Plant of the Future: Whither Wireless?

May 26, 2009
Futuristic plants aren’t far off and herald even more dramatic changes.
Predictions made only a few years ago about the “wireless plant of the future” already are outdated. The rapid evolution and adoption of wireless technology by the process industries mean it’s very realistic to expect such plants to emerge within the next five years. These plants won’t be limited to greenfield sites. Indeed, wireless will play a crucial role in optimizing operations at brownfield plants. So what exactly will these “futuristic” wireless-enabled plants actually look like? How much will they really differ from the current plant environment? Let’s view this through the eyes of key people at the plant. The Reliability TechnicianIn a way the reliability technician already lives in a wireless world — just not in the good sense. Very few pieces of equipment that must be monitored have wired instrumentation because the cost of wiring back to the control room is prohibitively expensive. As a result, the typical plant installs wired protection systems only for high-value assets such as large turbines, which generally represent less than 10% of rotating equipment. So today’s reliability technician must make daily rounds to check the performance of the bulk of the assets — spending a lot of time taking measurements such as pump vibration readings and then manually entering results into databases, and not nearly as much time actually conducting analyses and proposing solutions that improve asset reliability. In addition, because monitoring is so time-consuming, some assets get checked infrequently, often only once a month.
New Capabilities Beckon
Wireless technology will give plants functionalities they lack. For instance, a new category of low-cost field devices likely will emerge over the next year or so — to gather additional indication-only data that will help operators run units more smoothly. These devices won’t aim to replace wired instruments in controlling the process but rather will provide extra data points to improve optimization as well as safety and regulatory compliance. In the old wired world, these types of devices didn’t make much sense because they required expensive wiring. In the new wireless world, though, being able to implement a device such as an incremental temperature transmitter for a couple hundred dollars can make a significant difference and truly help the facility manager change the way the plant is operated.

Another area expected to grow over the next few years is streaming audio and video over the wireless network. Traditionally, these tools have served for checking physical security on fence-line perimeters. New opportunities exist, though, to use video to monitor assets and temporary work. For instance, maintenance personnel may wish to observe a specific pump. If it begins to fail, staff can view the video to see if anything is physically wrong with the unit without having to drive to the location. Likewise, wireless video can ensure contractors are performing work in a safe and acceptable manner.

Additionally, wireless video will bolster collaboration within the plant gates and beyond. For example, reliability technicians carrying wireless video cameras on rounds will be able show a remote expert what they see, dramatically speeding up the troubleshooting or repair process.

A final area of emerging wireless technology relates to employee safety and physical asset tracking. Wearable RFID tags will become more common, enabling plants to readily locate workers — an especially valuable capability during plant emergencies. RFID tags also will allow easily keeping track of high-value assets vulnerable to theft or misplacement.
In the wireless plant of the future, rounds will become less frequent because wireless instrumentation will capture and immediately send relevant data back to the control system — no manual entry needed. It will be possible to get high-quality data several times a day from assets. The benefit will go far deeper than saving the reliability technician a long walk. The much richer pool of information and much greater time for analysis will result in more productive use of valuable technician time — and thus in more-reliable equipment, which means less downtime, decreased maintenance costs and increased production. For example, many lower-cost bearings on pumps tend to fail before larger secondary damage to shafts or couplings occurs. Identifying a bearing problem early can avoid significant expenses. It might cost around $10,000 to replace the bearings — while a plant might spend $30,000–$50,000 to repair and balance a damaged shaft. Research shows that using wireless instrumentation to monitor assets more frequently sometimes can cut maintenance costs in half. In addition, knowing a certain pump is soon going to fail allows appropriate planning — e.g., making changes to the process, not running the pump as hard to prolong life, ordering replacement parts to minimize downtime or even switching over to a backup pump. The reliability technician can be prepared to service the pump when it eventually fails with minimal impact to plant operation. Wireless networks also will speed troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining equipment by providing real-time access to crucial information. Today work on equipment often gets delayed because the proper routines and procedures documentation are in the office, not in the field. With a wireless connection to the plant’s systems, the technician can save considerable time by downloading the appropriate procedures or process data to a mobile device such as a personal digital assistant. The Process EngineerGrappling with process problems often requires installing devices to provide necessary data. This now can take weeks and incur high costs. Wireless will enable a process engineer to quickly and very inexpensively deploy new measurement points, troubleshoot problems and tune system efficiency. It already permits getting data cost effectively from standard dial gauges without physically being at their locations — by using clamp-on wireless gauge readers. The speed in getting data can make the difference between continuing production and a plant incident. The OperatorA console operator will gain freedom to venture out of the control room without losing control over the processes being managed. A mobile device will provide access to all necessary data such as control system alarms and set points to provide better visibility into what’s happening inside the plant. One major refiner recently employed wireless to help a facility better comply with safety requirements that direct personnel to respond to process alarms within 10 minutes. The facility was so vast that an operator making rounds on the opposite end of the plant wouldn’t likely be able to get back to the control room in time if an alarm tripped. This had meant that half of the operators had to remain in the control room waiting to respond to alarms while the rest worked in the field. The refiner mounted mobile devices in vehicles. The devices provide a view of the control system — a mobile control room for all practical purposes — that enabled operators to quickly respond to alarms no matter where they were. The company estimates it gains $1.2 million/year in efficiency improvements, which is a significant return for a system that cost approximately $200,000 to deploy. The Plant ManagerWireless offers bottom-line benefits to the plant manager. It typically will reduce the capital cost of an automation project by 50%–80%. In many cases in today’s economic climate, going with wireless technology can mean the difference between continuing with an upgrade or placing the entire project on hold for the foreseeable future. While the lower investment is compelling, it’s only one of several business benefits of moving to wireless technology. For a greenfield project, cutting construction by a few days or weeks potentially could mean millions of dollars in increased revenue from earlier start of production. Wireless, because it’s faster to deploy and inherently allows teams to work in parallel, can dramatically reduce wiring and commissioning time for the automation system. The same holds true for plant expansions or other projects that promise increased capacity or efficiency. If wireless technology can reduce project time, then project benefits can accrue that much sooner. The plant manager also must ensure continuing compliance with safety and environmental regulations. A wireless network enables quick and inexpensive response to changing regulatory conditions. For instance, one facility used wireless to comply with U. S. regulations requiring control rooms to be notified within 10 seconds when a safety shower is activated. Rather than rewire dozens of safety showers to meet this mandate, it deployed wireless sensors; wireless video cameras triggered by these sensors allow safety managers to assess the situation and take appropriate steps. Looking Farther Down the RoadWe’ve been focusing on the very near future. Wireless technology promises to have an even more profound impact longer term. Plants a few decades from now will include things such as three times as many sensing points, increased global collaboration via remote management, and, yes, even robots. They won’t include central control rooms, input/out (I/O) racks or battery replacement. Let’s take a quick look: Control without a control room. It’s very realistic to expect that plants built 20 to 30 years from now will be almost entirely wireless. Gone will be the racks of I/O and, with them, central control rooms. By removing the limitations of wiring and taking advantage of advances in virtualization technology, massively redundant control clusters will replace today’s monolithic control systems. Small central monitoring stations, augmented with centralized multi-site control, smart systems and distributed control to individual workers, will supplant the “fishbowl” control room itself. Cutting-edge research exploring these types of architectures already is underway, e.g., for extensive water-distribution networks. Better power sources and significantly lower overall costs. For years one of the main criticisms of wireless has been battery replacement cost. Likely improvements in battery performance, coupled with use of fuel cells and energy harvesting, essentially will eliminate that cost — and make wireless the choice for more than 90% of plant I/O. We’re already witnessing a transition from proprietary batteries to standard form-factors, cutting replacement cost to a quarter of previous levels. Clearly, it’s advisable to buy systems that use standard battery types. Battery life is increasing but now is limited by battery-chemistry shelf lives of 10 years. However, likely improvements in battery chemistry should mean the next battery change will be the last these devices need in their lifetime. In the future, wireless devices may not require battery replacement; they’ll come as sealed units with a 30-year life. The result will be that wireless devices will have essentially no maintenance costs over their lifetime. In addition, sensors themselves will provide higher levels of wireless communications reliability through meshing technology improvements, better radio performance and system-level redundancy. Three times the information. Improved battery performance will bring more-flexible sensing capabilities and spur far greater information gathering. The number of sensing points should triple from today’s level. Plants therefore should be prepared to handle the crush of new data that will be generated. They also, before buying a wireless system, should assess whether its architecture supports this level of scalability without a dramatic increase in total cost of ownership. Improved control and other algorithms and expert systems potentially could serve to sift through the data to pinpoint opportunities for increasing operating efficiencies, safety and flexibility while reducing emissions, operating costs and surprises. The daily routine. Workers in the plant will spend their days quite differently. With live data at their fingertips anywhere in the plant, they’ll be able to operate much more effectively than they do today. Seeing something suspicious, such as unusual machine vibration or a gauge reading higher than normal, they’ll use “lick and stick” sensors they’ll carry to quickly capture new measurements. In many plants, wireless devices will completely replace manual dial gauges. Additionally, high-speed wireless links will enable plants to call upon experts throughout the world to help solve problems. Such links also could allow robots to handle particularly remote, tedious or dangerous jobs. These developments promise to dramatically improve safety by enhancing ability to detect upsets and hazardous events (such as gas emissions) and minimizing dangerous jobs through superior automation. [sidebar id="2"]How Do We Get There?At many companies the question isn’t whether they’re interested in wireless but how to get started with the technology. For greenfield projects, many chemical makers simply will compare wired versus wireless quotes to determine their future directions. In almost every case wireless saves significant capital. In facilities being designed today wireless sensors suit 40%–60% of I/O points. Many brownfield installations begin with a small pilot project. An application that offers substantial costs savings and relatively low risk, such as equipment health monitoring or tank farm automation, will let the plant learn about the wireless technology and determine how else to apply it (Figure 1). A common approach for piloting equipment health monitoring is to pick eight to 10 “troublemaker” assets that incur high repair costs. For process engineers, a good place to start is identifying data that would be valuable but historically have been hard to get. Another ripe area is pinpointing opportunities to improve worker productivity via mobile devices. Forward-thinking chemical makers are formulating their wireless strategies today. By carefully choosing wireless projects, working with experienced vendors and selecting wireless equipment that can handle today’s needs and provide the scalability to support future requirements, some sites already are well on their way to becoming “the plant of the future.” Jeff Becker is director, global wireless business, for Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix, Ariz. E-mail him at [email protected].

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