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How Chemical Processors are Conjuring Machine Magic Through Digitalization

Feb. 1, 2023
We examine how the digitalization of machine performance keeps chemical plants running during challenging times.

Remote condition-monitoring technologies and services, which increased in use during the Covid-19 pandemic, continue to change the way process engineers work.

The growth of digital connectivity via the cloud has provided the infrastructure that makes it possible to offer condition-monitoring services without the need to be on site, according to Mari Haapala, digital solutions unit lead for ABB Motion.

“Digitalization and enhanced connectivity through the cloud have been crucial in tackling the access problem,” she says. “Remote-access services have increased safety since teams don’t need to be on site. Yet companies were still able to receive the services they needed to keep their operations up and running.”

Cloud-based condition monitoring also enables more data sharing, Haapala says. That’s because industrial operations can gather and process equipment performance data in real time, which adds significant value by delivering more timely business insights. The result, she says, is better decision-making that maximizes productivity, improves resilience and reduces costs.

Full Shutdown Averted

An example of this occurred during lockdown at Xianglu Petrochemicals Zhangzhou’s plant in Fujian, China. It produces benzenes, liquefied petroleum gases and other products.

“Users want easier, faster ways of working with instrumentation as a younger, more technology-savvy workforce becomes responsible for running the plant,” he shares. “They’re used to technology working like ‘magic,’ and that’s a much higher standard than the process control world has had in decades past.”

According to ABB, the plant reported an outage after one of three ACS1000 variable speed drives on a raw materials mixer tripped due to a power fault. Any downtime of more than 24 hours would allow the raw materials to solidify, requiring manual clearing and then a full cleaning of the mixer. The loss of material in the mixer would cost $150,000 alone, says ABB. The whole process also would have to be stopped, leading to additional losses.

But the plant had installed a condition-monitoring-for-drives service from ABB in 2018 that had been remotely collecting all the drive performance data, including availability, condition, operating parameters and fault events.

The condition-monitoring data allowed ABB engineers to trace the fault to a failed output capacitor. On-site tests by the plant operator further confirmed this. It then took four hours for ABB engineers to source and supply the spare parts needed.

Powertrain Monitoring Gets a Boost

To further expand its condition-monitoring offerings, in September 2022, ABB announced a partnership with Dutch electrical signal analysis (ESA) company Samotics. The plan is to develop a system that uses both Samotics’ SAM4 plug-and-play ESA technology and ABB Ability condition monitoring service for powertrains, a sensor-based technology that analyzes the health and performance of rotating equipment. The solution will be designed to help process engineers optimize maintenance, boost reliability and reduce downtime – particularly of assets in harsh environments.

The two companies are currently setting up four joint pilots in four unnamed process segments — harsh conditions being the common factor. “Samotics has already successfully implemented their solution in these environments — so we are looking forward to fast joint results,” says Mari Haapala, digital solutions unit lead for ABB Motion.

Further down the line, the plan is to co-develop digital services solutions with Samotics to fully integrate its technology with the ABB Ability powertrain portfolio and offer customers a seamless asset monitoring experience in any given environment.

In terms of the initial agreement, Haapala says the companies were on track with their plans to roll out the Samotics technology in limited markets by the end of 2022, with plans to increase availability geographically over time.

Top Condition Monitoring Tips

When it comes to advice for process engineers who might be struggling to find the best technologies and strategies to pursue with a condition monitoring project, Mari Haapala, digital solutions unit lead for ABB Motion offers the following guidance:

First, digital condition monitoring should not be compartmentalized. “Rather, it should focus on complementing process engineers’ traditional service activities by offering new aspects that will expand and enhance what they are already doing,” she says.

Second, projects don’t always have to be a “big bang.” A stepwise approach can enable customers to progress at whatever pace they find most comfortable. “Condition monitoring will deliver tangible benefits even when just applied to the most critical applications,” she notes. “Although, the benefits multiply rapidly when connectivity is rolled out to an entire industrial powertrain.”

More generally, she emphasizes that an important, and often overlooked point about digitalization is that success requires rather more than simply connecting equipment to the cloud: “A partner with service expertise is essential to make effective use of the data collected.”

Andrew Cureton, business development manager for the chemicals market at Emerson Automation Solutions urges an openness to working with multiple technologies. “One-size-fits-all is a mentality I see many users struggling with, and this approach can make it hard to get started and create positive change,” he says. Cureton acknowledges that while it can be uncomfortable for people who have lived entirely in the world of critical process control, stepping outside that and into the world of monitoring opens up many more opportunities for trial and error. Experimentation should be made a priority, he stresses.

Nathan Hedrick, national product manager overseeing level, flow, temperature and pressure at Endress+Hauser, underscores the importance of starting with an installed base audit, either carried out in-house or by a service provider.

“Many users already have smart instruments installed in their operations today, but there is a lot of untapped potential,” he says. “It’s quite possible that the user already has what they need in terms of the installed base, and they simply need to make a few upgrades rather than purchasing new equipment.”

This, he notes, can be a much more cost-effective way to start gaining experience without the need to purchase entirely new equipment. Hendrick’s other recommendation is to begin by focusing on a problem that needs to be resolved, such as build-up, corrosion, foaming or entrained gas/gas breakout.

“Ultimately, users can begin collecting data in these areas where known issues are present to later correlate the additional instrument diagnostic data with the issues themselves,” he advises. “Manufacturers can also provide guidance and suggestions on the most relevant monitoring parameters to correlate with the issues, specific to the process and application.”

Tech-Savvy Magic

Increasingly, industrial operations are realizing the value of digitalizing manual activities using wireless, self-powered instrumentation as a low-cost way to collect data compared with traditional manual methods, says Andrew Cureton, business development manager for the chemicals market at Emerson Automation Solutions. Chemical plants can send the data to a historian or similar application for analysis or storage.

“Once that data is being collected, getting it off-site over a VPN or a cloud service empowers engineers and technicians to get more done remotely from home or from a central work location in support of multiple facilities,” he explains.

The chemical industry, in particular, has shown a strong interest in wireless instrumentation and continuous online data collection.

“We see countless users replacing manual indication gauges with wireless process instrumentation,” Cureton says. “The goal is to reduce time in the field that is low value-added. It lowers personnel risk exposure and frees up time to work on actual maintenance activities. Most chemical plants focus on one type of inspection or one process cell/unit to try wireless out, while a few have gone all-in for a transformational upgrade. Covid 19 had a lot to do with accelerating these projects as personnel were discouraged from being onsite.”

The move to continuous online data collection means plants don’t have to shut down operations to observe maintenance issues, such as corrosion. For example, one chemical plant used a corrosion-monitoring sensor on a gasification column for continuous data collection over a couple of years to determine when a section of it needed to be safely retired and replaced, Cureton says.

User experience also has become increasingly important as the workforce changes, Cureton says.

“Users want easier, faster ways of working with instrumentation as a younger, more technology-savvy workforce becomes responsible for running the plant,” he shares. “They’re used to technology working like ‘magic,’ and that’s a much higher standard than the process control world has had in decades past.”

Another trend is a growing demand for environmental monitoring capabilities as sensors become more versatile and less costly to implement versus traditional process control instrumentation, notes Cureton. The sensors can measure environmental variables, such as air temperature, wind speed, gas emissions, noise emissions and radio spectrum utilization.

Exposing Issues

Predictive maintenance is another key area where wireless, cloud-based technologies are helping chemical processing organizations optimize their operations. This includes digital diagnostics and analytical tools, such as Endress+Hauser’s Heartbeat Technology, which continually audits instrumentation for measurements, such as flow, level, pressure, temperature, liquid analysis and gas analysis.

The technology delivers instrument diagnostics to a control system, cloud-based application or an on-site historian for monitoring/trending and alerting purposes, explains Nathan Hedrick, national product manager overseeing level, flow, temperature and pressure at Endress+Hauser USA.

“The biggest evolution has been through the extension to other technologies and measurement tasks, Hedrick says.

In some cases, it makes sense to deploy several types of measuring technologies to monitor and diagnose a maintenance problem, such as build-up of deposits in pipes.

“For instance, if a user knows that they have issues with build-up in their process, it can be extremely valuable to have multiple technologies installed informing them when build-up is occurring,” Hedrick explains. “One device alone indicating a possible build-up is present could be sufficient, but if two, three, or four devices start to warn of the same thing, it becomes even more credible.”

About the Author

Seán Ottewell | Editor-at-Large

Seán Crevan Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor-at-Large. Seán earned his bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick and his master's in radiation biochemistry at the University of London. He served as Science Officer with the UK Department of Environment’s Chernobyl Monitoring Unit’s Food Science Radiation Unit, London. His editorial background includes assistant editor, news editor and then editor of The Chemical Engineer, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ twice monthly technical journal. Prior to joining Chemical Processing in 2012 he was editor of European Chemical Engineer, European Process Engineer, International Power Engineer, and European Laboratory Scientist, with Setform Limited, London.

He is based in East Mayo, Republic of Ireland, where he and his wife Suzi (a maths, biology and chemistry teacher) host guests from all over the world at their holiday cottage in East Mayo

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