AspenTech Breaking New Ground in Simulation, Model-Based Control

Resurgent Software Maker Showcases Innovations at OPTIMIZE 2013

By Keith Larson

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From its roots at MIT more than three decades ago, Aspen Technology emerged as an early leader in the commercialization of mathematical models that today are widely used in the design, control, planning and scheduling of industrial processes. But on the heels of a series of undisciplined acquisitions culminating in the late 1990s tech bust, the storied optimization company struggled financially. It was forced to look inward, refine and refocus its value proposition for process manufacturers.

Today, like a reborn phoenix preening its new feathers, the fruits of that effort were proudly on display at the company's OPTIMIZE 2013 event held the week of May 6 in Boston. AspenTech is four years into a six-year transition to a new subscription-based revenue model, explained Mark Fusco, president and CEO since 2004, in his opening remarks to the more than 650 customers and partners on hand.

"Cash flow is strong, and it gives us the ability to invest," Fusco said. Indeed, the company is plowing 16% of revenue into R&D, which this year translates into more than $60 million USD. That investment is paying off in the form of innovative new products, including a newly integrated and mobile-enabled aspenONE simulation suite, as well as aspenONE Exchange, a new applications marketplace of off-the-shelf models and flowsheets. These innovations join the new "adaptive" mode of the company's DMCplus model-based real-time optimizer tool that was introduced in 2012. 

Simulation, Real-time Data for All
Underlying all of the company's initiatives is the realization that despite advances in functional capability, simulation-based optimization remains a complex, inaccessible and sometimes fragile tool. "As global markets evolve and new users enter the workforce every day, it is critical that simulation tools and real-time plant information are easily available to all who need them — not just power users," according to Manolis Kotzabasakis, AspenTech executive vice president, products. "Our new aspenONE software addresses that need," Kotzabasakis said. 

With the release of version 8.2, the new aspenONE suite features a web and mobile interface that allows process industry professionals to work with aspenONE software through web-enabled devices. The suite provides a single, consistent user interface for multiple AspenTech products, including Aspen Plus, Aspen HYSYS and InfoPlus.21.

Built on HTML5 technology, the aspenONE web and mobile interface even allows process engineers to interact with models and real-time plant information using portable, touch-enabled devices. "The new aspenONE web interface is a big step towards ensuring that the right person can always access, select, and use the right model right when it is needed," commented Phil Edwards, staff scientist, SABIC. "This access can result in better operational decisions." 

Apps Provide a Rolling Start
Also introduced at OPTMIZE 2013, the company's aspenONE Exchange is intended to provide process designers with a one-stop-shop to source equipment data, third-party content and AspenTech resources. By referencing design information hosted in aspenONE Exchange, process engineers can build more comprehensive and more accurate models faster, according to AspenTech's Kotzabasakis. 

"This app marketplace includes more than a thousand sample models and flowsheets to get you up and running more quickly," he said. "So far we have pump performance curve data from 80 pump manufacturers that address more than 100,000 pump configurations," Kotzabasakis said. "It's a game-changer, but only the start of a journey. Next up are compressors, heat exchangers and turbines."

"The aspenONE Exchange provides an excellent way for new and experienced users to explore well-documented, best practice process models," added Eric M. Cordi, associate research fellow, Pfizer. "This shared environment increases the breadth of open innovation resources we rely upon in our computational process and product design efforts." 

MPC that Maintains Itself
Last year's introduction of adaptive mode operation for the company's DMCplus model-based controller (MPC) has the potential to make these often finicky creatures infinitely easier to care for and feed. Indeed, industry is rife with model-based control applications that work beautifully for a year or two, but degrade in performance as unit conditions change. Operators, tired of an ill-tuned optimizer's tendency to hunt about in its operating window, shut it off in favor of more stable operations.

The breakthrough with AspenTech's adaptive mode is that it effectively combines continuously scalable step-test functionality with the all-or-nothing profit commitment of an unrestrained optimizer. A "calibration ratio" that can be set between zero and one effectively determines how much step-test character (zero) vs. optimizer character (1) the controller demonstrates. Said another way, the CR quantifies how much confidence you have in the underlying model.

Push the CR to 1, and you have an optimizer that will "sell its grandmother for a dime," explained Michael Harmse, senior director, APC and MES product management. But pull it back from 1, and you introduce a degree of economic relaxation together with automated step-testing. "This means you perform step-testing much closer to maximum profitability," Harmse said.

Adaptive mode operation allows even DMCplus applications based on imperfect models to be continuously tuned without changing the fundamentals of the model itself. "The calibration ratio keeps the model from trying to over-exploit the weaker degrees of freedom in the model. And it's a lot more benign that tradition step-testing, where you're pushing the unit to all corners of its operating envelope," Harmse said. "It's a lot less scary and a lot more profitable."

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