Future of Automation

BN Shah
Deepak Phenolics Ltd

Earlier day’s automation was limited to few measurements and even fewer automatic controls. Sole purpose was to have enough information to operators to perform their function smoothly and safely OR to replace some repetitive or routine activities. Measurements or controls used to be either simple mechanical one, pneumatic or electronic. Later on the role of Automation expanded, but still it remained limited to traditional measurement of process parameters, collecting information using some instruments, storing these information for later retrieval as and when required and basic process control with interlock logics implementation for plant safety.

Today automation is seen as playing much bigger role, having additional benefit of cost reduction by reducing manual work, increased production, improved quality of products, consistent quality, energy conservation, increased safety, reduced breakdown of machinery and guiding plant for proper predictive maintenance etc. Nowadays automation has become an important criterion in deciding economic performance of the plant, helping it to be an economically better plant.

Trying to exploit full potential of traditional automation system gives now only incremental benefit. Further level of benefits can be exploited only if future plants are going to be DIGITAL, taking present level of automation to a different level and not only restricting itself to traditional measurement devices. It requires, employing a large no of IIoT devices on each and every part of the plant where value lies. This can be a small device like steam trap to a large compressor, agitator, pump, fan, MCC or an utility package, exploiting numerous benefits offered by IIoT (Industrial internet of things) devices.

IoT is an internet of smart devices like wearable, consumer devices, vehicles etc., which has intelligence built up into it and which can talk (exchange data) with other similar devices, mobile devices, central server or human being. IIoT is use of this concept in manufacturing where smart consumer devices are replaced by smart machineries and industrial devices .

Plants with increasing digitisation and networking of man and machine as well as between large number of machines will be a norm now. Information is collected or exchanged through intelligent sensors including IIoT devices. Conventional electrical signal transmission is replaced by wireless communication OR commonly available communication protocols. Controllers and specialised applications will be using this information for tighter process control, while keeping an eye on health/performance of each cost element /profit element of the plant.

Only deployment of IIoT devices cannot give full benefit. They can generate tons of data, but, benefits are reaped only if this data is used quickly and effectively using Data analytics, mobile computing, Artificial intelligence, machine learning etc.

Deploying IIoT devices has its own issues
With introduction of digital devices with bi-directional communication capability, physical boundaries of protection are no more valid and any element of the plant is open for cyber-attack from any part of the world. Cyber security needs to be taken care from design stage itself. User has to build a very good program on all three fronts of People, Process and Technology to make themselves secured.

Commercial IT cannot work in industry
Industrial IT has to be suitable for very harsh industrial environment, corrosive surroundings, very high or low temperature, very high humidity along with a wide temperature fluctuation in a short time period.

Weeding out "not so value adding or irrelevant data from these heap of data is also a challenge.

With plants becoming DIGITAL, IT and OT convergence is becoming a norm today . Few points to be noted carefully.
  • Control systems cannot remain only controllers deploying simple / cascade PID actions, but, they can be built with high fidelity models using years of experience of operators/skilled personnel. With help of data generated by devices, this will allow optimum plant performance with optimum quality of products.
  • Special software with hardware are available having years of personal experience built into it. It will have expertise to interpret the measurement of data obtained from the plant and give actionable suggestion, using these softwares. This can lead predictive maintenance to another level with close watch on health of the plant.
  • As a part of predictive maintenance, handheld devices are used to collect asset related data. Person has to go to field, take the readings and load it into PC with software for further analysis. With smart devices, data can be obtained from devices wirelessly and transferred using Wi FI source, to data server or cloud automatically for detailed analysis and further action. Plant personnel can see performance of a particular asset whether it is performing within limit or not and take suitable decision. With this, whole team can remain connected, less skilled manpower can get immediate guidance or help from experts on mobile computing device. SOPs, Drawings, Data sheets, Videos can be made available to operators for quick guidance.
  • If required, devices can be connected to process control system also via digital communication like Profibus/FF or Wireless. But main part of the Automation, existing plant control system may not be ready for connectivity with outside world and necessary cyber security measures might have not been built into it. To ensure that control system is protected from outside world, user has to build a very good program on cyber security with help of process control system vendor.
  • Initially to have full-fledged data analytics infrastructure and skilled people may be a costly affair. In that case, PC based control systems can be used to take advantage of big data analytics. It involves collection of lot of real time data and then weeding out irrelevant data from these heap of data and finally churning of these data with domain expertise and give practical actionable suggestions.
  • Artificial intelligence and Machine learning will be an integral part of data Analysis.
  • Virtualised DCS using virtualised server will reduce physical hardware, thereby saving on Control room footprint, cost and power consumption. It requires only physical hardware for Human Machine interface. These HMIs can be distributed throughout the plant as per requirement or centralised at a location. Along with Alarm Management systems, it can notify individual anywhere in the plant. This information is made available to personnel in whatever format they want and wherever they want, ensuring better response.
Other parts of automation system are sensors and final control devices. Let's see changes expected in each of this area.

  • Sensors are coming with more and more intelligence built into it. As for example, earlier day's sensor used to be unique and replacement of sensor required complete recalibration of new sensor with electronics. Now sensor comes with its own data. Just plug it and they are ready to go.
  • Transmitter can send data to a common server and user can see it on his mobile or tablet. Remote maintenance of instruments from vendor service centre, will be possible with each device having its unique ID .
  • Smaller and smaller size filed devices are becoming reality with reduced footprint in the plant.
  • Non-invasive technology like clamp on ultrasonic flow meters will gain wider and wider application, giving higher flexibility to user, no pressure loss in pipelines saving substantial energy over the life of plant, minimum inventory as one meter can serve many line sizes.
  • With Radar Level instruments coming with higher and higher frequency , other conventional level measurements like Servo and Displacer will be replaced very soon.
  • With increased availability of manufacturers, Wireless devices are slowly catching up with wired devices, eliminating need for costly cabling between field device and control room. Initial issues of battery replacement and other issues like longer life, reduced size and weight, suitability for harsh industrial environment including widely varying temperature in field, data protection from real world and data reliability are resolved to large extent.
Final control elements
Final control elements are mainly control valves and actuators in the plant. Core function of final control element like controlling manipulated variable by control valve Or damper itself is being challenged by introduction of VFD on pumps and fan itself. Development in area of positioners is making it smart with simple push button calibration facility, availability of complete valve signature and having even controller function built into control positioners. Other area of change is reduced size and weight of element itself, making it more and more lighter while performing same function.

Other area like 3D printing
Instrumentation is characterised by specific sizing of each tag item. 3D printing can be used for making specific parts for valves, actuators and mechanical automation items for normal application, bringing down inventory cost and lead time of spare parts drastically.

Lights off factories / Unmanned factories
With each equipment itself taking care for its own health and asking for help as and when it finds any problem with its health, lights off factory concept will be possible in manufacturing field also.