August 2021


Control software drives sustainable performance and production

In the face of changing dynamics around the world, hydrocarbon manufacturers are finding the need to not only change strategies, but also to continually adapt those strategies to meet new social and consumer expectations.

Sims, S., Emerson

In the face of changing dynamics around the world, hydrocarbon manufacturers are finding the need to not only change strategies, but also to continually adapt those strategies to meet new social and consumer expectations. The world has rapidly shifted its focus to sustainability, adoption of renewables and reducing the environmental impacts of process manufacturing. The organizations that will achieve speed to market and wide success with new products while embracing these goals are already building the robust foundation necessary for these changes.

Two primary ways exist to meet the future of manufacturing: build new plants with advanced technologies or automate and retrofit existing plants to increase efficiency and optimize production. These trends are playing out in industries such as gas processing and refining (FIG. 1).

FIG. 1. The gas processing and refining industries operate at the heart of new sustainability initiatives, such as hydrogen fuel processing and carbon capture.

Some organizations are focused on new initiatives (e.g., constructing hydrogen fuel processing facilities), while others are converting existing refineries to support carbon capture. In either case, forward-thinking organizations are employing digital transformation strategies to future-proof their investments across the equipment lifecycle.

Optimizing operations

As organizations implement sustainable manufacturing initiatives and improve speed to market, they are running into impediments common in today’s manufacturing environment.

Experienced operators are leaving plants for retirement, and the workers who remain are responsible for more tasks than ever before. These personnel need tools and strategies to work more efficiently. In addition, organizations implementing initiatives (e.g., carbon capture)—often with skeleton crews—face tight margins. Carbon capture makes sense environmentally, but with the right technologies in place, it can also make sense financially.

Automation solutions provide a critical foundation of support, helping teams navigate these changes to deliver performance and production without adding excessive expenses. Plants taking advantage of advanced automation software improve efficiency and reduce cost with improved process control, tighter integration among systems and better data handling—key enablers of speed to market, higher performance and more sustainable operations.

Better core process control

Performance and sustainability go together, so organizations are turning to advanced process automation technologies to simultaneously improve both.

Loop issues often occur in the plant units consuming the most energy. The author’s company has found nearly two-thirds of core control loops are underperforming in typical plants—often occurring in high-energy units such as distillation columns, boilers and reactors. Many plants, particularly those focused on carbon capture practices, are moving toward fully automated monitoring. Automating monitoring makes it far less likely that busy plant personnel will overlook the asset performance issues that lead to poor loop operation and reduced performance.

In addition, organizations are using advanced process control software to optimize operations through added efficiencies, driving minute-to-minute performance improvement. Modeling and predictive control are combined with advanced control logic to identify best practices, capture them as control logic and embed them in the process through automation for consistent increases in throughput and quality.

Taking advantage of state based control (SBC) software can also optimize processes for improved performance. SBC automates control logic into production lines, helping individual process units communicate and coordinate with each other. Operators are responsible for state transitions and act as process managers, intervening only when prompted by the system. Each stage of the process is aware of variables from other process units and can automatically adjust production accordingly to eliminate risks and waste from production processes.

The emergence of simulation

Simulation software is another key lever for delivering more sustainable operations. Often, organizations must adjust production to optimize efficiency and reduce environmental impact through tighter control. However, testing a new control strategy often creates risk due to lost production while systems are in reduced capacity for testing, along with the increased likelihood of safety or environmental incidents if newly implemented controls do not operate as expected on live equipment.

Using a digital twin simulation, plants can test new process configurations on a virtual replica of the plant, seeing how changes cascade across the system and identifying any faults in execution without creating risk to safety or environmental incidents. If a change does not yield the right outcome, the team simply reverts the digital twin back to its initial state and tries a different solution until they get the results they are looking for, with no operational risk whatsoever.

Moreover, the flexibility of a simulated plant environment offers a wide range of opportunities to test scenarios that may be unlikely but could still impact production or cause a plant to exceed regulations. Service interruptions, unexpected bubbles of demand, supply-chain disruptions, equipment failure and other issues can all be tested safely, and solutions can be designed to mitigate even the rarest ‘what if’ scenarios.

Outside of operations, digital twin simulations also provide operators a safe place to train and upskill, enabling them to gain real world experience with zero risk, even in complex scenarios that they are only likely to face a handful of times over their entire career. Advanced simulations can be used to replicate these rare situations—plant trips, process excursions, equipment failure and more—and help operators quickly gain the skills to reduce emissions and safety risks to an absolute minimum.

Better data coverage translated into actionable insights through contextualization

Timely delivery of quality data is not only critical to the operational excellence of a plant, but also essential to enable smaller groups of workers to deliver more product with improved sustainably. Fortunately, advances in automation are enabling organizations to not only access more data than ever before, but also to easily put the data in context and quickly deliver it to the right people at the right time (FIG. 2). This improved, on-demand access to data helps drive improvements from the plant floor up through the enterprise.

FIG. 2. Secure remote monitoring provides plant personnel with timely data, enabling them to make better decisions quickly.

Key components for improving efficiency are reducing operator load and providing personnel with tools to help make better decisions. Alarm systems have always been critical to helping operators stay ahead of the issues reducing performance and impacting sustainability. Many staff- and resource-limited organizations are relying more heavily on alarm management, with some organizations centralizing alarm systems to reduce maintenance, while making these systems easier to update, maintain and scale consistently across multiple sites.

In combination with more powerful alarm management, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has made it possible for a plant to move away from maintenance routes. With increasing options for smaller, simple-to-install IIoT measurement points, it is now easy and affordable to add automated monitoring to the majority of a plant’s assets.

Fully automated monitoring provides important benefits for organizations working with small staff numbers. Personnel can be freed from maintenance rounds to perform more critical tasks to improve operations performance and product quality. In addition, plants with assets in hard to reach, remote or hazardous areas can improve visibility without increasing the expense, time, environmental impact and safety risk of travel.

Expanding sustainability beyond the local perimeter

Better performance through improved data is also enabled by expanded access to cloud technologies. Organizations can centralize data in the cloud, making it easy for small teams to support large fleets across the enterprise. These integrated operations centers rely on the cloud to make data accessible anytime and anywhere.

Moreover, cloud technologies pave the way for expanded use of analytics to provide detailed monitoring of reliability and performance of assets from the control system to enterprise systems. These technologies deliver solutions in real time to cloud software applications and data lakes, where they can be accessed by stakeholders across the globe. Whether they are in the plant or are thousands of miles away at a company’s headquarters, staff can monitor trends in data to increase performance and efficiency, while decreasing energy use, waste and emissions to deliver more product with less environmental impact.

Driving the future of manufacturing

As organizations progress through their digital transformation journey to drive more efficient, sustainable operations, they are unlocking higher production and increased revenue. The same strategies enabling companies to achieve speed to market and improved production help build an infrastructure for a greener future—not only through carbon capture and hydrogen fuel processing, but also inherently, as performance and sustainability improve in lock step. These same organizations are also laying the foundation for remote, integrated and autonomous operations.

The trend toward reduced footprint is also a contributor to more sustainable operations. Smaller teams of plant personnel are shifting to a more supervisory role, while process management is becoming more centralized. More organizations are moving to an integrated structure, with a small group of personnel managing an entire fleet from an integrated operations center. These teams use software such as advanced analytics, remote alarm management and remote support tools to safely monitor and manage operations, while avoiding environmental incidents and simultaneously reducing the cost and environmental impact of travel. These same technologies also enable organizations to quickly standardize and deploy tools across the enterprise to control production and performance worldwide more tightly.

Many of the digital tools that will drive the future of industry are already available. Working closely with an expert automation partner, organizations looking to improve performance and sustainability can quickly identify which technologies will deliver fast, quantifiable return on investment. Those same technologies also create a scalable platform to help support advanced operations, helping companies stay competitive in the global marketplace and more easily adjust to the many changes on the horizon. HP

The Author

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