Demystifying digital transformation

How to automate and optimise operational processes using technology.

Jason Maderic and Mike Howells

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Article Summary

In process manufacturing, high volumes of oil, gas or chemicals are moved every day. Maintaining the actuation of process valves that control fluids and gases is at the centre of a plant’s performance. Unmeasured parameters or unknown anomalies can compromise the valve package, resulting in catastrophic failure. If critical process valves and actuators fail, refineries will suffer unplanned shutdowns with millions of dollars lost each day. To protect the area and maintain uptime, knowing the condition of assets, systems, and equipment is highly critical.

Yet, many plants do not have ways to monitor and measure asset health, or, if they do, they are often ineffective and subject workers to hazardous environments. Without a clear picture of asset health, plants often have one of two inefficient approaches to maintenance. For some, service is time-based and performed in a fixed cycle or at a periodic interval. Others are reactive, running machines until components fail, then making repairs. Both have high operations and maintenance costs and a high frequency of unplanned downtime.

There is also a third, proactive option. Technology is available that enables operators to see the real-time health and condition of their assets remotely so they can make informed, proactive decisions that maintain the valve package and minimise unplanned downtime. Through digital transformation, refineries can use this technology to automate and optimise operational processes to keep processes running as long as possible and personnel safe (Figure 1).

Benefits of digital transformation
To some, the term ‘digital transformation’ may sound abstract, mysterious or complex. In reality, digital transformation is anything but. Rather than cryptic and complicated, it is about taking practical steps to make operations clearer, easier, and more concrete. By definition, digital transformation is a process that a facility, system or piece of equipment undergoes that allows end users to see real-time data, make decisions based on it, and act based on those decisions. Basically, digital transformation puts the right information in the hands of the right expert, no matter where they sit, which improves the speed and accuracy of decision-making and action.

Some facilities manually measure and record their critical data, such as valve cycling and position. The very nature of this scorecard-and-stopwatch process means that people must climb ladders and take catwalks to get data that is already outdated when used for decision-making. And there are still some measurements that cannot be taken, so even stale data cannot be accessed.

Digital transformation, on the other hand, allows operators to easily record and see data that reflects the current state of their assets from a handheld device or control room workstation. The digital transformation of a machine can be as simple as adding a sensor that captures data about its current performance and health. Through this process, real-time information can be collected and converted into useful analytics and insights that can be used to automate a task, like moving from clipboards to digital record keeping or optimising an area around safety, production, energy use or reliability.

In this way, digital transformation gives operators access to a previously hidden level of asset health and condition, affording them a deeper understanding of assets in their present state as well as their past — for comparison — and possible future. The expertise this access grants will empower operators to make confident, informed decisions that significantly improve their operations, resulting in greater reliability, cost savings, and safety.

Setting the see-decide-act cycle in motion
Digital transformation, or automating and optimising operational processes using technology, puts into motion an unending cycle. This cycle includes three stages: see, decide, and act. In process applications, different fluid control devices automate each stage.

The ‘see stage’ starts the cycle at the sensor. Sensors and switches collect vital data about process valves that allow operators to see measurable input, such as cycles, temperature, contact status, and position, at the moment. These sensors are linked to technology that enables connectivity, such as a discrete valve controller (see Figure 2).

In the ‘decide stage’, a discrete valve controller sends sensor data to a control device, such as a distributed control system (DCS) or safety instrumented system (SIS) DCS.The DCS analyses and visualises the data, translating it into dashboards that operators can easily interpret and synthesise. By quickly and clearly understanding what data means for operations, operators gain the expertise that empowers them to make better and faster decisions with confidence.

Mobility tools in the ‘act stage’ enable the appropriate personnel to access preset alerts, information, and prescribed actions from multiple platforms. These critical actions spur personnel to repair an asset or replace a component and are a vital step that improves both safety and reliability.

The collaboration of these layers provides valuable analytics and services that enable device life-cycle management, position feedback, transition dwell time, and internal device temperature. This constant cycle of seeing, deciding, and acting creates a technology loop that continuously improves expertise and efficiency.

Automating and optimising operational processes
While sensing and feedback devices are available discretely, integrated solutions are also available. Some discrete valve controllers combine sensing technology and a HART 7 module, as well as other components, such as a solenoid valve for piloting, in a single housing. This switchbox sits on top of the valve package. While the position sensing switch monitors the valve position, the HART module captures data from the sensor and sends it to the control system, which analyses it and carries out appropriate actions in response to it. Analytics and diagnostics about valve condition, including position percentage, transition dwell time, last open/close stroke time, internal device temperature, and cycle count, can be delivered to the appropriate personnel via a handheld device or at a control room workstation.

As a critical part of the technology loop, integrated switchbox solutions can help refineries solve several challenges they face. One main challenge, as previously stated, is maintaining uptime. By continuously monitoring performance and diagnostics in real-time, operators can improve the visibility of the valve package condition, and the system can send preset, planned alerts directly to maintenance staff when necessary. This allows plants to shift from reactive to proactive maintenance.

Predictive and prescriptive maintenance analytics improve decisions around device and system replacement, reducing unplanned shutdowns while lowering scrap, repair and labour costs. When a single valve shutdown can cost $1.3 million a day just in lost output, and a plant may likely experience 27 days of unplanned shutdown a year, costs add up fast. Reducing unplanned downtime by 36% through proactive maintenance results in significant savings.1

By automating and optimising maintenance as well as data collection and delivery, discrete valve controllers like this also enhance safety. Proactive maintenance and preset safety alerts and alarms reduce the frequency of maintenance rounds, and remote monitoring of valve package conditions curtails the need for workers to be physically close to the asset. Fewer maintenance and troubleshooting trips decrease the frequency of possible injury, and improved insights empower personnel to make better safety decisions.

When properly networked, discrete valve controllers with a HART 7 module can also rescue stranded data, which can offer additional insights and further improve uptime and safety. An estimated 85% of HART devices in operation experience stranded information due to accessibility issues or legacy control systems.2 Capturing diagnostics and parameters using traditional cabling may be too expensive or, in offshore applications, too heavy.

As part of the integrated switchbox solution, HART can be networked with gateways wired or wirelessly via an adapter and connected to stranded devices wirelessly or via a cable/wireless hybrid solution.3 As a global standard to exchange digital information, HART undergoes revisions that enhance its capabilities and can absorb or umbrella the previous version, creating a long-term, future-proof investment.

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