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PPG Blazing New Trails in Wireless

July 19, 2007

Rob Brooks, process control supervisor at PPG’s Lake Charles, La., operations revealed what is quite likely the most advanced wireless prototype project in the chemical industry at the 2007 Foxboro User Group meeting this week in Boston.

“How do you push those little bitty keys when you’re wearing gloves in a hazardous environment?” PPG’s Rob Brooks discussed the company’s ongoing push into wireless applications, including a future vision of Blackberry-toting plant operators.

Phase One of the project was a WiMAX system that interconnected the main plant with outlying stations and control rooms. This enabled PPG to get rid of most leased lines, with an average cost savings of $35,000 to $40,000 per year. Brooks said that the current project is a WiFi pilot in complex’s Plant A Caustic plant. “We picked caustic so that we could prove we can industrialize the installation in corrosive environments,” Brooks said.

Although they paid a consultant to do a radio survey, Brooks noted, they found that they actually did better by carrying a laptop around the facility and looking for dead spots themselves. The consultant suggested five WiFi zones with access points, but their own survey indicated they’d be better off with nine. In fact, they needed nine plus a repeater for the sewer outfall station.

He noted that there is a huge difference between “industrial and outdoor,” and is now looking at putting standard indoor access points into NEMA 4 enclosures fitted with z-purge kits, instead of trying standard outdoor access points. The standard outdoor access points, he said, just didn’t hold up to the corrosive atmosphere in the caustic plant.

“We had approximately $216,000 savings in 2006, and an additional $343,000 in 2007 so far, just in wiring savings alone,” Brooks said. “Some of these projects, we would not have done if they had been wired, but also we had savings on projects we absolutely had to do. There is a huge potential for measurements whose cost/benefit ratio was historically too high to do, like vibration, temperature, stress wave analysis, safety shower use, rupture disk alarms, gas monitoring, and others.”

The real importance of the project, though, Brooks said, is that “we want to stop being control room centric. Wireless allows for all information to be available in the field.”
He went on to admit that PPG isn’t sure what to do with this yet, but “we are trying to understand what this means—what we can do with this technology.” There are things to think about, such as “How the heck do you alarm an operator?” he said.

The instrument mechanic has gotten the most out of the project of anybody so far, Brooks added. “He does his own calibration, has loop drawings in the field, and doesn’t have to bother the operators for 4 and 20 mA readings, because he has his tablet in the field.”

Even more interesting is the capacity for asset tracking, Brooks said. “We spend a lot of time looking for stuff,” he said. “Stuff like cherrypickers, compressors…things you’d think we’d be able to find, but that we spend time chasing all over the plant.”
In a perfect world, “we’d want an operator ‘Blackberry,’” Brooks concluded, “but the human interface issues are enormous. How do you push those little bitty keys when you’re wearing gloves in a hazardous environment?”

“We’re playing and learning,” Brooks concluded, “but we already see considerable benefit from our wireless pilot.”