Technology breakthroughs target major pain points of old plants

2018 Rockwell Automation TechEd and Honeywell User Group (HUG) events provide evidence of significant problem-solving

By Paul Studebaker

Bringing something important from the past into the future is fraught with peril. I’m reminded of this personally because the past few months have been filled with examples including old cars, old houses and even this old body—why not just pitch it, tear it down, replace it and be done with it? New stuff is sleek, shiny and up-to-date. It does things old stuff could never do, and it does it with power and efficiency we couldn’t imagine yesterday, much less a decade (or half a century) ago.

But due to replacement costs, unique characteristics and sometimes simple sentimentality, some old stuff just isn’t practical to replace—at least, that’s what my wife tells me. So, we try to repair it, upgrade it, fix its weaknesses and allow it to function well enough to compete with new stuff, at least for our particular needs.

Getting old stuff into the future has been the major problem behind several pain points in operating and controlling process plants. One is the problem of migrating legacy control systems as their hardware becomes obsolete—how can plants retain intellectual property (IP) in the form of carefully evolved control programs and algorithms when that IP is written in obsolete code and runs in obsolete controllers?

A second is keeping systems competitive by connecting them to new technology and the cloud. Legacy systems aren’t designed to easily add more sensors or to be accessed remotely and securely over the Internet.

The third is a big one: retaining enough knowledge to keep the plant operating as older workers retire. While less experienced workers can bring a breath of fresh air and a remarkable ability to debunk the myths around plant operations, there’s a lot of facts and procedures that have to be kept straight to run plants safely, and too much of that wisdom only resides in wise old domes.

So I was thrilled by the evidence of significant problem-solving that I saw at the recent Rockwell Automation TechEd and Honeywell User Group (HUG) events.

There's a lot of facts and procedures that have to be kept straight to run plants safely, and too much of that wisdom only resides in wise old domes.

Honeywell has made breakthrough progress in easing migration, essentially by virtualizing legacy systems to run on a server with connectivity to the users’ choice of legacy or modern hardware. This development takes significant percentage of the wind out of the sails of the Open Process Automation (OPA) initiative, especially since it was done at the request of and reported by ExxonMobil, the same company that spurred the creation of the OPA.

Rockwell and Honeywell reported increased real-world experience and ease of use in connecting and accessing legacy systems—well, all systems—with business systems and the Internet. Difficulties remain with certain older systems and security takes attention, but the trails are blazed, the tools are available and the results presented by end users are impressive. For more, see our coverage of TechED 2018 and HUG 2018.

Honeywell also demonstrated its increasingly evolved virtual reality (VR) system using an industrial version of Google Glass for capturing plant operations and maintenance know-how, making it available exactly where and when it’s needed (i.e., just before and during a job, such as replacing a sensor), and allowing an off-site expert to monitor and advise as necessary.

Like all knowledge-capture systems, the trick is getting the know-how into digital form. But once it’s in there for a particular device, plant and situation, it will be available in the local fog or global cloud for everyone who has the right to use it. If Honeywell follows in YouTube’s footsteps, we should have plenty of wisdom available on demand.

It’s too soon for me to enjoy the sensations of a classic while riding in a self-driving wheeled module, or to have AI make my old house run like a new one, or relive my youth with a VR headset. But from what I’ve seen over the past few months, the future is virtually here for industrial plant operation and control.

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