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2021 AFPM Annual Meeting Virtual Edition: Taking on petrochemical plant hurdles with networking smarts

AL J. RIVERO, Vice President, Global Energy, Rajant 


The petrochemical industry is facing one of the most significant challenges in its history. The COVID-19 pandemic has decreased demand for a variety of end products that rely on petrochemicals, polymers and specialty polymers. The market has seen instability in pricing for naphtha, ethylene, heavy paralysis oil and more. These factors are byproducts of a dramatic decrease—or the complete elimination—of our usual energy-consuming activities. While this presents a nice change to rush-hour traffic clogging our streets, the situation is hitting the industry hard as fewer vehicles take to the road.

The volatility in the chemicals space has triggered a chain of events in the energy markets that will inevitably impact the industry for years to come. The pressure on companies to economize has increased significantly.

One way for petrochemical operations to remain competitive and profitable in a time of economic uncertainty is by embracing new and innovative technologies to improve safety and optimize production at the plant. For these advanced applications to realize their full potential, they need full Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) connectivity in petrochemical plants. To interact with and manage this “network of things,” companies must have a network infrastructure that is fully mobile and provides optimal broadband connectivity organization-wide. Reliance on IIoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity to improve productivity, streamline operations and control costs has created a demand for private wireless mesh networks.

Embracing Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 and the IIoT are needed elements to future proof your environment. Industry 4.0 is the move from traditional manufacturing and industrial practices combined with the latest smart technology, and it represents a step toward higher productivity. However, deploying a network to support the levels of connectivity required in a dynamic and potentially hazardous environment can be extremely difficult. Ensuring an equilibrium between facility and production growth with industry personnel safety standards is imperative.

For a network infrastructure to be fit-for-purpose in the context of a petrochemical plant, particular requirements must be met. For example, many petrochemical plants operate multiple networks to accomplish separate communication needs for their employees. This often outweighs the burden of maintaining a Wi-Fi network for data and a two-way radio WAN for voice, which can generate high costs and can be a notable drain on resource demands for daily operations.

The explosive and flammable gases found in petrochemical plants—such as ethylene, propylene, butadiene and other potential vapors—make maintaining safety in danger zones a top priority. This process is complicated further still. To prevent equipment from sparking and starting a fire, networking infrastructure must be kept in an explosion-proof enclosure, such as ATEX 1, ATEX-2/C1D1 and C1D2 requirements.

Constant connectivity is required for the mission-critical operations carried out in petrochemical plants, from the first initial deployment to complex day-to-day plant operations. Signal loss often equals productivity loss and, in a worst-case scenario, can put plant workers’ safety at risk. With petrochemical plants undergoing significant expansion, choosing the wrong industrial network solution could mean a plant’s investment is wasted if an unsuitable solution fails to connect plant operations.

A new way to enable petrochemical prosperity. A new type of networking is necessary for petrochemical plants to embrace Industry 4.0. An IIoT-enabling network—more dynamic than Wi-Fi networks or two-way radio WAN—can allow the petrochemical industry to take advantage of innovative technologies that can maximize productivity, improve safety and help organizations survive amid increased petrochemical competition.

A solution for petrochemical plants is to implement a mesh network topology—a resilient architecture constructed of nodes that allows a multitude of devices to connect wirelessly. The result is a node network that can communicate data across the network until it reaches its target destination. Interest in the technology is peaking due to its capability to handle the wave of data expected from the proliferation of IIoT connected devices.

Petrochemical operations utilize a catalog of vehicles, equipment, heavy machinery and personnel across vast and often unforgiving terrains that require reliable, high-bandwidth and mobile communications. Every aspect of exploration, extraction and production must always be carefully monitored and managed to ensure continuous operations and cost efficiency. A mesh network can provide real-time, site-wide communications for personnel and assets crucial to the running of a petrochemical plant, including drills, wellheads, video cameras, smart meters, sensors, laptops and smartphones.

Some mesh networks, however, can be too complex or infeasible to install. Some require continuous, labor-intensive maintenance. Plants need mobile wireless broadband connectivity that can meet their demands and is simple, instantaneous and robust in any application—a sort of autonomous network.

Critical connectivity. Critical connectivity is possible through a combination of wireless network nodes and networking software that utilizes any-node to any-node capabilities. This type of network can continuously route data via the best available traffic path and frequency for several nodes with extremely low overhead. More advanced mesh networks can connect with any Wi-Fi or Ethernet-connected device to deliver low-latency, high-throughput data, voice and video applications.

An effective mesh network can reduce the total cost of ownership and simplify the work demands of employees by allowing them to centralize their communications to a single device. As a secure and converged solution for plants, the right mesh network can reduce the need to maintain multiple networks by supporting data, voice and video. Furthermore, depending on the mesh network provider, certain nodes can be deployed in any corner of a petrochemical plant without the need for mounting in explosion-proof boxes.

Wireless network nodes can be attached to both fixed and mobile assets, including equipment, vehicles and facility infrastructure. They can maintain multiple immediate connections between peers while sending and receiving data on multiple frequency bands. They need never break connections to form new ones, meaning the connections are maintained until they are no longer required. With high-bandwidth speeds across multiple mesh node hops, a mesh network offers extremely low latency for real-time, plant-wide connectivity, even at the network edge, making it the perfect solution for mission-critical operations that require ubiquitous connectivity.

Mesh networking software can direct traffic by dynamically load-balancing and routing data around signal blockage from moving assets and potential interferences. This ensures that data packets get to their destination via the fastest path available. It also eliminates the need for a controller node; therefore, the network will have no single point of failure.

As petrochemical plants are spread out over vast areas, they are forced to regularly add new bandwidth-intensive applications to support continued growth. A superior mesh network topology can rapidly evolve as the plant does. As more nodes are added, more paths to direct mission-critical data are naturally formed—with more paths, the network becomes more resilient.

A mesh network can also protect plants, which are potential targets for high-risk network security attacks. The multi-layered, military-grade security for network traffic of a mesh network makes it incredibly difficult to penetrate. It boasts multiple cryptographic options, configurable data and MAC-address encryption, and configurable per-hop, per-packet authentication between nodes.

A BreadCrumb trail to operational enhancement. Rajant’s BreadCrumbs® are wireless nodes that are built for hazardous locations where ignitable concentrations of flammable gases, vapors or liquids can exist all or some of the time under normal operating conditions. Rajant enables plants to deploy these nodes on fixed and mobile plant infrastructure and equipment to enable, for example, the maintenance of multiple immediate connections between peers while sending and receiving data on multiple frequency bands.

Rajant’s private Kinetic Mesh® networks, built with intrinsically safe BreadCrumbs, can dynamically connect the people, assets and devices that comprise every aspect of a plant’s current and future operations. The network offers benefits that include reducing the total cost of ownership and simplifying the work demands of employees by allowing them to centralize their communications to a single device.

These self-healing, peer-to-peer industrial wireless networks give petrochemical plant operators the communication flexibility, reliability, high performance and scalability they need to maximize productivity and innovation. In turn, risk is minimized, downtime and costs are decreased, and security is increased to keep them ahead of the competition.

The way forward for petrochemical plants. Before the lockdown effects on the energy sector were realized, the need for petrochemical plants to tap into the full potential of the IIoT was immediately apparent. To tackle competitiveness and move with the changing digital environment, utilizing these mesh-based IIoT networks is essential. Now, with more significant pressure on the industry, ensuring cost-effectiveness and safety is even more vital.

These networks can provide plant-wide connectivity to manage, monitor and optimize assets critical to efficient, safe and competitive petrochemical operations. Also, a complete IIoT solution can be deployed in a matter of days or weeks as opposed to months. This means petrochemical plants can quickly maximize this sector of industrialization.


About the author:

AL J. RIVERO is Vice President of Global Energy at Rajant and is responsible for working and engaging with clients who seek to implement a secure, reliable IIoT and mobility strategy for their oil and gas operations. He works closely with clients to develop a strategic technology transition plan that ensures a reliable and secure migration of technologies. Rivero has more than 30 years of experience in various roles, ranging from staff engineer and project manager to operations management and technology management within the Chevron companies. He also has extensive IT/OT integration project experience, having worked with SAP, JDE, ESRI and a variety of automation and SCADA/DCS solutions within the upstream, midstream, refining and petrochemical segments.

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