This solution can eliminate redundant work and unnecessary complexity.
by Stuart Gillen & Nick Butler
June 22, 2016

Process control is an expansive topic that covers a wide range of applications from in-the-field techniques like hydraulic fracturing to operations at refineries. One common trend across these applications is a critical focus on improving health, safety and environmental (HSE) considerations. Recent illustrations of this trend include pressures to increase machine safety, optimize more efficient operations and implement remote monitoring for operator safety.

One major caveat with this trend is that it makes applications increasingly complex. Process control can be achieved with a traditional controller such as a programmable logic controller (PLC) because it provides an easy-to-use, reliable programming paradigm. But PLCs fall short in the implementation of advanced functionality, which is required by the HSE trend.

Regarding advanced functionality, a control package may offer the ruggedness required to meet application needs, but the control system may not deliver the amount of flexibility required for processing or input/output (I/O) speed. Alternatively, a control package may offer high I/O speed but limited functionality from a programming perspective. Users should focus on improving efficiency.

Many updates can help improve the efficiency of a machine, but few can be accomplished using a PLC alone. Updates could include:

  • adopting high-speed data collection and analysis to improve processes
  • moving from discrete-based control to an advanced control model to maximize throughput
  • adding power quality monitoring to improve overall plant efficiency
  • incorporating condition monitoring to ensure that machines operate with maximum uptime

Condition monitoring requires high-speed data acquisition and processing to gain insight into the machine. Because PLCs are not equipped for this level of acquisition and processing, another solution must be incorporated. This leaves users with three main options:

  1. Use a route-based system where technicians periodically measure each machine to detect anomalies.
  2. Bring in another vendor that specializes in condition monitoring and tack on an additional system to the PLC.
  3. Create a custom solution that integrates control and condition monitoring into one system.

As standalone solutions, the above options can work well depending on users’ needs, and these options are often a great choice for simple systems. Complex applications, however, have disparate parts that need to work in harmony. With so many moving pieces, increased complexity results from integrating each of these systems. The act of integration adds artificial complexity to an already complex task. As a consequence, organizations are left to assemble pieces of a puzzle that were never designed to fit together. Fortunately, combining technologies and adding functionality do not need to be so complex.

The complexity added by integrating new solutions into existing systems is intensified when incorporating multiple separate solutions. This weaves a tangled web of new and existing technologies that need to communicate with each other. Even more, all of these interconnections create additional cost and complexity through increased system maintenance.

Other challenges arise for both tack-on and custom solutions, such as adding new features within a solution, adapting to new or legacy equipment, or paying a third-party vendor to add functionality. Even if the original design was custom, it can seem easier to just tack on a solution to get the job done immediately. For the short term, it often is easier. But in the age of big data and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the traditional approach of tacking on a new widget is no longer sufficient. Each piece of machinery can generate enormous amounts of data that need to be analyzed and communicated between machines to improve the long-term throughput and efficiency of plants.

Route-Based Solutions

Unfortunately, route-based solutions present a more dire situation. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline. Federal law mandates that pipe is inspected every five years. With only 137 federal inspectors nationwide, each inspector would need to inspect more than 3,600 miles per year. The data they collect may not directly integrate into the enterprise, which makes real-time decision making nearly impossible.

A prominent utility company recently followed this same model with vibration measurements on rotating machinery. The company found that 80 percent of its highly trained vibration analysts’ time was spent taking measurements and entering data, while 20 percent of their time was available to analyze data.

This problem goes far beyond implementing condition monitoring to make processes more efficient. Integrating complex, disparate systems can improve data collection and analysis, creating safer operations and increasing the general efficiency of workers. The more systems that are tacked on to fix an immediate problem, the more complex the systems become—resulting in less productive users.

Hardware Platform

A new way to approach process control offers a commercial off-the-shelf solution combined with custom design. This solution provides the low-level customization of circuit design with the reliability and design cycles of off-the-shelf hardware. Additionally, it features an agnostic hardware platform that is independent of the equipment provider.

Platforms allow the same hardware technology to be applied to nearly every aspect of an application—from a pigging solution to process control or condition monitoring. What makes the platform concept powerful is that it helps eliminate redundant work and unnecessary complexity. Using a hardware platform can limit hardware issues because using the same architecture throughout a system provides the best interoperability. As a result, each new challenge becomes a software issue, which enables faster design cycles and provides improved field upgradability.

The same principle can be applied from a software perspective when a hardware platform is combined with powerful software to create a unified solution. Now the challenge becomes neither hardware- nor software-focused but is instead about the application itself.

Image 2. EngeMOVI is launching its first field test in a pipeline.Image 2. EngeMOVI is launching its first field test in a pipeline.

Case Studies

The utility company previously mentioned used this platform to move to an integrated, automated system. By doing so, the utility reversed the trend with respect to operators’ time so they can spend 80 percent of their time analyzing data and 20 percent performing manual inspections. They were able to realize the IIoT by managing a network of machines and generating massive amounts of data. Additionally, they were able to remove their operators from a hazardous environment so they can analyze data and make better business decisions faster.

EngeMOVI, based in Brazil, used this same platform to create a pigging solution with real-time data acquisition and processing (see Image 2). By using a platform-based approach, the company was able to use the same unified software to program the pig as it used to design its post-processing algorithms. When speaking of the platform, an EngeMOVI representative noted that “all these advantages permitted the team to concentrate on implementing the mathematical algorithms for data fusion and statistical analysis instead of the communication protocols.”

Lime Instruments, based in Houston, Texas, used this platform to control and monitor everything on a hydraulic fracturing site, including the advanced process control of blenders and condition monitoring of pump trucks. By using a platform with unified hardware and software, the company increased efficiency. Lime Instruments CEO Rob Stewart said he believes that “what most C programmers take two years to do, we can accomplish in a couple of months. We can use that time savings to get to market quicker and capitalize on our competitors’ lag time.”

Image 3. Lime Instruments used the platform approach to perform advanced process control and condition monitoring on its field equipment.Image 3. Lime Instruments used the platform approach to perform advanced process control and condition monitoring on its field equipment.

Platform Example

Platforms can simplify the complexity of system design while increasing efficiency. One such platform features a software-designed controller that uses reconfigurable I/O (RIO) architecture. This architecture tightly integrates a real-time processor with a user-programmable field-programmable gate array (FPGA) and modular I/O. The FPGA is a reconfigurable chip that makes it possible for users to embed their algorithms into hardware similar to custom design. Users can reprogram the FPGA through high-level software to iterate on their design more quickly than a custom design—all while benefiting from increased flexibility compared with off-the-shelf solutions. This means users can provide firmware updates to the field when a feature needs to be added or revised.

Additionally, by using an FPGA, users can run with higher levels of determinism and reliability to develop a safer solution because many of the algorithms and logic can be embedded into hardware. By adopting a reconfigurable architecture, users can benefit from a platform that is powerful and flexible enough to handle any application from condition monitoring to complex model-based control—and everything in between.