Sunday, April 21, 2013

Real time control squared!

Most engineers know what real time control is. For those few, who have forgotten click here to get Wikipedia's definition. But what is real time control squared? That is what I use to describe integration of new data sources in the real time control system. This could be for example weather data used to optimize plant performance. In the IT world such applications go under the label of either 'big data', 'business analytics' or 'business intelligence'. Recently Vesta - the windmill manufacture - described an application they used to schedule maintenance of wind mills, so the lost power was minimized. This application considered performance data from the wind mills, weather data for the area, and expected duration of work.

From running our process plants we know, that a summer thunderstorm has a significant impact on e.g. distillation towers. Suddenly the heat loss to the environment change from being subject to a metal to air heat transfer to be subject to a metal to liquid, i.e. rain water, heat transfer. This can be a significant disturbance. Usually weather forecasters can alert us such a thunderstorm some time before its impact on the facility. This information could be used to adjust the real time control system ahead of the storm. With the pressure sensors in modern smartphones, one could even envision locally used weather models based on onsite temperature measurements and pressure readings form co-worker smartphones.

This is just one example. Other more complex examples easily comes to mind. One could be run length optimization for cracking furnaces to avoid calling in maintenance personnel during the night shift. Although some former colleagues of mine consider furnace run length unpredictable. As control engineers we need to think about the missing information in our control applications, and how this information could be provided.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Two tragic events within a week! - and a similarity

This week the world experienced two tragic events. One was clearly terrorism, and the other at the moment appear to be what most of us would call an accident.
The first was of course the Boston Marathon bombings last Monday, and the other was the fire and explosion at the West fertilizer plant in Texas. Both events killed innocent people and injured many more.
In Boston 3 were killed in the initial explosion and one more later during the hunt for the terrorists. More than one hundred suffered injuries - and many of these lost one or more limbs. Strangely enough thanks to medical developments as a result of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan these people today are better off than they would have been without the developments resulting from the war.
In the town of West the fatality count is currently at 14, but many are still unaccounted for. More than 200 suffered injuries from the explosion. The number of fatalities and injuries are what you will read in Wikipedia and other sites describing current events.
Although the two events are very different, in one aspect they are similar. Hidden behind the persons killed or injured are a much larger number: the number of people suffering a  loss of a loved one, of a father, or a mother, of a son, of a daughter or other relative or a good friend. That number is 10, 25 or maybe 100 times the number of fatalities and injuries. These people are also injured, but there injuries are not visible.
Next time you spend time considering the security of a major public event or participate in a HAZOP study of an existing facility, an expansion to an existing facility or a completely new facility, then think about all the invisible injuries, that will not occur if you do a good job!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Integrated Operations and Google Glass

If you are already into Integrated Operations (IO) or if you are considering implementing IO, then you definitely should get your hands on a pair of Google Glasses. Google have just made the specs public, and one of the features is real time HD (720p) video of whatever you are looking at.

IO is the idea of integrating experts on a site, e.g. a drilling platform or a remote plant, with experts at another location, e.g. corporate headquarters or a vendors expert. IO simple cut out the time needed to get the expert to the site, and hence significantly reduce problem solving time.
Photo of Google Glass. Round dot is the camera.

One of the elements of most IO implementation is real time video from the remote site to the relevant experts somewhere else. This video could of course be recorded with a standard portable video camera.  But that require at least one hand to operate the camera. With Google Glass the camera has moved into the glasses hence freeing up both hands for other tasks.

To get an idea what you can do with Google Glass take a look at the video of the opening keynote at Google I/O 2012. About 1 hour and 30 minutes into the video you will see what skydivers see when they jump from a blimp above the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Currently Google Glass is not generally available and they are rather expensive - about US$ 1500. Nonetheless I think you should take a look at what you can do with them here. Then start thinking about how this technology could improve your IO.