How to Run Your Process Control Applications Far Out in the Field

Establishing Process Automation Projects in Developing Economies and Other Remote Locations Requires Better Preparation, Stronger Supply Chains, More Accessible Expertise, Simpler Controls and Added Training. Here's How Veteran Players Make It Happen

By Jim Montague

Start packing. In remote locations and extreme environments, it can be harder to get what you need to run your process control applications. Supply lines can be stretched thin, if they exist at all, and your usual system integration services aren't just around the corner either. Staffing is likely to be a challenge, too. You must bring in know-how from much further away and provide more extensive education and training to local personnel.

These challenges can seem insurmountable at first. However, if you stop and look at them closely, they're more difficult in degree, but not different in kind from the plans, specifications and punch lists of any other process control project. Certainly, there can be many tricky curveballs to deal with, but many engineering procurement contractors (EPCs) and other experts can help. And almost all the recent advances in process controls and their supporting networks can also enable users to build and operate applications in less developed regions, fulfill local requirements and even help Third World markets and consumers secure more advanced capabilities and benefits.

For instance, Vale Nouvelle Calédonie on the island of New Caledonia, a French island territory in the southwest Pacific about 750 miles east of Australia, has been working with ABB to install new controls and help upgrade its plant for processing minerals from the open-pit Goro deposit, which is one of the world's richest undeveloped laterite bodies with an estimated 55 million tons of measured and indicated nickel ore reserves (Figure 1).

Besides implementing one of the world's largest System 800xA automation applications without incurring downtime, Vale and ABB also had to develop and submit all project documents and drawings in French as well as English to comply with local regulations. The 800xA system includes 48 operator workstations, 10 engineering workstations, 8,000 HART-capable instruments, two OPC clients, 33,000 history logs, 23,000 redundant 800xA tags, 50 AC800M redundant PM 864 controllers and many other components. This 800xA application also has a burner management system (BMS) with three AC 800M HI controllers for three new coal-fired boilers producing electricity and steam for the plant.

In addition, ABB delivered a safety instrumented system (SIS) with its TÜV-certified Functional Safety Management System (FSMS), which uses five more AC 800M HI controllers for processing LPG during ship unloading and port handling. Finally, ABB provided Vale's ore-processing plant with purpose-defined software libraries, which enabled a framework for standardized alarms and events, and allowed English-to-French translation functions by the plant's operator terminals.

Also Read "Are You Ready for Process Control?"

"Overall good planning and preparation are what resulted in a successful execution of this upgrade," says Ghislain Belmonte, Vale's technical services manager.

Simpler Plans, Lighter Luggage

Similarly, Perenco recently undertook the largest surface redevelopment project of its onshore and offshore production operations in Gabon on the central west coast of Africa, which required it to build new infrastructures, and reorganize and coordinate numerous platforms, control facilities and industrial networks. "Perenco began production operations in Gabon in 1992 with the acquisition from Total and Marathon of developed, offshore fields near Port-Gentil," says Laurent Mollard, Perenco's senior automation and control systems engineer. "Twenty years later, our yearly average production reached 62,500 barrels of oil equivalents per day (BOEPD) in 2012. This growth was sustained by continuous development of mature fields, an aggressive acquisition strategy and successful exploration, but we really needed to streamline all these production operations and overhaul our infrastructure."

Based in Paris, Perenco is an independent oil and gas company with onshore and offshore operations in 16 countries in northern Europe, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. In Gabon, Perenco runs 27 oil production sites, including 12 offshore and 15 onshore. Each offshore site can include three to six platforms. The production sites cover an area that's about 400-kilometers long, running north to south off Gabon's coast, and they're networked via a combination of fiber-optic cabling, radios and satellite communications. The company also operates a 450-kilometer, mostly underwater, natural gas pipeline, which covers two production fields, one gas treatment plant and two distribution sites. It also operates two floating storage and offloading (FSO) units to store and export crude oil, and supplies natural gas to the local power plants at Libreville and Port-Gentil (see "Travel Bag of Tricks").

"To optimize operating expenditures in our crude oil production areas, we required scalable automation solutions that could handle both process control and safety control on our production facilities, which produce hundreds to thousands of barrels of oil per day," explains Mollard. "We needed to reduce operator presence on small production plants by fully instrumenting offshore platforms and onshore sites, interconnecting all the automation systems and remotely operating several production facilities from one main control room. We also needed to rationalize our maintenance efforts by reducing local electrical production units and centralizing electricity production; managing our power plant operations, load shedding and electrical network monitoring; and remotely accessing diagnostic information to prevent unsuccessful trips."

Besides coordinating and streamlining existing operations, Perenco also needed new infrastructure to development its nearby Olende and M'Polunie fields; construct two 14-megawatt power plants with high-voltage electrical distribution; install a distribution network linking Libreville and Port-Gentil to gas reserves; and implement a dual-product, 2-million-barrel offshore terminal. "Our project objectives were to centralize operations in two main control rooms to minimize local presence and reduce logistics costs, such as helicopters and boats," adds Mollard. "We also sought to electrify all of our production facilities by installing the two main power plants to reduce local electricity generation and maintenance costs. We also wanted to further optimize production by acquiring production well information that could be analyzed by the geophysical department in its main office and remotely." To accomplish its diverse goals and simplify its operations, Mollard reports that Perenco was going to need some outside assistance.

Technical Tour Guides

Of course, whenever you journey to an unfamiliar place, it's good to go with someone who knows the terrain, and it's even more important if you're going to do business and build manufacturing facilities there.

"We've been implementing automation and process, building and combustion controls in Brazil and other parts of Latin America for more than 50 years, and even installed some of the first DCSs in Chile's copper mines and Venezuela's oil fields in the 1980s," says Gustavo Galambos, mega-projects director for Latin America at Honeywell Process Solutions. "We've seen that one of the best ways to develop and support far-away process applications is to have a government in that region that provides incentives to develop local resources. For example, Brazil built many of its oil and gas refineries in the 1970s, but it also encouraged its universities to create the electronics and controls curriculum that could be used in its process applications, and now it's a leader in the deep-water oil and gas industry."

Likewise, Garalambos adds that Honeywell's history and foundation in many developing economies helps its users gain efficiencies as well. For example, Alcoa has worked with Honeywell for several years on their joint Quality Automation Solutions for Alumina Refineries (QUASAR) program, which has standardized process controls and infrastructures and reduced emissions at multiple Alcoa refineries in five countries, including three in Australia and one each in Jamaica, Suriname, Brazil and Spain. QUASAR began by collecting and combining best practices from each plant, and setting up a centralized monitoring system that allows experts to analyze and rectify controls performance. Next it established a co-sourced support center available 24/7 to provide integrated support and maintenance to help reduce downtime, and organized a dedicated implementation team for rapid QUASAR deployment at each location to reduce costs, improve quality and minimized plant interruption.

"To accomplish this never-before attempted feat, we needed to partner with someone that had the process control products and solutions expertise, but also understood the cross-cultural challenges affecting seven different sites, multiple countries and cultures, and four different languages," says Dennis Mason, process systems manager for global refining at Alcoa. "Working with Honeywell under the QUASAR program, we expected to see improved alumina production rates, reductions in our raw materials consumption and costs, and increased technology transfers between our refineries. We've consistently exceeded expectations in those areas. What took our combined team just five to six years to accomplish would have taken us more than 20 years internally."

Experience Extends Innovation

While it's crucial to know what developing and remote applications need, in many cases, only recent technical innovations such as wireless networking can solve their challenges.

Galambos adds, "Large projects in developing areas require a lot of research and generate a lot of best practices over the years. So because we've learned a lot from earlier projects, we can better assess requirements and infrastructures on new projects and make sure they get the communications and lifecycle support they'll need."

Similarly, world's largest copper producer Codelco also maintains a common support center in Santiago, Chile, for four—soon to be five—of its remote mines. This center also runs 24/7 and provides real-time support, video conferencing, intranet and other services. Recently, the company's Norte mine in the Atacama Desert needed to optimize the water recovery process in its thickener pools (Figure 2). The Norte facility consists of three open-pit mines producing approximately 896,000 tons of electro-refined and electro-winned cathodes per year.

Water used in mineral processing is recovered for reuse, so the thickeners need accurate level gauging and reliable communications from the field to the central control room. Without this data, the remote mine's multivariate predictive application based on Honeywell's Profit Controller software couldn't optimize water recovery. As a result, Codelco installed Honeywell's ISA100-compliant OneWireless network with Modbus to reach the remote Siemens S7 300 PLCs that manage equipment and instruments at each pool. Seven OneWireless multi-nodes cover the pools, and one gateway sends Modbus data from PLCs to Honeywell's existing TPS control system. This allows Norte's control room operators to call up information from the PLCs using TPS, and this data can be fed into Honywell's Profit Controller software to optimize process control at the pools.

"The former inability of gauging online and the high cost of maintaining the wired traditional network, which was frequently broken by heavy trucks and machinery, caused very low availability of measurement," explains Guillermo Cortés, concentrator automation leader at Codelco. "OneWireless offered the most dependable solution for both our complex operation and advanced controls because it supports real-time gauging and instrumentation. Our desert zone has many challenges including topography, long distances between the thickeners and control room, and the extreme environment conditions of radiation, wind and temperatures. OneWireless allows us to gauge multiple variables and transmit them in real time with high availability until we gain consequent improvement in our water recovery process. We can now gauge and manage the thickeners' levels and flows, and the efficiency of the whole process has greatly improved."

Galambos adds, "Operating these mines is a lot like running an offshore oil rig because everything has to be tested first before it can go out their remote sites. They also need extremely reliable communications, DCS support and backup, and advanced process controls (APCs) with remote training.  Wireless instruments and networking are especially helpful because users don't need to bring so much cabling and connectors to remote and undeveloped areas. They can reduce labor while they're in the field, and it's simpler to get the data they need for routine operations, analysis, multivariable control and future simulations."

Jason Nicholl, business development manager for I/O and networks at Phoenix Contact, confirms the long distances and mountains between Chile's mines can stretch vendor supply lines and system integration services very thin. "Consequently, we have to gear up our subsidiaries to be technical experts with Power Points, and especially with hands-on demonstrations. So we go on the road with them to visit their partners and help them train their distributors, system integrators and end users. Touching base a lot helps because it can prevent a lot of unplanned downtime and eleventh-hour crises. It also helps to plan ahead, keep on seeking potential new partners and remember to bring your steel-toed boots. Developing economies are all about developing relationships and trust first, then providing basic technical training and only pitching a solution at the end. Outside the U.S., it's even more important to be patient, listen well and be willing to adapt to local cultures and traditions."

Take-Along Intelligence

Just like back home, it's critical to have ready access to detailed know-how when building, operating, maintaining or renovating process applications in remote or developing regions. As a result, many suppliers and other support organizations simply set up local service and knowledge centers that can fast-track equipment and provide onsite or online training as soon as needed.

"The biggest problem automation engineers in developing countries face is lack of knowledge," says Carl Henning, deputy director of PI North America. "PI helps by providing local PI Competence Centers (PICCs). There are over 50 now. Naturally, there's a concentration in Europe and North America, but South America, Asia, Australia and Africa are well-represented, too. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, India, Chile, Brazil and other countries have PICCs, which are certified by PI and audited every two years to ensure they're providing a high level of advice to users, system integrators and manufacturers. The international language of engineers is English, and that's PI's standard language, but regional PI associations (RPAs) often translate the specifications, white papers and newsletters into local languages, so when these folks need help with Profinet or Profibus, they can find it locally in their own language."

Likewise, when it finds that a major customer needs support in a new or less-developed region, Emerson Process Management reports it will open a service and support center right there. "Over the past couple of years, we've been making a big effort worldwide to talk to end users and expand our service locations to where they're especially needed," says Erik Lapre, vice president for lifecycle services at Emerson Europe. "In addition to field service and repairs, these centers have quick shipping capabilities and offer ongoing training." For instance, to support its expanding oil and gas applications, Lapre says Emerson recently opened several service centers in Central Asia, specifically in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, and in Baku, Azerbaijan.

However, because many users can't get to a particular center, but still have Internet access, Emerson also offers virtual training programs that can instruct attendees in a variety of job roles and technologies. "We send curriculum materials and a PC-based headset for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), so they can ask questions," says Mark Dimmitt, educational services consultant at Emerson. "We offer 20 different classes just on DeltaV, and students can take them anywhere there's high-speed Internet. This gives them bidirectional audio and video, so it's just like being in an in-person class, but our virtual class means they don't have to travel."

Standardization Streamlines Support

Back at Perenco's project in Gabon, Mollard and his colleagues turned to longtime partner Rockwell Automation, which has been assisting Perenco since it started working in Gabon. "We used a global standard approach with PlantPAx redundant servers for main production facilities and combined them in multi-server applications. We implemented ControlLogix process controllers, SIL 2 safety controllers and power distribution controllers. Next we installed rack-based I/O for our main plants, and Flex I/O and Point I/O for remote installations. We also used Ethernet for Level 2 and peer-to-peer communications, and adopted ControlNet for our I/O components. Again, we also used fiber-optic, wireless, satellite or GSM networking, depending on an individual site's needs."

Mollard added that all these updated components give its offshore platforms and onshore operations multi-server capabilities, which allow the Gabon facility to easily centralize operations in its central control room. "ControlLogix's multi-discipline capability lets us  apply a global standard over every site," explains Mollard. "Likewise, smooth integration to the IT environment enables us to secure remote access via satellite from any location, while PlantPAx's scalability allows us to carry out projects in a phased approach. Rockwell Automation's information-oriented solutions also give us easy access to production data for analysis, which helps optimize our financial investments."

Because Perenco's redevelopment project meant it was often dealing with developed fields and managing existing equipment, many of its new projects didn't involve building complete platforms or plants, but instead required it to add new components to older facilities. "It could be difficult to remember where all the existing equipment was, so it helped that we could make all our fire and gas (F&G) connections directly to our PLC too," reports Mollard. "We can also manage our power generation with a PLC for power management. All these interconnections let us monitor everything from one central control area."

Mollard adds that Perenco has also been standardizing its safety instrumented systems (SISs), emergency shutdown systems (ESDs) and F&G systems on the same PLCs from Rockwell Automation, and monitoring them together on PlantPAx. In addition, it's also standardizing its HMIs and SCADA programs, which will allow staff to work on uniform displays and simplify training for them.

"The real value of this simplification and standardization is that common platforms can reduce the cost of spare parts. However, we're also getting uniform well analytics and production dashboards that are allowing us to follow operations trends in Gabon from our offices in Paris, and then react and make better decisions in real time," adds Mollard. "These standard solutions from Rockwell Automation are going to be deployed further in Gabon and also in Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia, Peru and Cameroon. They'll be easy to remotely support, and they'll help our site maintenance and project engineers optimize operations and improve production turnover in any of these locations."