Changing Role of Wireless

  • July 29, 2011
  • Feature
July 2011
By Ray Rogowski - Director, Global Wireless Business, Honeywell Process Solutions
When industrial wireless technology emerged on the scene a few years ago, manufacturers typically fell into one of three camps: early adopters who wasted no time immersing themselves in the new networks, users who wanted to wait until the technologies matured, and others who wanted nothing to do with the advancements.
Fast forward to today, and both the role of wireless within plants, and the alignment of those respective camps have shifted dramatically.
For starters, wireless is no longer “new.” It’s here, and it’s established – and the question isn’t “if” but, rather, “how” day-to-day operations will be impacted.
As for the manufacturers, they now fall into one of two groups: those who view wireless technologies as strictly a cost-saving measure, and those who see added functionality and improved plant operations – namely through safety, reliability and efficiency – as the main driver.
Wireless has matured to a point where it’s operating around the world in many different industries. And, while its capabilities continue to be uncovered, it’s apparent that wireless assets are influencing users with improvements beyond just cost savings over wired systems. Developments in promoting overall worker safety, improving productivity in the field and increasing asset uptime are just three of many influences that wireless now has on day-to-day operations. 
Safety Without Wires
Asset management has steadily become one of the most talked-about topics in the manufacturing industry. And most plants would agree that people are their most important assets, which of course means worker safety continues to be Priority #1.
Unfortunately, establishing and maintaining plant safety is easier said than done. Plants must comply with an increasing number of standards and regulatory requirements which are forcing plant managers to seek out better means to monitor and track personnel in order to insure compliance. This creates a Catch 22, plant owners must allocate resources to mitigate the risk of incidents while at the same time improve profitability.
Thankfully, we’ve approached an age where advancements in wireless have made it possible to both comply with safety regulations while simultaneously allowing for operational functionality.  One advancement that showcases how wireless has evolved as a safety solution is a tool that provides real-time location tracking, gas detection and communication capabilities in the event of an emergency – all in the same device. Where in the past, operators would need to employ several different methods to achieve all three safety measures, operators now have technologies at their disposal that cut down on cost and complexity.
Take, for instance, a refinery that is dealing with sour crude. The plant wants to monitor the level of gases that employees are exposed to during their shifts and overall H2S concentration within plants, while simultaneously knowing the location of the personnel in the event of an incident in order to ensure their safety. Given that the sourness of the crude results in a higher probability of gas leaks, the likelihood of an incident is increased, thus decreasing the overall safety of workers.
A major element in improving safety in these types of scenarios is knowing worker whereabouts during an emergency. With wireless-enabled innovations like a real-time location tracker and gas detector plants can get readings on specific gas concentrations throughout the plant, combined with data about the worker’s location as he’s walking. The ability to analyze historical gas readings in relation to specific locations has become a significant advantage in the identification and elimination of process failure mechanisms, not to mention safety.
Wirelessly Increasing ROI
Problems presented by an aging workforce have been well documented over the last decade. With the retirement of current experts comes the loss of experiential knowledge, expertise and efficiency. New employees and personnel need to not only be trained in but also given enough experience to make them as valuable as the workers they are replacing. This is especially evident in emerging regions, where strong growth is creating the need for a new, expanded industrial workforce.
Plants want to improve the way they collect data from the field, as well as the way that field operators get information from the distributed control system. In fact, 80 percent of data used by plant maintenance and operations teams are currently coming from manual readings, which are then recorded on a piece of paper and entered into a historian database. These are not efficient practices. Fortunately for the new workforce, today’s plant workers are beginning their careers in a wireless era, where things like manual meter readings are becoming a thing of the past.
In today’s wireless world, mobile computing devices, a supporting infrastructure and optimized mobility applications are making it simple to increase the amount of productivity per worker, which subsequently increases the average ROI per operator. With improved efficiency comes improved asset health and time saved collecting information. In a time where new workers are increasingly familiar with wireless principles and cutting-edge technologies, plants are finding that wireless is changing the way they view reliability and efficiency.
Figure 1 - This multi-application network enables several different devices and applications.
In India, for instance, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), which operates two major refineries and produces a wide variety of petroleum fuels and specialties, had a bevy of field-instrumented data that needed to be monitored and recorded by field operations. However, the manual collection methods made it difficult to collect and authentic data. The company, realizing the importance of the data for process and plant reliability, determined the need for a program to standardize and ensure the authenticity of field data.
Using an automated field data collection system, HPCL was able to provide real-time analysis of field data to operators and senior personnel. It was also able to facilitate multipoint information sharing and standardization of field rounds and compliance to procedures. This helped the company increase the availability of authenticated and quality data from the field, closely monitor equipment health, reduce the instances of emergency work orders and lower maintenance costs as a result of early problem detection.
Uptime Through Wireless
Reliability drives the bottom line for plants. That is, when assets are offline they fail to produce and are virtually of no use to operators. Not only does poor reliability take assets offline, but it also increases the incidence of maintenance, costly reactive work and diminished profits. But operators are keen on getting the most out of their initial capital investments with minimal maintenance. Advancements in wireless capabilities have changed the way they can monitor essential and critical plant assets. This allows them to improve their plant’s cost effectiveness though improved uptime and reduced maintenance and repair costs.
Rotating assets and equipment can be especially unreliable, causing costly periods of downtime and increased maintenance. This is due in large part to the failure of users to properly instrument their assets and consistently monitor them. In fact, 80 percent of rotating equipments are not instrumented and if monitored at all are only monitored manually and at intervals that might not catch equipment failure. Manual monitoring is costly, not only because it is labor intensive but because it does not insure optimal preventive maintenance, making it difficult to detect problems before they become larger issues.
However, wireless devices combined with analysis and maintenance applications allow operators to automate the monitoring process in real-time, identify potential problems before they start and manage effectively asset maintenance programs.
For instance, at a major refiner’s Asia-Pacific chemical plant, management looked for ways to automate the monitoring and maintenance of pump vibrations to avoid unnecessary shutdowns that negatively impacted plant performance. Often times, pumps were running until a failed status situation occurred, without any alerts to trigger the operator to take necessary actions. To increase efficiency and reduce overall costs, the plant wanted to avoid having operators physically visit the pump location to record the vibration records at periodic intervals and instead wanted to help engineers monitor and view the vibration status of running pumps continuously in their distributed control system. This enabled them to be prepared for any predictive actions for pump repairs or servicing.
By implementing a mesh network, the refiner was able to make daily site checks obsolete and saved more than an hour a day from its previous monitoring process. Further, the plant was able to minimize asset damage by enabling preventative actions to identify possible equipment failures and also reduced its project wiring costs by 20 percent through its wireless implementation.
Figure 2 - In this scenario, the site does not need Wi-Fi coverage, wireless networks can be set up to provide coverage for field instruments only.
Benefits Beyond the Cost of Wires
Though it’s no surprise, it is becoming increasingly evident that wireless is capable of adding significant value to all areas of plant operations. More importantly wireless solutions deliver improved plant safety, reliability and efficiency, which go beyond merely saving on wiring costs. Systems are showing themselves to be flexible enough to manage safety issues, increase reliability and support efficient operations – three things that impact plants of all sizes. When taken into account, safe, reliable and efficient operations mean that workers are being productive, assets are online and maintenance costs are minimized. This means an overall smoother operation for plants and stronger bottom line at the end of the day.

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