July 2019

The Industrial Internet of Things

An evolving approach to digitalization

Much has been written in recent years about the need for refineries to embrace the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Wyatt, T., Fleissman, R., Emerson Automation Solutions

Much has been written in recent years about the need for refineries to embrace the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, it is fair to say that universal adoption has not been quick, particularly in industries such as oil and gas refining, where concerns include the security of the data gathered and where it might be stored, along with the cost of retrofitting existing equipment and legacy systems, and the importance of the reliable functioning of software within critical business processes.

Before spending money to upgrade and transform a refinery to integrate the latest IIoT innovations, the following will examine some of the practical questions that need to be addressed and the steps to be taken to ensure that the transformation is both logical and manageable. In many cases, the journey that needs to be taken is not always as daunting as anticipated. Even if a refinery is not ready to replace all legacy systems and spend massive amounts of capital, they can still start moving toward a digital future. Options are available to help ease the transition with small incremental steps toward the end goal.

Is a complete and expensive overhaul of legacy systems required?

Many refineries operate with legacy equipment that does not necessarily have the latest in digital capabilities. Hence, the conversation about digitalization is not always an easy one. Going digital—as in a complete overhaul of all technology systems to meet digital standards—requires considerable investment, a re-engineering of the plant layout, and extensive upgrades to information technology (IT) and equipment. In many cases, plant IT hardware used in refineries is tightly linked to the physical equipment it manages or monitors, making overhauls that much more daunting.

Separate silos of information and manual-based processes that only track one set of data have few parts to play in the digital refinery of the future. Simultaneously, data collection and analysis need to be made easier, while there is also still ongoing pressure on refinery managers to get more done with fewer resources (financial and personnel). Although a fully IIoT-enabled refinery should still be the goal, it does not need to come about overnight. However, there are ways to make digital transformation more easily attainable.

FIG. 1. Data is essential in making business-critical decisions and ensuring optimal operating conditions. Knowing this means that the real value of connecting the plant will be the data to which it provides access.
FIG. 1. Data is essential in making business-critical decisions and ensuring optimal operating conditions. Knowing this means that the real value of connecting the plant will be the data to which it provides access.

Data is the foundation

Data is essential in making business-critical decisions and ensuring optimal operating conditions (FIG. 1). Knowing this means that the real value of connecting the plant will be the data to which it provides access. With that as a starting point, plant management can investigate which technology upgrades will ensure optimal data gathering.

Data needs to not just be collected; it need to be presented in a format that provides actionable information that, in turn, needs to drive refinery decision-making and tangible operational improvements. For example, without quick and accurate data analysis, it can be difficult to prioritize maintenance and identify potential hazards or failures. This puts the safety, reliability and compliance of the facility at risk. Acquiring actionable data about the performance of instrumentation is the primary goal.

Data is everywhere. Many field instruments have data that can be used to improve the processes. The key is to prioritize which data will provide the most insight and start there. The lowest hanging fruit is found where digital communications are currently being used.

Blending with legacy systems

Most refineries and plants are still operating on legacy systems that are not digital. It is by reviewing both of those systems, and the ongoing and future data needs, that a more incremental approach to digitalization can take place. What can be done with what is available?

A starting point is to use digital sensors that are already attached to meters and/or piping. These may have traditional digital outputs such as HART that can provide more than one variable using traditional twisted pair wiring or using WirelessHART adapters to a gateway device. The digital outputs can feed data to software applications that can provide real-time analysis of key asset data without the major capital investments of new systems and technologies. The software applications, or apps, display data on a dashboard, similar to the apps used on smartphones and tablets.

FIG. 2. Digital sensors can feed crucial operational data to software applications, which can be accessed on a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
FIG. 2. Digital sensors can feed crucial operational data to software applications, which can be accessed on a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

So how do these software apps work? These software applications can operate on a smartphone, tablet or laptop for easy access by the engineer or technician (FIG. 2). The result is a much more responsive and agile refinery, with the ability to access actionable data nearly immediately via a purpose-built app for each asset.

For instance, in the case of flowmeters, it is possible to quickly determine the health of each meter and identify which meters are not performing within set parameters. All information can then be displayed on a dashboard, allowing a quick assessment of asset health, with the ability to drill down to the device that has health issues. Such information can often be seamlessly integrated with existing systems using the apps.

Heat exchange and steam trap monitoring

Specific areas of the plant can benefit from apps-based software. An example would be monitoring shell-and-tube heat exchangers.

Heat exchanger fouling and the impediment of heat transfer can have a major impact on refinery operations, resulting in millions of dollars in lost production (with unscheduled shutdowns being worst-case scenarios) and a negative, long-term impact on energy efficiency and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to reduced production and increased energy consumption. Thus, the cleaning and repairing of heat exchangers account for a large part of refinery maintenance budgets.

Using advanced built-in software tools that analyze plant sensor data gathered through existing infrastructure, operators can quickly recognize when heating requirements change and identify any early indications of fouling. This analysis provides predictive and continuous heat exchange monitoring, which ensures optimal cleaning for enhanced production and energy efficiency.

In addition, the app-based approach can also ensure the in-depth monitoring of air-cooled heat exchangers and fin fans—where limited cooling is often an indication of heat exchanger problems—by analyzing data gathered through wireless sensors. This reduces the threat of unexpected failures and process shutdowns, and provides relevant and actionable data without needing to uproot and replace existing legacy systems.

The same benefits can apply to monitoring steam traps. Failing steam traps can typically result in significant energy loss, a potential for water hammer and reduced plant efficiency. However, they tend to be audited only once a year. Significant economic and environmental improvements exist for a refinery through an app-based software approach. This approach allows plant managers to view trends in past health, emissions and energy loss on a per-trap basis and through utilization of data from wireless acoustic transmitters that continuously determine steam trap status.

Mitigating security, safety and regulatory risks

The app-based software approach can also apply to safety around the refinery, wirelessly monitoring pressure gauges through a single interface, acquiring plant data through existing sensors and infrastructure, and reducing refinery personnel’s exposure to hazardous areas. The value is that data is collected within the established, secure plant network of software applications that monitor processes without the need for personnel to physically check each process point. If changes are detected at any point in the process, an alert will be sent out so that corrective action can be taken quickly before a shutdown is triggered, thereby ensuring productivity.

In many cases, the application data can be configured in such a way as to provide an audit trail of the production process, and this audit trail can be used to create regulatory compliance reports—making purpose-built software apps a viable entry point into the IIoT. HP

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