-year project involved a pilot plant for the batch manufacturing of plant protection products at Ludwigshafen.

“BASF wanted to test whether simulation has additional value when it comes to software quality and length of commissioning,” notes Ute Forstner, marketing manager chemicals, Siemens, Dusseldorf.

For the pilot, BASF used a simplified cold commissioning model, i.e., it only simulated water flowing through the plant. “This simplification resulted in a drastic reduction of the simulation effort but still helped us to perform more tests than in a traditional FAT [factory acceptance test]. For example, we could test batch sequences running in parallel and interlock strategies. In both areas we were able to detect errors which otherwise would have to be fixed during the site commissioning,” explains Krauss.

The project, because it involved migrating from one control system to another, didn’t require the lengthy startup associated with a greenfield project. “Our main concern was keeping the automation system free from engineering errors because the new system basically had to do the same as the old system; if the errors weren’t found early enough, they would delay startup. However, operations achieved startup very quickly, days faster than expected,” he adds.

“The goal was achieved, with commissioning in under a week rather than the typical 3–4 weeks or longer, so the customer could start production earlier. Software quality was extremely high, with no further bugs found,” notes Forstner (Figure 1).

With the pilot work successfully concluded, BASF now is using the experience in its internal processes by screening projects in terms of potential benefits versus the costs involved.

BASF’s long-term vision for virtualization technologies focuses largely on increased efficiency through better integration between the engineering and the simulation interfaces. With a fully integrated tool like this, the simulator might even auto-change when engineering data are updated. “This, in turn, would reduce the costs and efforts involved in simulator setups. So, this would also make simulation much more accessible. With the advances of technologies such as the Internet of things, the need for digitalization will only grow and lead to a higher need for simulation,” Krauss adds.

More Projects

Siemens has several projects, not all pilots, currently underway with other chemical companies, reveals Forstner. The emphasis of these is two-fold: first, to generate higher-quality data sooner in the project phase to reduce the duration of commissioning; and, second, to train operators much earlier before the start of plant operations.

On a broader industrial scale, the company installed 80 virtualization systems in November alone.

Its “Simatic Virtualization as a Service” aims to give easy access to advanced virtualization technology and includes setup of the virtualization server, configuration of virtual machines, installation and configuration of the operating system, turnkey installation of the Simatic software, plus technical support for all of the system components.

“This service will develop further as we improve our Simatic PCS7 DCS [distributed control system] technology in the face of market demands,” she adds.

Easier Implementation

Figure 2. Software aims to allow process control engineers to remain in their comfort zone. Source: Emerson Process Management.

Another Success Story

Honeywell Process Systems, Houston, cites impressive results for a project at the Durango, Mexico, plant of DuPont (now part of the DuPont spinoff Chemours, Wilmington, Del.). In July 2015, the Durango site completed a DCS upgrade project that was accelerated by two years using Honeywell’s Experion virtualization technology.

The challenge of this project was to speed the integration phase necessary to run in parallel with the production design phase. The project was cost- and schedule-driven. DuPont wanted to avoid purchasing the large number of servers a conventional system demands. So, its automation team turned to virtualization.

The company used Experion servers to perform the required simulations and to interface these closely with the real-world project. Benefits included improved planning and implementation of the automation system, which has been a particular benefit in new research-and-development efforts, and the ability to pre-order equipment months prior to any new implementations.

The Experion package itself contains the software and hardware needed to run virtual machines, virtualization-ready applications, off-process development and control center backup software, and support services. Honeywell’s latest offering is a premium platform for its virtualization technologies that delivers advanced capabilities, including automatic host recovery and upgrades with zero operational disruption. In addition, the platform provides a longer lifecycle, reduced facility footprint and remote management capabilities in a preconfigured package, saving users time to deploy.

Increasing Interest

Emerson Process Management, Round Rock, Texas, also is finding greater acceptance by chemical makers for its virtualization technology. Companies in the pharmaceuticals and life sciences sector still lead the way but the chemicals industry is running close behind in terms of uptake, says John Caldwell, DeltaV product manager for virtualization.

A lot of people who were on the fence before about virtualization now are seeing its benefits, he notes. “More and more companies are willing to use virtualization on their production systems; we are finally crossing the chasm.”

Chemical industry concerns that virtualization would make the control infrastructure the responsibility of the information technology (IT) department rather than process control engineers are fading. “Progress is being made here because of a lot of especially younger engineers are much more IT savvy and not intimidated by new technologies, and control departments and IT departments are learning to work together more and more,” he adds.

Also contributing to this uptake is a deep understanding of what the chemical industry is looking for in terms of virtualization technology. Long before the company’s latest offering — Delta Virtual Studio — was released in late 2013, Emerson conducted a major survey that revealed three main concerns of chemical makers. First is complexity, i.e., industry worries that controls systems would become too complex to operate and maintain. Second is support. “The companies don’t want to rely on multiple software vendors and support organizations to keep their systems running. They want to maintain their own systems with a single point of support from the DCS vendor as needed,” explains Caldwell. Third is risk and reliability. Chemical makers fear introducing new risks that could compromise system availability. “Virtualization can be perceived as ‘putting a lot of eggs in one basket’ and provisions need to be in place to protect against hardware failure and to provide fast disaster recovery,” he adds.

So DeltaV Virtual Studio (Figure 2) is designed specifically for process control in a way that keeps process control engineers in their comfort zone, without them having to become IT experts at the same time. The judges of CP’s 2015 Vaaler Awards obviously saw the merits, bestowing an award on the software.

Two years after the launch of DeltaV Virtual Studio, Caldwell says three main benefits now are driving chemical customers to invest in virtualization technology. Number one is flexibility and productivity. This leads to faster project execution using multipurpose development, test and training environments that can minimize upfront equipment required to start project work — and enables late binding of control equipment in the field.

Second is lower cost of ownership. A lot of companies are interested in decreasing the number of servers and workstations, to reduce footprint, maintenance costs and, in some cases, energy consumption. “For some customers, the main driver is extending system life without software upgrades. Many customers are forced to upgrade software because the hardware becomes obsolete. Often virtualization can extend the life of their software without forcing software upgrades, which is often perceived as risky,” notes Caldwell.

Third is higher availability and disaster recovery. “We have learned from users that new capabilities for automatic failover and faster disaster recovery are perceived as a major benefit, ranked equal with cost savings as the biggest driver to adoption in production environments,” he notes.

“Most customers start using virtualization in their offline systems for development, testing and operator training. For online systems, most customers wait for an opportunity such as a planned hardware or software upgrade to virtualize.”

With many virtualization systems already in place, Emerson now is emphasizing making software upgrades as easy as possible. The company’s vision is to make control-system software upgrades a one-click operation — just like upgrading smartphone software.

Version 3.3, due at the end of December 2016, should include automated software upgrades that will startup new virtual machines with the latest DeltaV software and copy existing control-system configurations automatically. When upgrading DeltaV software in a virtual environment, users also will benefit from being able to use their older virtual machines as a safety net; if a problem with the software upgrade arises, they easily can fall back to the older software.

“If there is one overall message here, it’s that the industry is concerned about its control systems being too complex when virtualization is implemented. So, we are doing everything we can to make virtualization easy for the process control industry,” he concludes.

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

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