Machines Have Their Say

Machines Are Getting Better at Telling Us What's Wrong with Them. More and Better Sensors and Sophisticated Algorithms Make Predictive Maintenance Practical—and Help Close the Loop Between the Plant Floor, EAM Systems and ERP

By ControlGlobal.com

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This article was printed in CONTROL's November 2009 edition.

By Nancy Bartels

Down on the plant floor is where the money is made—or lost. That's where the product is made, the quality is determined, power and raw materials are consumed, and the labor is expended. How the people and machines perform there will make or break a company. Thankfully, people have always had ways to get their say. Machines, not so much.

But paying attention to the machines is more important than ever. The logic is inescapable. "The cost of lost production is 10 times more than maintenance costs," says Bart Winters, senior manufacturing marketing manager for Honeywell (www.honeywell.com)

On the other hand, when technicians spend time and money performing tasks or replacing parts before it's necessary "just in case," that's money that could have gone to the bottom line—a number that seems to grow more important every day.

Chris Rogers, Western Canada regional manager for reliability-centered maintenance software vendor Matrikon (www.matrikon.com) nails it. He says, "We're hearing from every single process customer that the competitive issues around maintenance are there, and we have to improve how we're getting return from these assets."

Fortunately, over time, the technology to improve that return has become more sophisticated and, at the same time, more available. For more than a decade now, computerized machine maintenance systems (CMMS) and enterprise asset management (EAM) applications have been creating work orders and tracking parts inventories and labor. Dashboards give us more tightly focused looks how the production numbers are adding up. Connectivity to the ERP system is much easier than it was—especially now that major ERP players such as SAP (www.sap.com) and Oracle (www.oracle.com) have their own EAM modules.

Wireless sensor technology that enables the acquisition of more data from more assets and more and better analytical algorithms to squeeze meaning out of all that data make the idea of remote monitoring, well, less remote.

Finally the most critical link in the EAM chain—the asset itself—is finding its voice. Whether you call it condition-based monitoring, reliability-centered maintenance, plant asset management, asset life-cycle management or plain old maintenance, listening to critical capital assets to find out how they're feeling and what they need is where the excitement around EAM is now.

Power Generation Gets It

The power industry is at the leading edge of this trend in part because of the nature of its business. Honeywell's Winters explains: "They have no tanks. They can't store anything. Even in a continuous process, you have buffered storage." Not to mention that when a power plant goes down, it's not just that facility that's dead in the water, but every home or business that depends on the electricity it generates.

That's why companies such as Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, a power generation company with a portfolio that includes, nuclear, coal, natural gas, oil and renewable and alternative fuels, are taking a hard look at the latest technology for keeping their systems running.

Frank Andracchi, managing director in Constellation's Power Generation (CPG) division took a page from the airline industry's maintenance playbook, of all places. "I'm involved in merger and acquisition activity. I see what the competition has, and I've noticed the performance centers they have, which led me to believe in their value. Rolls Royce monitors every jet engine in flight. Maintenance of those engines is done based on their performance while operating. They have truly reached condition-based monitoring."

Figuring that if a jet-engine company could do it, so could Constellation, Andracchi became a champion of building a performance maintenance and diagnostic (PM&D) program, one power plant at a time. To help get started, Andracchi brought in outside fire power—MRG Solutions (www.mrgsolutions.com), an EAM and asset management services company, and predictive analytics specialist SmartSignal (www.smartsignal.com)

Constellation began with its Maryland coal-powered fleet. "Coal plants are old, and they're only as good as their assets," explains David Lillefloren, director, CPG business performance. "You want to make sure you're taking care of them. MRG is helping us with that. We look at a turbine or a boiler—everything about it. We look at predictive maintenance (PM) and cost of maintenance. What can we improve on to extend the life of the equipment? What critical spares do we need to keep this going? Are we doing the right amount of PM?"  

SmartSignal's task was to provide software and tools for early failure warning. It monitors two out of three of Constellation's coal plants now and expects to bring a third online next year, with more in the future.

Right now, SmartSignal is handling the asset monitoring, but the goal is to bring that expertise in-house. "We have a centralized, virtual PM&D center," says Lillefloren. "We have several individuals whose sole task is to monitor SmartSignal and other software. The control operators can see what we see. When they see an alert, they forward information to the individual plant and alert them. We have reliability engineers at each plant to focus on the asset health care, who are working with people in the plant, looking at each system and making assessments."

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