The Gaming of Modeling and Simulation

Tomorrow’s Control Engineers Are Playing Today’s Computer Games, with Their Realistic Simulations. Will Tomorrow’s Process Simulators and Modeling Software Adopt Game Technology?

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“The ability to run process simulations against real-time plant data would provide insights into the operation of the control system which are typically not available in other methods of simulation, and would allow the controls and process engineers to make adjustments or fine tune the system,” says Maverick’s Tim Gellner.

Even better than that, what if a simulator was running next to the process control system, and keeping an eye on what might happen an hour, day or week ahead? It could alert you to possible future problems. All this is possible today.

“They can do this now,” says Vikas Dhole of AspenTech. “They can also map multiple simulations in parallel to optimize processes that produce better products, while running a safer plant.”

Stevenson of Honeywell says live data can be used with process simulation to help predict what will happen next or even to help drive the operation to a desired condition. “In fact we actually do this now,” he says. “Current data can be used to synchronize a dynamic model to current operation, enabling the user to vet proposed control moves in order to look ahead at where the process is going. Historical data can be used to synchronize a dynamic model to historical operation enabling the user analysis past operation and test proposed solutions to problems.”

“We are seeing more industrial applications where live-data simulation is being applied, says NI’s Gutierrez. “One example would be Siemens, where they use simulation to test the controllers for a high power turbine to generate electricity.

“Before delivering an automatic steam turbine controller to our customer, we test the turbine regulator hardware and software,” says Eckart Brackenhammer of Siemens. “We test the automatic controller under different operating conditions to detect disturbances in the system. Often, customer representatives bring their own test points into the inspection report. We deliver the turbine controller only after a successful test conclusion.”

Siemens can test the different operation modes, including the turbine starting within a specified revolution rate, the turbine operating under load or pressure control, load decreases under idle operation, load removal and turbine shutdown. In addition to the actual functional test, the turbine simulator can aid in parameter tuning and optimization in the field prior to operation.

“The simulator consists of two separate programs and computer systems,” says Brackenhammer. “The first is the real-time system running a real-time OS that calculates the model. The second is a laptop with Windows 2000 and LabVIEW, which contains the user interface and the model parameter computation. We connect the host and real-time system via standard TCP/IP.”

Greg McMillan says you can make a video game out of such modeling, and foster competition among operators. “You want to be able to run the model in real time synchronized and adapted online with the process,” he says. “Then you can use process performance metrics, data, analytics, and diagnostics online to spur competition between operators on the same equipment but on different shifts or on similar equipment, such as multiple parallel reactors. By synchronizing and adapting a model online to the process, it can then be taken offline and run much fast than real time to predict future results.”

So we are back to video game technology.

The Gaming of Modeling and Simulation

How much of current game technology will we see in modeling and simulation? “AspenTech foresees a major shift coming as process simulation and optimization solutions catch up with the gaming generation of new engineering professionals,” says Vikas Dhole of AspenTech. “They have come to expect the same easy to navigate and intuitive interfaces as they’ve experienced using game consoles like Xbox and PlayStation. We are already starting to see new simulation solutions that can provide model-based decision support, and online demonstrations or viewlets that allow new users to get immediate training on the products.”

Immediate training would certainly help. In our June 2008 survey of trends in the process control industry, 30% of those who have installed loop-tuning software (36% of the total number surveyed) say they have it installed, but don’t use it as much as they could. A quarter of those who use simulation software think they don’t use the products to the extent they could. Maybe it’s the training. Or lack thereof.

We might even see game accessories. “Video will be abundant compared to today’s usage and this may be the area where joysticks, wrap-around visors and the like come into their own,” says Robin Brooks. “These will reduce the need for field operators to go into the plant itself, which probably will be mandated by OSHA, legislation or insurers.”

“Improved operator interfaces can enhance an operator’s ability to diagnose and react to a situation,” says Phillips from Rockwell Automation. “One thing that needs to be considered is the fine line that exists between too much information and not enough information.”

Longwatch’s Rubin agrees. “The benefit of video is that it can transfer information faster, without increasing the complexity to collect and deliver that information,” he says. “Consider the alternative: bunches of sensors and hours of operator training needed to interpret those sensors.”

Alex Johnson of Invensys also sees increased use of video and webcams. “It might be possible to use gloves and goggles to give operators a real feel for the plant,” he says. “Some of this technology is already in use in military and aerospace simulators.” Brooks says we will see a new generation of process historians emerge that contain all the data necessary to allow the operator, or anyone else, to rewind the process to a time in the past and see the process play forward from there exactly as it happened then.

“We have asked ourselves these questions,” notes Stephenson of Honeywell. “Would an operator trainee be better trained if we incorporated tactile, vibration and sound feedback in the UniSim Operations product? The answer to this question may be yes if the control room is not fully isolated from the plant. We do see some value in providing a 3D rendering of the plant, enabling an operator in training to ‘walk’ through the plant. A 3D rendering of a plant may also help a trainee operator to interact with a trainee field operator who is in the plant virtually. In fact, we are following a couple of threads in this regard: a research proposal with the ASM Consortium and a customer that has shown specific interest.”

New multi-core computer technology will help, too. “As simulation models become more complex and detailed, the time it takes to execute a simulation increases exponentially,” says Gutierrez. “The challenge is how to leverage multi-core processors to run applications and simulation in a parallel fashion.”

The answer is simple, in my opinion: Just mimic whatever game technology does with multi-core processors.

Rich Merritt is a Control contributing editor

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