Saturday, September 12, 2015

Can the process industry learn from the telephone industry?

In the July issue of Hydrocarbon Processing there is an article by E. Spiropoulos from Yokogawa titled "Use advanced automation and project management to simplify refinery construction". It really is about how automation projects are traditionally executed and how industry - and in particular ExxonMobil - would like to see them executed in the future.

Traditionally automation projects have been executed sequentially: Design --> Application --> Hardware --> Field Installation --> Loop check. ExxonMobil and others argue, that this can be done better through improvements in project management and technical improvements by moving from sequential to parallel in the task to be performed, and this will make projects shorter and avoid schedule overruns. The mentioned article also reproduce a contribution by T. Madden from ExxonMobil Development Company in Houston. This is titled "ExxonMobil's plan for self-configuring field devices". The concept is called DICED and involve the following steps:
DICED work if the pieces are made to work together.

  • DETECT: Automatic detection of new HART-enable devices on the control network.
  • INTERROGATE: Automatic transmission of HART command requesting device tag - using HART 6 or HART 7 devices with long tags. In case of failure the use automatic get a message about a change in field wiring.
  • CONFIGURE: Automatic configuration with engineering range, engineering units and other configuration information. Field devices are purchased with just the tag name preconfigured.
  • ENABLE: Engineering, configuration and testing of a new field device is done in a virtual environment, so the system knows about the new device and the control strategy it is associated with. At this point the devices and it associated logic is enabled for use.
  • DOCUMENT: If above steps are successful, then it will be recorded in the control system event log. The expectation is that some commissioning activities can also be automated.
This process will automate a number of tasks, which current and in the past require field trips by technicians and sometimes also contact over radio to an engineer and an operator in the control room.

But why are ExxonMobil stopping here? In the past making a phone call between to parties required, that they were connected with physical wires in order to talk to each other. Cell phones have changed that. Today phone companies can connect any to persons from and to most points on earth. They can even handle connecting to individual phones in a stadium filed with 40.000 or more people, many of whom simultaneously use there phones to take photos or video and upload that to somewhere for sharing. This is possible because each phone has a unique identification - much like a tag in a control system. The many phones connect to a providers phone central, which then connect to users at nearby or far away places.

The phone from which the phone call originates is much like a field measurement signal in a process plant, and the phone being connected to is much like an actuator in a process plant. So why do the automation providers like Yokogawa and the users like ExxonMobil stik with one to one wiring of signals from field to control system and back to the field. Would it be possible to save large amount of wiring cost by transmitting signals over the air? I think so! What do you think?

If we can connect people correctly on a stadium like the one to the left, then we should be able to use similar technology to connect transmitters and actuators in our process plants, and save the wiring to better thinks, e.g the emergency shutdown system. I even thing, that the cost of device with the phone connection will not be much more than those with wired terminals. After all the vendors, and save the cost of the terminals.