Incremental Thinking Won't Solve Automation Challenge

Automation's Off the Critical Project Path, but More Work Remains

By Keith Larson

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As the project execution arm of the global energy giant, ExxonMobil Development Company typically is involved with more than 100 active projects around the world at any given time. And while automation engineering is a critical aspect of them all, it's an "infrastructure" activity that is wholly dependent on other engineering disciplines for its design inputs. Consequently, it often rests on the critical path for project completion. Sandy Vasser wants that to change.

On behalf of ExxonMobil and the rest of the user community, Vasser several years ago began challenging the company's automation suppliers to throw away traditional thinking in order to address its most pressing project needs. "Because automation hardware and software design is totally dependent on plant design data from other disciplines, input data frequently changes throughout the project design cycle," Vasser explained in his closing keynote address to the Honeywell Users Group (HUG) Americas Symposium this week in San Antonio, Texas. "Late input changes put us in continuous recycle mode on our engineering designs and drawings."

Vasser leads a group of some 120 design engineers responsible for the electrical, instrumentation and automation aspects of ExxonMobil's increasingly large "mega" projects. "Despite increasing scale and complexity, little time has been added to project schedules,” Vasser said. "Whereas things used to be done more sequentially, now all disciplines are working full steam ahead from the start."

He described the complexity and inflexibility of time-honored I/O design and commissioning practice, such as engineered junction boxes and marshalling and controller cabinets that result in 15 to 25 wire terminations for each instrument. Weight, floor space, cooling load and tedious factory acceptance tests (FATs) are also the target of ExxonMobil's campaign to simplify, streamline and, where possible, eliminate system components and steps along the way. "We realized we couldn't continue to do automation this way and be successful," Vasser added.

A Wish List

To begin to address these issues, the company brought its suppliers together and challenged them with a 13-item wish list of priorities:

  1. Eliminate, simplify and/or automate steps in the automation execution process;
  2. Minimize custom engineering;
  3. Shift custom engineering to software and rely on standardized hardware components;
  4. Use virtualization to separate hardware from software; validate software independent of hardware. Eliminate hardware FAT;
  5. Prevent design recycle and hardware/software rework;
  6. Eliminate components not necessary in the system architecture and standardize those that remain;
  7. Eliminate or minimize physical, data and schedule dependencies with other disciplines;
  8. Simplify the configuration of interfaces with third-party packages;
  9. More easily accommodate even very late changes;
  10. Mitigate the effects of software and hardware version changes;
  11. Eliminate, simplify and/or automate generation of required documentation;
  12. Manage alarms and ensure cybersecurity by design;
  13. Challenge traditional approaches and solutions.

Vasser further noted the persistent barriers to achieving these goals, including the impulse to focus on "perfecting" current processes. "Improvement only results in incremental change," he said. "We have to think differently if we're to transform the way we do things."

Progress to Date

Although work remains to be done, progress toward ExxonMobil's goals has been made. New I/O technology, such as Honeywell Process Solutions' Universal I/O, together with its cloud engineering environment and lean engineering for automation projects (LEAP) methodology showcased at this week's HUG Americas event, are making a difference.

"So far we've eliminated 66% of the components in the system and 60 to 70% of the wire terminations. We've eliminated marshalling cabinets altogether and have fewer controller-only standard cabinets," Vasser said.

Other forward progress includes:

  • Reduced heat load, space and weight;
  • Reduced quantity of spares;
  • All system design customization now in the software;
  • Standard junction boxes, with easily configurable I/O, ordered by part number; and,
  • No hardware FAT.

Key items that have now bubbled to the top of Vasser's wish-list include:

  • "DICED" I/O that allows systems and instruments to auto-detect, auto-interrogate, auto-configure, auto-enable and auto-document;
  • A standardized and simplified interface for electrical systems;
  • Multivariable transmitters that, for example, convey flow, pressure and temperature data over a single cable via a single process penetration;
  • The direct programming of safety system logic by translation from cause-and-effects tools;
  • DC power to eliminate inverters.

"It's the packaging of many technologies that will achieve the necessary outcomes," Vasser said.

Meanwhile, the company is benefiting from many strides forward in technology and project methodology. "We've taken automation off the critical path."

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  • I agree there are better ways, including using fieldbus and wireless. In a modern fieldbus system the device commissioning steps have been automated. Auto-Detection: The fieldbus system automatically detects all fieldbus devices when they are connected, not just transmitters and control valves, but also discrete devices like intelligent on-off valves. Auto-Identification: The fieldbus system automatically gets the device tag, device unique ID, manufacturer, device type, and version etc. and automatically assign an address to every device. Auto-Binding: The fieldbus system automatically binds the device to the control strategy i.e. the physical device gets associated with the placeholder for the device in the system database and all the I/O signals in the device are associated with the I/O functions in the control strategy. Simple devices have only one I/O signal but most devices have multiple I/O signals you can use. It is all automatic for all devices, not just some. Auto-Integration: The fieldbus system automatically selects the corresponding EDDL file for the device in the Intelligent Device Management (IDM) software part of the Asset Management System (AMS). Auto-Configuration: The fieldbus system automatically downloads the configuration to the device including units and range if applicable. There is no need to make settings one by one from a handheld. All devices can be configured (customized) for the application, not just transmitters and control valves, but also discrete devices like intelligent on-off valves. Auto-Checking: The fieldbus system diagnostics automatically checks the device communication is good; a digital loop check – and continues checking forever alerting to any installation issue such as water ingress in device housing. Auto-Documentation: The fieldbus system automatically lists all devices with card number, port, device tag, commissioning state, manufacturer, model/type, revision, unique ID, and address etc.

    Only one type of FOUNDATION fieldbus card is used for all field instruments regardless of input or output and regardless of the number of signals in each device so there is no card selection or channel counting

    What the Fieldbus Foundation calls “Virtual Marshalling” is this ability to make changes from software, without changing hardware, which is a characteristic of digital technologies. We do it in office software all the time: cut, copy, and paste. This ability also makes it easy to reuse and modify. This characteristic of digital makes authoring documents incredibly flexible and productive in the office. Once instrument signals go digital, the same productivity and flexibility applies to automation projects too. http://www.fieldbus.org/images/stories/technology/aboutthetechology/overview/fieldbus_brochure.pdf

    By using fieldbus interface cards with built-in fieldbus power supply there is no marshalling wiring to test, and if you don’t want to test I/O cards in the factory there is no need to, but you can if you want to. All I/O can be mimicked at FAT allowing software to be tested. Because one fieldbus port takes the place of lots of traditional I/O card channels, if you want to test the hardware at FAT you can do so very much faster than in the past.

    Because all fieldbus devices are electrically the same; just two terminals, you can easily make changes without redesigning the wiring or I/O card configuration. You can change the system from accepting an on-off valve to accepting a control valve to electric actuator / motor operated valve (MOV) simply by pointing and clicking in software: “virtual marshalling”. It should also be noted that a modern fieldbus system do not have the limitations of early generations of fieldbus systems and network infrastructure which had limited communication resources and device power – which necessitated detail segment design work. More powerful modern hardware and software have much broader margins that provide more flexibility to more freely accommodate changes than what you might have heard about systems in the past – thus simplifying design.

    Marshalling cabinets, field termination assemblies, spaghetti wiring, signal conditioners, and interposing relays etc. components and associated terminations are eliminated as the fieldbus “trunk” from the field junction box lands directly on the fieldbus interface card with integral fieldbus power supply. There is only one standard type of fieldbus interface card, and it supports any mix of transmitters (AI), switches (DI), valve positioners (AO), and intelligent two-wire on-off valves (DO). The same two-wire bus cable supports virtually any number of signals so the number of devices on a junction box (bus) can increase from 10, to 12, to 14, and up to 16 devices. The number of signals in each device is also flexible, so if valve position feedback was not considered originally it can be added at a click of a button in the software, no new wires or I/O cards. That is, a standard design that enables input and output as well as continuous and discrete devices to be freely interchanged and expanded. With less cards, heat load, space requirements, and weight are also reduced.

    This flexibility to add devices to a junction box, add signals to a device, and change the type of devices and signals without changing wiring or I/O cards makes it easier to accommodate changes.

    The intelligent device management (IDM) software part of the asset management system (AMS) supports FOUNDATION fieldbus HSE which makes it possible to intelligently integrate and manage fieldbus devices on third-party packages

    The flexibility makes it easier to accommodate even very late changes.

    Early generations of fieldbus systems had dependencies on software version and device version. However, fieldbus now supports backwards compatibility for automation of device replacement without manual intervention: http://www.fieldbus.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1113&Itemid=281 It is aimed at simplifying fieldbus implementation, operation and maintenance. http://www.fieldbus.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1236&Itemid=281 It is about making Foundation H1 easier to use than conventional 4-20mA http://www.fieldbus.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1252&Itemid=281

    Early generations of fieldbus systems had issues with too many device diagnostics alarms. This has now been cleaned up with device diagnostic alarm management: the ability to filter and route device diagnostic alarms to ensure they go to the right person, based on the NAMUR NE107 standard

    Just like computers challenged the traditional typewriter approach, digital cameras and smart phones challenge the film camera, and digital music challenges the vinyl disc, so also digital instrumentation and systems challenge 4-20 mA and on-off signals. The digital camera and smart phone not only challenged the film camera, but the whole photo industry since we don’t need to buy film and we don’t need to develop photographs. Moreover, the digital camera has completely transformed how we are taking photographs: in the past we took photos at a birthdays and holidays. Today we take several photos every day: where we parked the car, the directory map at the mall, a beverage we liked, or the spare part we need to buy etc. and we post selfies in social media etc. Mobile phones, email, and instant messaging have changed how we communicate. MP3 players and smart phone have completely transformed the whole entertainment industry and how we purchase and listen to music and watch movies. Similarly, using digital networking (fieldbus or wireless) instead of 4-20 mA and on-off is transforming how we do automation. It has already started with intelligent on-off valves, transmitters with 8 inputs, virtual remote seals, virtual flow computers, two-wire tank gauging systems, and many more. Plants can now measure things never measured before: product properties for quality and equipment condition for availability a.s.o.

    Fieldbus uses regular size/weight field junction boxes (FJB) with no active electronic equipment in the FJB, thus with the same heat, cold, humidity, rain, dust, and vibration performance, same installation, and familiar work practice

    FOUNDATION fieldbus is not for everything though. For electrical systems like variable speed drives / variable frequency drives, motor soft starters, and UPS etc. PROFIBUS-DP is the standard interface use for simple integration. PROFIBUS-DP digital networking dramatically reduce wiring and I/O cards associated with 4-20 mA and on-off signals and enables remote configuration and diagnostics of electrical systems from the same IDM software as the instrumentation.

    That is, Fieldbus enable multiple variables from multiple devices over a single cable communicated at higher speed in real-time and with determinism; not delayed by non-real-time communication such as for diagnostics and configuration etc. This includes for example 8 channel temperature transmitters, two-wire tank gauging systems, and all control and feedback signals in a valve positioner or electric actuator / MOV and so on.

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