July 2018


Improving certainty in uncertain times by building an IIoT-ready plant

Historical statistics indicate that 25% of projects have budget overruns and a further 50% have schedule slippage.

Shamsi, M., Emerson Automation Solutions

Historical statistics indicate that 25% of projects have budget overruns and a further 50% have schedule slippage. Therefore, project strategies are needed to manage risks efficiently while delivering increased value not only to the project, but also to the ongoing operation of the asset. 

In this context, there is sometimes a perception that integrating or specifying a digital infrastructure to enable the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in a project is not a requirement, but is simply “nice to have” or “gold plating.” Furthermore, lack of knowledge can lead project management to see IIoT readiness in a scope as a liability rather than as an asset for the project and future operations.

However, many industry leaders see things differently, and they are challenging project managers to expand their thinking on automation. They want to leverage digital transformation technologies to change the way things are done both during the project and in subsequent operations.

The following discussion  will show how and why projects are not always executed with the IIoT in mind, and will suggest ways to remedy this situation.

Projects are complex by nature

This  complexity has led the evolution of contracting and project execution models to create repeatable success, at least by some definition. Unfortunately, the relationship between the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company and the end-user client can lead to a project with inadequately specified digital infrastructure, or even its complete absence. This typically arises when an EPC follows long-established specifications of what we now consider to be very conventional automation technologies. The issue is further compounded when the client is unable to articulate and specify transformational digital technologies through lack of experience. An EPC company wants to avoid ambiguity. Everything in the scope has to be defined in mutually understood terms so that both the EPC and client know when each task is completed. Digital technologies may be harder to define with the desired degree of clarity.

Two questions arise: How can this happen? What can be done to avoid the problem from the outset?

First, major capital projects present a degree of risk for everyone involved due to the nature of complex interactions during execution. The pressure to meet scope, schedule and budget targets is paramount, since deviation from any one of these can send the whole effort into overrun. The targets are interrelated. If the schedule falls behind and the project does not start up on time, the budget will increase beyond its limits. Costs slip into a negative doubling mode where capital expenses continue to climb, while delayed production starves the plant of anticipated income. Consequently, known technologies are often preferred. Innovation is wonderful, but there is simply too much at stake to experiment with things neither party understands adequately. Invariably, from experience we see statements like, “We’ll try some new things once the plant is up and running and the project has been successfully delivered.”

Second, the fundamentals of execution strategy for projects have not changed on either side of the table. Both the EPC and client understand how these things are supposed to work. Adding new elements capable of creating misunderstandings and forcing a project into unknown directions is not seen as a good idea.

Third, what is a digital plant supposed to look like? What does the term mean? If the client is not clear on what it wants, then the EPC is not going to break out of its comfort zone and push the adoption of new ideas.

All three of these issues share the common denominator of risk aversion as the driving force of project management. Many managers point out how well existing practices get the job done—i.e., “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Even if project practices and technologies are outdated, the project can be completed now and inadequacies can be fixed later. The resistance to trying something new, even if the payoff is significant, becomes a serious barrier to the long-term success of plant operations. How can it be overcome?

Reconciling vision with life on the ground

More companies are looking for ways to work more efficiently and effectively using better technologies and tools. These are good ideas, but the challenge is turning vision into tangible work programs and objectives, particularly for relatively new technologies like the IIoT, which may not have been implemented before.

Three trends emerge for projects:

  • Some projects exist where neither the EPC nor the client are familiar with the IIoT and the concept of a digital plant. The result is a very conventional project delivered with potentially outdated technologies and architecture.
  • Other projects have a vision for IIoT, but are unable to turn it into a strategy for success for the project or subsequent operations.
  • A third group of projects selects best-in-class technologies in terms of infrastructure and applications. However, these efforts prove ineffective because they lack a coherent, overarching strategy for how to make use of the technology.

For example, does anyone from management call for the new ethylene cracker scheduled to open in 2019 to be a digital technology showcase?  The answer is yes, it does happen, but not nearly as often as it should. Typically, organizational constraints and project pressures take precedence over a desire to embrace technological advances. The value of building a new, data-driven IIoT platform is not being questioned, but it will be left for the next project. 

Sometimes, the focus fixes on adhering to a schedule and budget since the company desperately needs the capacity. This is an appropriate objective, but another opportunity is missed. The ultimate irony is that the tools and technology solutions feared as disruptive elements can be a major help during the project, and as a permanent part of the production environment going forward. If specified correctly and included in the scope from the start, they can be used during implementation, often speeding the project delivery process significantly.

Getting a grip on the concept

When developing functional requirements and tangible technology deliverables, end users should break down their potential requirements into manageable elements. This enables each element of the requirement to be understood and a corresponding solution to be specified. Each of these solution sets can then be placed into an overarching architecture, which will be an implicit part of the deliverable for a project. 

This incremental approach is important for both the EPC and the client involved in a project. Individual elements can be included in a project scope so that they become part of the project discussion from the beginning. A significant part of the digital philosophy is the architecture—the mechanisms necessary to support various types of applications, rather than the applications themselves. The significant change is moving away from a distributed control system (DCS) architecture to a much broader enterprise view of data and applications. Moving away from a DCS-centric solution creates a much more flexible architecture, which enables many other applications to be layered in if the right architecture and infrastructure is put in place.

When thinking about how to transform your projects and operations, define the scope requirement in terms of the following five digital competencies:

  • Automate workflow: Automate routine and manual activities to free workers from mundane tasks by using technologies to eliminate manual data collection. For example, when precommissioning an asset and collecting performance measures, look at sensors to automate data collection and eliminate the need for manual intervention, or take readings from local gauges or handheld data-gathering tools.
  • Decision support: Provide users with decision support and analytical tools to enable higher-quality, faster decisions. Look at remote collaboration technologies to facilitate interaction with experts at other sites or vendors that can help troubleshoot and fix equipment more quickly. Enabling these tools during precommissioning can speed up handover to production.
  • Workforce upskilling: Ensure the availability of training in flexible formats so that employees can increase proficiency with the technology and processes they use every day. Think about upskilling the EPC engineers to use these technologies so they can work alongside the client and ensure a smooth transition from commissioning to operations.
  • Mobility: Provide constant situational awareness with mobility tools to power enhanced collaboration and reduce or eliminate dependency on control-room operator screens. Mobile worker tools have yielded up to 50% time savings in startup processes by eliminating reliance on access to remote screens and resources. Effective use of such tools requires simple training and some preplanning to adapt work processes.
  • Change management: Build in the capability to effectively change traditional processes by introducing new technologies. Think about the impact technologies can have on conventional work processes. For example, mobility tools can provide support for commissioning and more timely access to information while on the move. Think about how wireless sensors can be used to eliminate the need for cabling and other physical infrastructure to gather process and performance measurements.

Identifying practical digital technologies

No single technology is capable of making a plant “digital.” Success requires taking an ecosystem approach, identifying technologies that are harmonized to provide a coherent solution. Effective implementation means looking at each component and adopting those that make sense for the plant or facility. The approach should not attemp to embrace an all-encompassing assortment of technologies and numerous protocols to create some sense of universal interoperability. Instead, develop an architecture that allows enhancements to accommodate technologies as they emerge and become prevalent within the industry. Examples of this structure include: 

  • Flexible architecture. Typically, conventional automation architectural philosophy attempts to route all process data through the DCS, but this often poses physical and commercial constraints. For example, is there sufficient capacity to integrate new sensors? Is adding them commercially viable? Can the system expand and accommodate technical changes as future requirements emerge? With some systems, this route is often both technically and commercially impractical, or totally infeasible. Moreover, DCS-centric architecture leaves the project and future expansion wholly reliant on the DCS vendor.

The new model uses technologies thateliminate reliance on a DCS-centered architecture. It looks at the relevance of data and helps route it to applications where it is most relevant and provides strategic interpretation to workers who can act upon that information. This operation eliminates the control room bottleneck and provides a versatile architecture that can grow to accommodate new technologies, sensors and applications.

FIG. 1a. Having Wi-Fi in a plant allows workers to communicate and retrieve information on a company intranet or the internet from anywhere in the facility.
FIG. 1b. Wi-Fi and WirelessHART both operate in 2.4 GHz spectrum, but can coexist without interfering with each other.

Key architectural components include security, Wi-Fi and wireless-enabled mobility solutions, wireless-enabled sensors and analytic applications.

  • Wi-Fi and long-term evolution (LTE). All new plants and all major plant expansions should include wireless infrastructure (FIG. 1). Wi-Fi is commonly used, although some facilities also consider LTE infrastructure when a quality of service and guaranteed availability through a local service provider has been negotiated. At the project specification stage, it is relatively easy to incorporate a wireless infrastructure in the scope, so end users should think about how the project and ongoing operations can capitalize on the infrastructure. For the project, there is a significant benefit in using mobility tools to support precommissioning, making many activities into single-person operations without relying on the control room operator. Additional functionality for tracking resources—such as materials and tools to ensure that all required components are in place to complete a task prior to dispatching a construction crew—is valuable in engineering management.
  • Wireless instrumentation and infrastructure. In the decade since the release of the WirelessHART protocol, the selection and variety of wireless instrumentation (FIG. 2) have grown enormously, supported by multiple vendors. A broad range of field instruments is now available as natively wireless, eliminating the need for signal wiring.
FIG. 2. Native wireless devices usually have a built-in power module that can last for years. This allows them to operate without wires of any kind.

In addition to traditional process instruments, the number of equipment condition monitoring instruments has also grown, allowing critical installations, such as pumps and heat exchangers, to benefit from performance and condition monitoring without the need for expensive wired networks. Often, additional measurements are eliminated from the design of a new or retrofit project since those signals are deemed too costly to implement during the capital expenditure phase of a project. If those measurements are needed later, adding wired instrumentation can be much more costly than wireless solutions. 

Wireless sensor solutions are a good way of supporting operational excellence programs to improve plant productivity, reliability and compliance to emerging environmental and safety legislation (FIG. 3). Being able to specify these parameters during the project phase is more efficient, and provides significant engineering presence on the project, which can be marshalled to assess and specify high-value applications. 

FIG. 3. Wireless infrastructure consists of one or more gateways, with the terminal gateway hardwired to the plant’s control and monitoring systems via a digital communications link, such as Ethernet. KEYNOTE: Doug May Business President, Olefi ns, Aromatics & Alternatives The Dow Chemical Company
  • Monitoring inputs. Many DCS installations have a significant number of monitoring points; wiring these conventionally can be overly complex and expensive to implement. A better installation practice is to connect these devices wirelessly, eliminating the overhead of the wired infrastructure. This is particularly important when adding to a brownfield plant where existing DCS I/O points may not be available and adding new ones is often very expensive. Combining wireless instrumentation and infrastructure with this concept can cut costs substantially, while decreasing installation time.
  • Analytics. To be effective, an analytics strategy must offer a quick deployment without significant overhead in a sophisticated, large-scale initiative. Due to little or no operational experience or history, this might not yield any immediate results. The concern at this stage is to ensure sufficient sensor coverage to collect data, which will be relevant in any future enterprise-wide analytics engine. End users should focus on implementing simple, scalable analytics at the edge, which can deliver immediate insight into asset performance.
  • Collaboration. Wireless infrastructure enables new ways
    of accessing information, thereby enhancing collaboration between field technicians and control room personnel. Mobility solutions provide new ways of accessing information so that users can have an on-demand view capability for information beyond the control room.

Making the change happen

Creating the kinds of changes discussed here must begin with end users. EPCs value clarity above all else, and few will risk roiling the waters of a project by offering suggestions outside of the client’s requested scope. Some are more adventurous than others and may try to guide the process if there is a track record of successful projects, but nobody is going to insist that the client try something new.

The client may not know how to specify these items in a project scope, and this becomes a major issue if IIoT-ready elements are not included from the outset. IIoT-enabling infrastructure and solutions can be added at any time, but planning ensures that an organization is ready to benefit. Realization of benefit may involve additional training or changes in work processes, or even the complete elimination of specific manual tasks.

In many cases, the difference between success and failure on this front depends on the efforts of establishing a stakeholder committee, with the team being representative of functional disciplines.

Success also depends on partnering with the right supplier. When a strong relationship with a supplier of advanced technologies exists, it is easier to write a comprehensive scope and take the project to an EPC in a way capable of creating the desired result. The right supplier can bring products and services to support digital leaders, deliver the kinds of technologies and solutions needed and provide support throughout the life of the plant or facility. 

The time to make these changes is at the beginning of a project, which means that everything can be written into the scope and specifications long before anything is irreversible. IIoT implementation sooner rather than later will save time and money during construction, and throughout the life of the plant. HP

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