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Leveraging the value of digitalization

Dec. 16, 2020
The measurement infrastructure itself is an asset whose integrity is crucial

When the mobile phone “rang”—playing its curious electronic jingle at nearly 1 a.m.—it took a few tries before conscious humans could have a conversation. End-user instrumentation and controls professionals are sometimes—hopefully rarely—awakened by such calls; they’re always a little distressing since they annunciate an issue that can’t wait for the next morning or normal business day.

In this example, the crew on nights was busy getting the plant ready for startup following a short outage, commonly called a “swoop down,” distinguished from the longer, expensive, total plant shutdowns that can drag on for weeks or months. While much of the plant was in some state of running or ready, numerous vessels, boilers, turbines and other pieces of equipment had to be readied for the resumption of hydrocarbon feed. Even in 2020’s fractured economics, a delay of a shift or two can equal dollar losses into six or seven figures. That an instrument or control issue could cause such a delay should serve as testimony to the crucial role that such systems play in plant availability, but this is not a pervasive sentiment. It’s often view as “infrastructure” or just another cost.

Context, expertise needed

On the other hand, procurement or purchasing seems easily understood by corporate executives. For many, the Wal-Mart model of “badger and intimidate your suppliers until they cut their price” is held in great esteem. This strategy might make some sense for commodities like pencils or copier paper. But it is pursued by many with vehemence, and I’ve even heard I&C suppliers remark that pressure transmitters, for example, could be “sold by the kilo.” A pressure transmitter from Foxboro or Rosemount, E+H or Yokogawa or any of their peers might be indistinguishable in terms of performance in a generic service, but we typically strive to precisely specify the requirements for each application. When we pry suppliers from their profits and pressure them to continuously drop their price, sacrifices are made. Production is shifted to low-cost providers and experienced individuals disappear from the ranks.

Today there’s a heightened interest in data, presumably “Big Data” populated by digital devices comprising the Industrial Internet of Things. The executive in charge of, say, production planning can see her doorbells and her Audi’s status on her iPhone; so it might get her thinking, “Is there anything interesting to see from my plants—the ones that are paying the bills?” There is, and there have been for more than a few years. The problem is, it’s not rudimentary information like “there’s someone at the front door” or “you left your moon roof open.” Sadly, industrial sort of things have more cryptic messages to share, if anyone is listening. “Bearing temperature deviation” can't be divined to mean “ensure spare parts are available and plan for an emergency outage next week” without a machinery and/or process-savvy specialist to view it in context. The potential value is great, but the raw ore needs added processing once mined.

Especially with the current virus-constrained workforce, the impetus to install more diagnostic sensors—exchanger temperatures, pump vibrations, safety valve and steam trap monitors, etc.—is increasing. Multiple end users lack co-ops or entry-level engineers to manually carry out equipment health surveys, seeking out exchanger fouling or failed steam traps, for example. But if we leverage the current crisis to purchase and install pervasive monitoring capabilities, we also need a plan for credible monitoring and evaluation of the data.

The threat of a startup delay in the middle of the night was averted, thanks in large part to the plant’s instrument technician, who knew which diagnostics to look at. Alerted to physical network issues a week or two before, the crew on shift was advised to disconnect the suspect device, after which the problems subsided. In the digital plant, the measurement infrastructure itself becomes an asset whose integrity is crucial.

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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