The Future of Plant Communications

Wireless technologies will play a major role in process automation going forward, says Emerson Process Management’s John Berra.

John Berra
John Berra

In a recent conversation with Automation World, John Berra, president of Emerson Process Management, an Austin, Texas-based automation supplier, discussed next-generation plant communications. Here are some excerpts.

Automation World: What are the next-generation communication strategies?

Berra: What everyone is talking about is the role of wireless communications in a plant. I think that initially wireless will be used to transmit diagnostic information, rather than running full process control. There are good opportunities with currently installed smart instruments—which have built-in diagnostics that maybe are not being used—to attach wireless extensions that will pick off the diagnostic information and transmit it back to an asset management software package. The trick will be, where do you get the power?

AW: How is Emerson pursuing these strategies?

Berra: We want to use advances in communication to do an even better job of delivering PlantWeb benefits, such as diagnostic and predictive intelligence. The new OPC Unified Architecture (UA) looks very promising to us, and will enable applications to exchange information more readily. And, we’re supporting the work of the Foundation Fieldbus, Profibus and Hart groups—whose cooperation no one would have expected—to extend device description technology with the Enhanced Electronic Device Description Language (EDDL).

AW: What is the value proposition for digital communications?

Berra: One of the watershed projects for Foundation Fieldbus was the complete revamp of the Shell Deer Park (Texas) Refinery. Shell made the decision to migrate an array of automation vintages—from pneumatic, analog and older distributed controls—all the way to Foundation Fieldbus and the Emerson DeltaV platform. The justifications for the project were improved throughput and reduced operating costs, and the biggest savings resulted from using diagnostics to avoid unplanned shutdowns.

AW: What does the plant of the future look like?

Berra: In process plants, I think that motes—lots and lots of little sensors all over the place—will be connected with wireless networks to bring information back to a centralized application. Sophisticated, robust application software will be able to analyze data and look for patterns. It’s the process plant equivalent of the way Navy submarines can now use Sonar and array processing to not only identify other subs, but to also identify and locate crew members on those subs, and know everything that is going on.

AW: What will it take to get there?

Berra: First, this will require a lot of low-cost measurements, pervasive networks and processing software, so you can finally know, for example, exactly what’s going on inside the plant’s pipes and vessels. Second, we need the ability to “carry the control room with you,” using tools such as tablet-based interfaces and Web browsers. Data can be viewed, and actions taken, from any place in the world. And finally, we need more technology breakthroughs. The equations that are being solved in today’s control systems are essentially digital versions of the pneumatic bellows equations of the 1920s. We have to take advantage of computer technology to develop new dynamic models—that run faster than the plant—to predict changes, extend uptime and get more out of assets.

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