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Remote solutions: Benefits stretch beyond COVID

July 26, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have turned nice-to-have technologies into must-have technologies seemingly overnight, the benefits of these implementations can reach far beyond the ability to avoid virus transmission among personnel. In this podcast, Keith Larson is joined by Arnold "Marty" Martin, director of process control technology for Air Liquide's Center of Technical Expertise, to discuss the benefits he's realized from Air Liquide's remote solutions.

Questions? Marty Martin can be reached by phone at 281-883-3997 or email at [email protected].


Keith Larson: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a dramatic acceleration in the deployment of remote solutions across industry. Nice-to-have technologies that facilitated operations and collaboration from afar became got-to-have technologies overnight, but avoiding virus transmission among personnel is hopefully a relatively short-term benefit of remote solutions. And, in fact, the full range of benefits they can bring is much broader and far-reaching.

Hello, this is Keith Larson. I'm the editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and welcome to this episode of our Control Amplified podcast, brought to you today with the support of Honeywell, a global leader solving industry's toughest problems with remote and autonomous solutions.

Joining me today to discuss the far-reaching and longer-term business case for remote connectivity and solutions that enables is Arnold "Marty" Martin, he goes by Marty, director of process control technology for Air Liquide's Center of Technical Expertise. Welcome, Marty, and thanks so much for joining me today.

Marty Martin: Oh, hey, Keith. Thanks a lot. I love to talk about this stuff, and I really appreciate you reaching out to me to include me.

Keith: You bet. You bet. Well, maybe to get things started, some of our listeners may not be as familiar with Air Liquide's operations. So, obviously, they're a logical fit for remote connectivity and minimal local operator intervention, but can you share with our listeners a little bit more about your operations and why remote control really makes a ton of sense even pre-pandemic?

Marty: Sure, Keith. So Air Liquide, industrial gas, that's the biggest thing we do. And we have plants all over the place. I mean, several hundred throughout North America. It's very difficult to get the level of engineering and support we need at each of these plants because many times they are in isolated areas and they're not typically very large plants, but they serve a key function. So, it's very important that we don't drop the ball on quality support to our plants. Be able to support them from a DCS or control automation perspective, including remotely control them, depending upon where the plant's located. The other area that really made sense for us with regards to the remote control, or I should say remote access, is each of the DCS vendors has their own solution. And that's really hard to manage, not to mention, you got to work with OT and IT guys to open ports. It just becomes very difficult.

And with regards to security, it's harder when you have many platforms. So, several years ago, we had this special need. We had an older system, we had to get better at it. And so I wanted a common interface to all our sites or all our control points within each plant. And so, I went after a new package. Also, in today's world, we're trying to migrate towards more consolidated operations and control rooms. The experience isn't there like it used to be, and to be competitive, we are creating pockets of these operational control rooms that will control multiple plants, including communicating back to what we call a remote operations control center, which is where the big-picture decisions are made to keep up our industrial pipelines. Okay. And we had to have a secure package because we recently, in the last several years, came out with a very strict digital security policy and, therefore, our previous solution just didn't fit the bill.

Keith: So, your timing was pretty spot on in terms of getting out ahead of the pandemic in terms of now you're going through the same process that a lot of people were doing a lot more quickly. Yeah.

Marty: Exactly. I'm going to say it's a little bit of luck. About five years ago, we have an ALLEX program, which is a young engineers program out of college. And I wanted to come up with this new remote access package because my group, which supplies support to all these plants had to have this and it was imperative we have something good because we were complaining a lot about the current system. And so, I spent a couple years looking at this in detail because it was a massive leap from what we had in functionality for the new stuff and learning what was out there. So it turned out, that was our saving grace in the pandemic. Okay? I hit it big just because I had seen a need but obviously not what the future brought in terms of why will you have that need? And when the pandemic hit, we were already well-established with the remote control solution, and I remember my boss asking me weekly, "Can you guys log in? Are you guys going to be able to remotely log in?" Because that was new for Air Liquide. Not everybody did that, but the automation guys always had to do that. That was how we [worked], our laptops were our offices. And so, we were used to doing that, and I kind of laughed. I said, "It's not going to be the automation guys that can't get in, it'll be whether the IT guys have enough bandwidth because once everybody has to go online, are we going to be able to get there?" And it turned out really well for us.

Keith: Okay, great. Can you share maybe a little bit of what your criteria were when you really looked at that solution for remote connectivity, what were your, you know, the checklist of functionality that you were looking for?

Marty: Absolutely. It had to be secure, completely secure. It had to meet the stringent guidelines that our IT and OT group came up with. In addition to that, it had to have, we called it a privileged access management solution. Okay? That is an industry term for a type of support remote access system. The other area that was extremely important to us is the ability to know exactly who is in the system, be able to record, have digital footprint of everything that's done because there's times when mistakes are made and there's no traceability. So, we had to have that. The other key function was having access control at only the level the person needed. That was huge. Okay? Don't give them keys to the kingdom if they don't need it.

And the last one, which I think is one of the very important ones, it's been very difficult. You don't let vendors and third-party people easily access your systems from the external world, and at Air Liquide, that was a big no-no. And we had to have a way to, what I call, digitally escort our outside vendors or support person that would not normally have an in to our Air Liquide network but can still perform, and collaborate, and help us one time without the ability to get back in. And so that was huge and it had all of that. And that has been absolutely, during the pandemic, that's one of the best teachers, is because in order to include the number of new people that had to get in and see stuff, it would make the groups very large. So, we were able to manage and get our support without requiring our vendors always to come on-site. And they could still support us and keep operations going and troubleshoot.

Keith: I think you were mentioning before when we were talking earlier about being able to capture what they did to resolve a problem as well so you can reference that in the future. Can you talk a little bit more about that, too?

Marty: Yeah. Every session is recorded and there's no way to modify, or I should say remove or delete, that recording so that there's always a digital representation of what happened. But we also would use that to where we would log into systems or get specialized help. Our session would be recorded, once we downloaded it, we can edit it and we create training videos, especially on obscure, difficult troubleshooting that we need to remind ourselves of, or how do you start a computer or how do you do something? It became like a YouTube video for people, and that was huge. That was massive because a lot of times we'd have these vendors come out like different parts of the year to do the same thing because no one could remember how to do it, and it was too complicated to document.

Keith: Yeah. And that certainly seems like it will serve you very well even post-pandemic, just in terms of bringing forward that institutional knowledge from your retiring workforce, which we're all facing certainly as we move forward, but a way to kind of preserve that and reference it when you have to go to procedures you don't do very often. That sounds like a really handy tool.

Marty: Correct. Absolutely. Yes. That's definitely a plus.

Keith: Any other benefits that you can point to in terms of, as part of the initiative that you had been on? I know this started a few years ago in terms of doing your smart, innovative operations that started a few years back and I know that efficiency and reliability were cornerstones to that. Has that helped achieve those goals in terms of reliability and efficiency that you had said a few years ago?

Marty: Yeah. So, one of the big programs that I implemented was what I nicknamed digital assistance, assistance as in people assistance, but it was our code name for our advanced process control and our ISA 106 sequential automation. So, those combined formed the digital assistance package that would help control plants. That has created, especially the ACC benefits that have exceeded what we believed we would get because we chose a really strong package and we had people really dive in and learn this stuff so now it allows us to control plants remotely just by passing set points. And it's very stable. And because of the type of package we chose, we can go very close to our operating line and really maximize energy savings or production for the same amount of energy stabling because it's one thing to do it, get close with APC that's not so strong, it's another one if they can keep it super steady, it can absorb some of the disturbances without getting in trouble.

Keith: That's great. What about in terms of reliability? Are you doing diagnostics as well so you can head off any of that unanticipated downtime?

Marty: Absolutely. Yup. So, we've got a full-scale predictive analytics program. That's absolutely key. Okay? Our large compressors are our major pieces of equipment. We have a very good program in place that looks at this and makes decisions on whether we're going to be in trouble or not so that we can head off problems. We're also committing to something that's been around for a long time but not so many people did it, and that's I/O asset management and that starts at smart transmitters, the smart valves, diagnostics, being able to calibrate, being able to pull some of our work out of turnarounds, so that we're not just blindly calibrating or blindly doing anything. We have diagnostics now and we have trends, and now we can manage that and get rid of paper and loop folders and all kinds of stuff. That's really huge. That allows, I would say it allows the E&I guys to manage more.

Keith: Yeah. And I think it's critical too. I mean, experience shows that oftentimes when you're doing calibrations or have to pull an instrument out for calibration you're more likely to cause a problem sometimes then you are to improve accuracy. So, if you can figure out which ones should not fall, you can certainly increase your reliability and eliminate problems that way as well.

Marty: Absolutely. That's hit us. That's definitely hit us. And I also was very adamant about the virtualization of all of our automation and computing assets because we're not in the hardware business of maintaining computers. They just cause too many problems. When you virtualize and you use the right solution, you can remotely monitor, you can do all types of things, including better backup, better recovery. And it takes a support element, and we can consolidate that to one group versus when there's physical assets at the plant, it becomes more problematic to do that.

Keith: Yeah. That makes sense. So, do you have redundancy schemes that are onsite or do you have actual control that's done remotely where you can back up remotely over a connection if you have?

Marty: So, we have our local plant solution. We have not migrated to the cloud on everything. There's certain aspects of say, Enterprise Historian, that is, but when it comes down to the basic control layer, we're still localized, HMIs and the like. That is done locally, okay? Virtualization locally, but all of that is connected back to the corporate network and because I'm considered a disruptor to some of our DCS vendors, I think they look at me and kind of cringe because I always come up with something new. I'm always challenging them. And I took on Emerson and I'm taking on Yokogawa, and we're introducing an entirely new virtualization platform that works really well, that's world-class for us and is one of the better systems out there. And that took a lot of testing and it took a lot of a leap of faith because the vendors were not so keen on allowing me to use my solution, but now we've done it for a couple of years and it's working out really well for us.

Keith: Great. Congratulations on that. You mentioned that it's been well received there, at least for the automation guys doing the remote access. Has that been leveraged by other parts of the organization now, some of the stuff you tested out, and has IT taken and run with your solutions for the automation group?

Marty: Yep. Yup. So, in our OT group, which is our operations technologies/IT, I worked with them to help put together a team that now is supporting our virtualization efforts or the ability to get the right bandwidth, to get applications in and out of the plant. They worked very closely with us. They really like our remote access solution as well. They jumped on board. They managed that for us. It's why the remote access solution is now Air Liquide worldwide and the worldwide community got into it and they even automated it further where through corporate interfaces, you can add and subtract people without having to do it locally anymore. So, it's really taken off and become a really nice solution. And it's code-named SIRA for secure industrial remote access, S-I-R-A.

Keith: It sounds like you might need to commercialize this solution.

Marty: Yeah. We love to come up with acronyms. Absolutely love it. It's hard to keep up with them all, actually.

Keith: Yeah. You've got your own, I mean, our industry has its own set steps, for sure, and you've got to layer a few on top, so no doubt.

Marty: Yup. Yup. Yup.

Keith: So, speaking of people, what implications do you see? You've obviously gotten increasingly remote and autonomous operations paradigm. What effects is that having on company cultures as well as are there changes in the sorts of skill sets and jobs and titles that go with them that you will be needing more of in the future, or what's your take on that?

Marty: Absolutely. Yup. So, when we consolidate plants and we don't have as many full-time staff at any one plant, we're developing new roles. One of those roles is called multitask and their operations/E&I are somewhat combined and then they would be in charge of, say, a group of plants. So, they kind of rotate. But that's only possible when you provided enough automation to where the plants can be remotely controlled and you can remotely, or I should say, assist the local people to start up the plant or start up equipment, because oftentimes it might take more than one person to go do this. And so we have to supply the automation where one person can do it and feel comfortable and confident that we're going to get them from A to Z and not create a problem.

Keith: So, technicians that are a little bit more of a generalist but they're assisted by digitally-enabled technology to do a wider variety of tasks. Is that fair to say?

Marty: Correct. Exactly correct. And then we have some corporate functionality. It's part of what we call our LEAD center, and that stands for leading enterprise analytics and diagnostics center. And they're constantly looking at the streams of data coming out of a plant and deciding whether we've got issues or if they see problems, be able to direct the right experts to solve a problem that hasn't manifested itself yet necessarily or go back and do root cause and help us solve problems faster because it used to be only at the local level and there may not have been enough expertise to go full circle on the analysis. So, that's helping us because we're putting a lot more investment in automation and the optimization of our plants. This stuff has to work because you can only improve what you can measure. You can only control what you can measure, and if you don't have a strong KPI program or people holding what you're doing accountable, you're lying to yourself.

The last one that we have, above and beyond, some of the local pockets of control centers where we're consolidated is our ROCC, which stands for remote operations control center, and that's where they make big-picture decisions on where plants along our pipelines have to run to maintain our pipeline load properly and they're constantly setting through the optimization routine. They're setting set points at local plants. And so we have to provide the automation that gets these set points there confidently without creating a problem. Okay? Obviously, you have to have watchdog logic, you have to have all kinds of things so that you know when you write something, it's going to be exactly what you asked it to do. And then the automation has to get it there cleanly, safely without the high-level people having to get involved. So, that's kind of what our new look is we're going towards.

Keith: Great. Well, hopefully before too long it won't be the pandemic that keeps us isolated from each other, but these solutions will certainly continue to reap benefits, I think, well into the future. Sounds impressive.

Marty: Yeah. I think that too. And one of the things that I'm starting to see is my group, in particular, it's a process control technology group and we're kind of the owners of a lot of this automation, is my group is becoming stronger and more important as we build more automation. And I see that across the board. In a lot of industry, the automation folks are finally going to become the top dogs because they're the ones that are going to work with process and they're going to be the ones that know how all this stuff works because there won't be as many people at the local level that can do this.

Keith: Yeah. No, that makes sense. And I think all of the process industries are struggling with some of that same dynamic and how to leverage the capabilities of fewer subject matter experts across a larger fleet of assets. So, thanks for leading the charge and showing us the way.

Marty: Love to do it. I want to give back to the industry, too, by just kind of telling my story, and I appreciate you asking me because if I can help just one person, because I know when I'm listening and I hear that one thing I need to hear and it helps me and saves me time, that's huge.

Keith: Yeah. Certainly. Well, thank you for being open and sharing and I'm sure we'll have you back on the podcast again before too long, if I had my way about it anyway. So, thanks so much, Marty, for taking the time to share your insights today. We really appreciate it.

Marty: Thank you, Keith, for including me. You know, you always can call me. Appreciate it.

Keith: And I think after this airs you might be getting some listeners tracking you down as well. So I'm glad you're okay with that.

Marty: Absolutely. You can publish my telephone number and email address. That's fine because if people wanna know, I'll be glad to talk to them.

Keith: All right. Well, I will put that on the landing page for the podcast so people can track you down.

So, for those of you listening, thanks again for tuning in. It's been a great podcast. Great session here with Marty. Thanks again also to Honeywell for sponsoring this episode. I'm Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified podcast. Thanks for joining us.

If you've enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes store or Google Podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com.

Again, my guest today has been Arnold "Marty" Martin with Air Liquide's Center of Technical Excellence. Thanks again, Marty. Really appreciate it. Signing off until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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