Optimising plant performance through digitalisation

Published:  08 January, 2019

Industrial plant operators are increasingly supporting better decision-making by using the digitalisation capabilities available through instrumentation and plant management systems. Saverio Barbero Lodigiani and David Lincoln for ABB Measurement and Analytics in the UK, explain how these capabilities can help to boost plant and process performance by providing the data needed for smarter operation and maintenance.

The advent of digital technology is transforming the way that plant is managed across everything from manufacturing through to utilities. In recent years, a growing raft of digital functions have found their way into measuring instruments and analysers that have helped to open new possibilities for greater plant efficiency, particularly in the areas of diagnostics and maintenance.

Successful adoption of digitalisation starts with identifying the right balance of tools such as web-networked instrumentation and systems including analytical data management software. Maximizing the value of this technology, however, is as much about exercising a mind-set of efficiency – in terms of the specific benefits it will bring – as it is about tracking raw numbers.

At the most basic level, plant managers implement digitalisation to improve their snapshot view and understanding of what’s happening in their current operations. At the highest levels, they use it strategically for improving customer satisfaction, balancing allocation of capital, and supporting better decision-making in day-to-day business, financial, and operational activities. In all cases, digitalisation provides a platform for enabling more consistent operations without burdening users with the overhead or technicalities of a large data processing structure.

Taking maximum advantage of the benefits of digitalisation requires thinking beyond existing operations. It requires an attitude where change management, communication, and training are just as important as technology tools. Employing that broader perspective helps users create and implement more all-encompassing solutions rather than simply automating existing instrumentation functionality.

The strategic benefits offered by more comprehensive data collection and management can include:

Greater diversity of collected data

Some intelligent instrumentation provides added-value data for end users beyond its primary function. For example, some chemical analysers and level detectors provide temperature sensing that can influence better process control decisions. Flow meters that measure conductivity in the pipe can detect changes over time to indicate that more contamination is present and chemical dosing needs have changed. Flow meters that detect air bubbles caused by pump cavitation, or that provide vibration readings, can identify needs for preventive maintenance activities.

Cloud-based systems using Internet of Things (IoT) technology also make it easier to access data available from diverse sources – including remote installations.

Comprehensive data analysis

As data collection expands, it increases the risk of overlooking specific ‘nuggets’ of information in the mountains of data generated. Modular software solutions that share inputs from sensor, analyser, and control systems in a more holistic view help operations benefit from tighter integration across multiple functions, including:

Enterprise asset management/enterprise resource planning – this can help to optimise operation, facility, and asset management in response to the latest process-related data.

Workforce management – workforce management helps assign employee guidelines for routine maintenance activities as well as responses to system alarms, warnings, and emergencies.

Asset Performance Management – protects process integrity and equipment longevity through continuous assessment of process instrumentation by optimising both predictive and preventive maintenance planning.

Control-oriented data management

Cloud-based infrastructure helps more people and systems access, monitor, and act upon data specific to their needs. This includes inputs from process-line instrumentation and signals directed to a variety of control equipment – programmable logic control (PLC), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and distributed control (DCS) systems.

Customisable dashboards

The ability to display key performance indicators on large touch screen displays enables plant operators to be more aware of and responsive to process variations. Apps running on mobile platforms (i.e., smartphones and tablets) also make it easier for plant personnel to interact with

plant equipment and analytic data.

Data-driven decision-making

Whatever the infrastructure, the value of digitalisation lies in its ability to provide better perspective for informed decisions. Systems running analytic programs provide insights relevant to key operations. This includes the ability to anticipate changing process trends, to identify and react to potential upset conditions in real time, and to support higher-level organisational objectives.

Reduced cost of measurement

Integrating instrumentation readings within digital management systems improves the time- and cost-efficiency of data collection and its practicality for controlling plant operations. Being able to monitor at a high level in real time, yet still analyse process upsets in great detail when necessary, puts plant personnel in a better position to streamline plant efficiency.

Make solutions scalable

More data inputs bring more complexity. Adopting scalable cloud-based data management systems tailored specifically for the application satisfies changing data collection

and analysis needs without tying up internal IT resources or personnel.

Look forward, not just backward

The true value in digitalisation lies in the ability to identify when things are about to go wrong, rather than simply documenting things that have already gone wrong. This predictive ability can be further augmented by using historical data trends to program systems to respond at appropriate levels of control needed to maintain optimum performance.

Protect infrastructure with predictive analytics

Squeezing maximum value from aging infrastructure requires a strong commitment to tracking key performance indicators. Doing so can help optimise maintenance schedules, protect aging infrastructure, and minimise the risk of unexpected equipment failure.

Predictive maintenance analytics are particularly valuable where key instrumentation is used for critical around-the-clock operations.

Optimised efficiency for compliance and conservation

Real-time tracking of production plant and equipment can indicate shifts in production performance before a complete process upset occurs. This can save on potential fines for non-compliance and reduce the time and expense of recovering plant operations.

Addressing the skills shortage

With skilled operating staff becoming harder to find, using process instrumentation that can provide analytical summaries along with detailed readings can help to support plant personnel with varying levels of experience.

Instruments that encrypt device maintenance and operating conditions within dynamic QR codes make it easier for less experienced personnel to streamline troubleshooting processes. They can simply take a picture of the QR code with their smartphone and forward it to the manufacturer to receive remote support. Meanwhile, more proficient plant personnel can still get the details they desire to exercise their years of troubleshooting expertise.

As no two industrial sites are ever the same, there is no such thing as a single ‘one-size fits all’ digital solution that can just be fitted and left to run by itself. To derive maximum benefit from a digital installation instead requires careful planning and setting of expectations and goals.

In particular, it can often be advisable to take a phased approach, tackling the easiest areas first, before then using the experience gained to find other ways to further integrate the technology into your operations.

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