As a global supplier of industrial gases and related equipment and services to a range of industries, including refining, chemical, metals, electronics, manufacturing, and food and beverage, Air Products & Chemicals has long built its operations on diverse business models. Despite its nearly 80 years of successful operations, the company is not resting on its laurels. New capabilities created by cloud computing and analytics are opening up additional avenues for the company’s extensive operations.
Explaining these new opportunities at the 2019 Siemens Automation Summit, Woody Hulbert, field services manager for Air Products Equipment Sales and Plant Support group, said a new focus for the company is on digitizing assets (Air Products equipment at customer sites) so that “customers can tap into Air Products’ expertise and experience to add value to their own operations.”
To do this, Air Products is offering its in-house ProcessMD analytics application to customers via Siemens Mindsphere internal network IoT platform. ProcessMD is a platform using “sophisticated models to monitor more than 700 Air Products-owned facilities,” said Hulbert. “It takes data and creates context for us to ask questions and draw conclusions from. It can detect impending failures weeks or months before alarms go off.”
Before extending ProcessMD via Mindsphere, Hulbert said, “We did not have a solution to bring in customers’ data associated with the Air Products equipment in their plants. Without this kind of connectivity, it reminded me of the 1990s when I had to have people email me their equipment data.”
Hubert described the beginnings of this new service as starting with discussions between Air Products and Siemens in 2017. “We wanted to establish a connection between Air Products and its equipment in the field via third-party data brokers, but to do that we knew we needed to have a secure global connection that would be end-to-end—encompassing design and implementation as well as services—to supply continuous data to us with no interruptions.”
The value proposition behind this idea for Air Products customers is to save “our customers millions of dollars in avoided downtime and repair costs as well as energy savings,” Hulbert said. He added that Air Products customers using this service can expect to save between $50,000-600,000 annually.
Working with Siemens, Air Products decided to apply the Mindsphere IoT platform as the third-party data broker via the Siemens MindConnect Nano—a pre-configured device that connects equipment to MindSphere for the transmission of data encrypted through a secured internet connection.
Hulbert said Mindsphere brokers the equipment data into Air Products’ internal network where the ProcessMD platform resides. “With this connection, Air Products can integrate each customer’s data historian and DCS data into ProcessMD,” he said.
Through the Siemens-Air Products partnership around ProcessMD, Siemens installs and supports Mindsphere at each customer site, with system integrator Atos performing the installation. Hulbert noted that the MindConnect Nano connection can be made with equipment using newer OPC UA-compliant devices like Siemens PCS7 DCS as well as older non OPC UA-compliant devices with the use of an OPC UA converter.
“Customers don’t see the data in ProcessMD,” Hulbert explained. “It’s on Air Products’ servers and our engineers review it to provide advice and insights.” He did note that some customers have asked for access to the information on ProcessMD—a request Air Products is currently reviewing as another potential new business model.
Describing the use of ProcessMD via Mindsphere at one customer site—a large oxygen plant with 168 data points being tracked—Hulbert said they discovered high vibrations on a compressor. These vibrations were higher than operating models predicted they should be. Potential causes for these vibrations were poor cooling water temperature control.
“With the data in hand via Mindsphere, we started observing the control on the cooling tower temperatures. What we learned enabled us to help the customer bring the vibrations back into a normal range,” Hulbert said. Prior to the delivery of Air Products’ insights, the operator was not aware of the impact of precise control of the cooling water temperature.