Creative Computing for Control

PC-Based Control Is Taking Over in a Variety of New and Upcoming Process Industry Applications. Here Are Some of the Most Innovative Solutions

By Jim Montague

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Just in case you haven't checked recently, the old barrier between controllers and PCs is gone, and microprocessors and software are continuing to show up everywhere in process control and automation. Sure, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and similar components have long performed data processing tasks, but basic PC hardware, architectures and logic are taking over more and more applications.

For instance, to measure and meter the new, €10-billion Nord Stream pipeline that provides a natural gas link between Germany and Russia, Wingas GmbH & Co. in Kassel, Germany, has been working with RMG by Honeywell to install ultrasonic gas meters, flow computers and gas chromatograph systems on the pipeline's two, parallel, 1200-km legs (Figure 1).

Wingas is a joint venture of Wintershall Holding AG, Germany's largest crude oil and natural gas producer, and Russia's OAO Gazprom. Its existing 2000-km pipeline network connects gas reserves in Siberia and the North Sea to markets in Western Europe. In Germany, two pipelines called Ostsee-Pipeline–Anbindungs-Leitung (OPAL) and Nordeuropäische Erdgasleitung (NEL) will take natural gas from Nord Stream and feed it into Europe's existing natural gas grid. When complete, the OPAL and NEL pipelines will be more than 400 km long with a diameter of 1.4 m each.

"About 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas will flow through the meters every year, providing safe, stable energy to the European market, so the quality of the readings can't be compromised," says Klaus Haussmann, project manager at Wingas Transport GmbH. Consequently, RMG helped implement the following equipment at Nord Stream:

  • ERZ 2000 flow computers, which consist of a series of microcomputers for flow correction that provide parallel calculation of compressibility according to established methods. When carrying out corrections using density and standard density, the speed of sound effects is measured and calculated.
  • PGC 9000 VC process gas chromatographs, which analyze 11 components and calculate calorific values, standard density, Wobbe index and density ratios of natural gases on the basis of standards and weight legislation.
  • USZ 08 ultrasonic gas flowmeters, which meter custody transfers by measuring flow velocities of the gas and then calculate flow rates at measurement conditions. 

More and Better Measurement

Likewise on the measurement front, Lime Instruments LLC in Houston, Texas, is building an oil well fracture pump monitoring system using LabView software and CompactRIO (reconfigurable I/O) and Single-BoardRIO hardware from National Instruments.

"Each fracturing unit has a high-horsepower diesel engine and transmission mated to a triplex or quintaplex pump," says Robert Stewart, Lime's CEO. "Both the engine and the transmission are equipped with an electronic interface that monitors critical functions and provides diagnostic information as the unit is running. The engine and transmission output the data they monitor via SAE J1939 controller area network (CAN) communication protocol. Presently, pumps in this industry don't have more than a couple of discrete sensors to monitor critical operating parameters, such as discharge pressure, RPM, and lube oil pressure and temperature. Each of these parameters is measured with one sensor and a signal cable that goes back to the main control console.

"The goal of our product is to monitor these functions, as well as several others, and transmit that data back to the main control console via the same SAE J1939 CAN protocol. Our system needs to look for data characteristics outside the normal operating envelope and failure conditions. With this real-time information, operators can determine if they should discontinue operation or continue based on real performance indications from the pump. Ultimately, this system should reduce the number of pump failures, as well as overall pump maintenance costs."

Stewart reports that Lime is using LabView to program its pump monitor's real-time processor, FPGA and I/O with CompactRIO and its interface, which control and monitor mobile well servicing and stimulation equipment commonly used in oil and gas fracturing applications, and handle the shocks, vibrations and wide temperatures changes in those settings (Figure 2). LabView and CompactRIO can interface with a variety of sensors, software and protocols, including:

  • Sensors and related devices, such as pressure transducers, magnetic pickup sensors, digital encoders, temperature sensors, nuclear densitometers, magnetic flowmeters and Coriolis flowmeters.
  • Software, such as coiled-tubing fatigue and well bore simulation programs.
  • Operating systems, such as Windows XP Embedded, Windows CE and Linux.
  • Industry-specific protocols, such as SAE J1939, J1587, J1708; Modbus; Ethernet, 802.11; and Profibus.

"We also like that we can develop software in LabView faster than with most other programming environments," adds Stewart. "It makes the software development side much quicker than our past experiences in C-based programming. What most C programmers take two years to do, we can accomplish in two months."

Foster Flexibility, Secure Scalability

Besides improving programming and enabling control functions, the shift to PC-based control and more capable software also allows more flexibility in designing and configuring many applications. For example, Constance Water Works in Constance, Germany, recently worked with Cegelec Deutschland to replace its obsolete, 20-year-old controls with a PC-based system to maintain secure delivery of 50,000 cubic meters of micro-filtered and ozonated drinking water per day to its 87,000 customers. The new controls consist of two industrial PCs from Beckhoff Automation, which operate as a master and a cold standby, and are linked in parallel with Constance's existing water treatment process, which has three distinct supply channels that were converted in succession to prevent any service interruptions.

"We wanted to use an open-system architecture with modular bus terminals because it was the most economical solution," says Wolfgang Treib, Constance's technology team leader. "The cost of an I/O card 20 years ago buys us several IPCs, including bus terminals today."

Constance's business unit manager Wolfgang Fettke, adds that, "The primary goal for the type and structure of the new control system was to improve plant availability. The decision to use IPCs gave us more freedom in designing the applications, and the current structure also made interfacing to subsystems simpler. The decision to use Beckhoff's system led to significant benefits because sensitive, demand-based control comes with detailed information from many points in the plant. These data are provided by a wide range of sensors. In addition, measuring systems that provide an IP-capable protocol, such as Modbus TCP, can be integrated easily."

Besides the IPCs, Constance also installed six touchscreen, panel PCs for local control of the water. Signal communication with the master control system takes place via the IEC 60870-5-104 telecontrol protocol, and information from about 1,600 data points is transmitted.

Treib adds that Constance's PC-based controls mean on-call staff no longer have to be on-site, especially during weekends, but can conveniently log into the control system via a PC and check plant status. "If a micro-filter fails, the system issues a signal, and the duty officer can check remotely whether one of the two other micro-filters has taken over," explains Treib. "If this is the case, attendance at the water works is not required. We didn't plan for it, but our new control has reduced our on-call deployments, too."

Supporting Simplicity

Ironically, once PCs are implemented in some process control applications, they can even look inward to simplify their own operations.

For instance, South Africa-based Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) loads more than 700 ships per year with coal, using 10 stacker-reclaimers, five tipplers and four ship-loaders, which employ SCADA/HMI systems that used to run on 58 stand-alone PCs. However, these machines are all in constant motion, vibrating and beset by coal dust, which impacted the reliability of the PCs and their servers (Figure 3).

"Reliability problems with standard PCs, as well as the difficulties presented by backups and upgrades, prompted us to look for a more centralized solution based on thin-client technology," says Eric Gumede, RBCT's control systems specialist. Because they're low-cost computing devices that work in an application server environment, thin clients don't require powerful processors and large amounts of RAM or ROM.

The plant was already using Wonderware InTouch software from Invensys Operations Management for its SCADA/HMI systems, so it and system integrator Quad Automation replaced the PCs with InTouch View terminal client servers. They're supported by Microsoft Terminal Services, which is a component in Microsoft Windows that allows users to access applications and data on a remote computer over a network. It also lets administrators install, configure, manage and maintain applications centrally on a few servers.

All application logic runs on the server, while the processing and storage requirements for client machines are minimal. RBCT also adopted Wonderware InTouch HMI, Historian, Historian Clients and Information Server software.

Gumede reports the RBCT's thin-client system reduced engineering costs to its PC budget; improved software integrity; cut power consumption; lessened the risk of theft; reduced downtime on its SCADA systems; increase end-user productivity; and enabled redundancy by making multiple connections possible to different servers.

"Because of the impact non-performance could have on an operation of this magnitude, it was important that both the old and new systems run in parallel before the old system could be removed," adds Gumede. "In my view, the most compelling aspect of this new thin-client system is its scalability and versatility. It's vital for the system to be able to grow to meet business needs and to easily integrate with other systems."

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