Air Liquide goes digital to redefine operational excellence

By Keith Larson

Sep 12, 2018

Air Liquide, the $25 billion global leader in air separation, serves a uniquely broad range of customers—from hospitals and home healthcare patients to semiconductor fabs and oil refineries. But at both ends of the spectrum, the health of the company’s customers is inextricably linked to the ability of Air Liquide to predictably and reliably meet expectations.

Arnold “Marty” Martin lives on the industrial side of Air Liquide’s businesses, with corporate responsibility for the controls technology deployed on behalf of the company’s ‘large plant’ industrial customers, which often host on-premise Air Liquide facilities. “The gases we produce are essential to their operations,” Martin says. “If we sneeze they get a cold.”

Aware that this intimacy offers both risk and opportunity, the company is in the midst of a four-year, customer-centric initiative called NEOS (Greek for ‘new’) to transform the company’s performance through operational excellence, selective investments, open innovation and a stronger, more networked organization.

Digitalization underlies all of these strategic imperatives, and Martin is currently charged with modernizing and standardizing the automation approach used in the company’s “many mini” production facilities that currently use a hodge-podge of automation platforms deployed and acquired over the years.

Martin’s work is central to the companywide Smart Innovative Operations (SIO) initiative, which encompasses how the company manages its assets, how it interacts with its customers and how to better leverage its ecosystem of stakeholders. “We need a step change in operational excellence if we are to continue to be the leader,” Martin said.

Martin discussed how Air Liquide is reinventing how it does process automation in order to raise the bar on operational excellence at this week’s Yokogawa Users Conference in Orlando.

Toward virtual operations

In particular, advanced process control, procedural automation, remote monitoring and predictive analytics are key aspects of the company’s drive toward the Virtual Operator—remotely monitored plants that operate increasingly autonomously, yet deliver on the company’s new vision of increased performance and reliability.

First up is a system-wide modernization of the company’s fleet of control systems, including a consolidation from the seven platforms currently in place to only two or three, Martin said. “And if our plants are to be operated with minimal onsite supervision, they have to operate flawlessly.”

For starters, that means modern multivariable predictive control (MVPC) tools to ensure optimal control over a range of conditions together with procedural automation technology to gracefully manage start-ups and transitions with minimal operator involvement. Among the Yokogawa tools selected for deployment are the company’s PACE advanced control platform as well as its Exapilot solution for procedural automation. These technologies, together with remote monitoring (for those times when human intervention is required) and predictive analytics (for asset health management) can go a long way toward delivering the step change in operational excellence Air Liquide has set its sights on.

“The transition to Virtual Operators will also require close attention to alarm management and trip abatement,” Martin said. “In this new world, any need for operator intervention will be treated as an incident to be investigated.”

While much work remains to be done, “we recognize where we have to go, and that we have to invest in the future,” Martin said. “And Air Liquide is doing that.”