Dynamic Processes Call for Virtual Plant Technology

Aug. 17, 2012
Process control simulation software is on its way to becoming essential to process plants, and the engineers and operators who run them. Immersive 3D technology is making the models more useful than ever.

Martin Berutti is very clear: “If someone is running a plant, they need a virtual plant. The demands for safe operation, for controlling ever more equipment from one console, for environmental stewardship and more, all results in a situation that simply cannot be run casually.”

A “virtual plant” is created when process simulation software, using actual or real-time data, is combined with three-dimensional, virtual-reality visual simulation to create a model of a specific process or facility. Berutti is president and COO of Mynah Technologies LLC (www.mynah.com), the Chesterfield, Mo. maker of Mimic, which is PC-based dynamic simulation software.

As one of a number of simulation software vendors, Berutti recognizes that “simulation is just one of many technologies that help people move from casual production to well-controlled production—and the best producers embrace as many as possible.”

As James R. Koelsch reported in “Simulating Control Schemes Proves Useful” (AW June 2012, http://bit.ly/awfeat075), simulation offers immediate, measurable benefits in process validation, optimization and migration, and new operator training. In fact, given the costs and risks of upgrading, it would be hard to conceive of an upgrade project that proceeds without simulation. 

As Berutti says, “If [users] are not testing everything against a validated virtual plant, frankly, they should be scared.”  The same is true for training: The outcome of a new operator’s (virtual) closing of the wrong (virtual) valve in a simulator is far less problematic than closing the real valve.

By all reports, adoption of simulation software is skyrocketing. Mark O’Rosky, group leader for operator training solutions (OTS) and DeltaV OTS consultant at automation vendor Emerson Process Management (www2.emersonprocess.com), Austin, Tex.  says that Emerson has seen a steady global increase in the adoption of process simulation of 9 percent per year.

“It began four or five years ago,” says O’Rosky, “and I don’t see it abating any time soon.”

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Martin Ross, principal consultant for automation vendor Honeywell Process Solutions (www.honeywellprocess.com), Phoenix concurs: “People are embracing simulation. The process [of adoption] is very much framed by the world we live in—for one thing, today, people are almost uniformly comfortable using software, so they dive right in.”

Adoption is more rapid today than yesterday because simulation software is available at lower costs, on more affordable computing platforms, with more accessible user interfaces. In addition, most primary control systems now include simulation modules and more people are exploring their use.

Finally, aging operations experts are retiring. As Ross says, “When you build a simulation model, you’re capturing their store of knowledge in a central core. This central core of information is being mined by an increasingly larger constituency of users within organizations.”

But there is even more behind the trend.

Blurring development and operations
A key behind-the-scenes driver for increased use of simulation is the dynamic nature of process control, which results in continuous improvement. Continuous improvement brings development back into the line recursively as new things, new equipment, new ways are put into play. New things often bring significant impact downstream of the change. By modeling that impact, simulation helps smooth the continuous changeover.

This is a stark contrast from decades ago, when process development engineers planned facilities for decades of essentially unchanged operation. Significant change-out of equipment was frowned on. Today, every operating cost is scrutinized regularly. Line engineering is encouraged to keep abreast of new technologies and new equipment that offer ways to drive up efficiency or drive down cost.

When processes are dynamic, optimization becomes more than opening a valve a quarter turn or installing a higher-capacity pump—it might as often include, say, a new, higher-efficiency heat exchanger or digester or other equipment with significant impact on downstream processes.

As Sanjeev Mullick, director, industry marketing for operations software vendor Aspen Technology (www.aspentech.com), Burlington, Mass. points out, “Today, customers have three needs: to monitor performance, because what you can measure, you can improve. Second, they need to implement those improvements. That’s best validated first with simulation, where the consequences of a change can be studied without line disruption. Finally, they need to troubleshoot. That’s an area where simulation can provide many insights, often by speeding up the virtual process to see how a disturbance ripples through the plant.”

Smart this, smart that
Another important driver is the whole milieu of consumer electronics, combined with ever-easier user interfaces. It all adds up to greater user comfort around the virtual gears of silicon machines.

Anywhere in the world, new operators will be conversant with smart phones, iPads and tablets, as well as electronic games and all the gestures, gyrations and conventions required to make them run. Plus, three-dimensional virtual reality (once seen as bizarre) has become mainstream. Familiarity with an immersive virtual world through gaming, for example, enables new operators to step into high-fidelity virtual plant simulations not with derision or apprehension, but with enjoyment and even expectation.

This changing demographic is challenging industrial software vendors to step up, but also to realize what’s different about industrial use of simulation. “The vast majority of simulation users today are occasional users,” says AspenTech’s Mullick. “Upwards of 70 percent touch simulation only now and then. They have day jobs, and they aren’t going to become simulation experts. Our job is to create [software] environments that let them be simulation users without being experts. The result is a focus on usability and an improved, intuitive experience of the simulation.”

Moving on down the line
The use of more accessible interfaces enables simulation to move lower and lower into the operations group—lower both in job description and experience level. Honeywell’s Ross says, “Companies are using simulation to place new recruits into well-organized programs. Plus, because simulation is a major part of engineering education, graduates emerge with a strong ability to use it.”

Joe McMullen, SimSci-Esscor product manager for automation vendor Invensys Operations Management (www.iom.invensys.com), Plano, Tex. adds, “The level and experience of operators is changing at a fast pace. The average age is younger and younger, and companies need to train them faster and more efficiently. Part of the answer is virtual reality, almost like a digital game, but one with substantial value and benefits.”

Mynah’s Berutti brings up another point: “The job scope of an operator has become highly complex, and the more a plant is automated, the more complex it becomes. All things being equal, lines now run more smoothly for longer times than before, so when they go beyond their boundaries, they can launch operators into territory that would be unfamiliar without training. The result is more stress on the operators—they have to be smarter than the machines. Companies are learning that dynamic simulation can help train operators to respond correctly.”

Emerson’s O’Rosky notes that  “many multinationals are siting facilities where there are relatively few trained people. As a result, our customers want quick ways to enable operators at every level to handle the critical things they are going to experience in operation.”
Honeywell’s Ross says companies are seeing an additional benefit of simulation: cross-training people into different roles, and sensitizing them to the needs of operators, technicians and managers in other areas.

“We tend to think of simulation as dealing only with human-to-machine interaction, but simulation is beginning to bring insights into person-to-person interactions,” says Ross. “It can bridge between plant operators and people outside the plant. Simulation provides a sort of ultimate role-playing, where you can see how panel operators interact with outside operators, how they communicate information to make the right decisions.”

The knowledge that a simulation is capturing is not only technical, but behaviorial, and it is enhancing communication in unexpected ways.

Ross points out that a growing number of companies have set up joint teams involving in-plant personnel and headquarters engineering. “Simulation then can provide important feedback about operations via a direct conduit to the design powerhouse. It offers ways to communicate up and down the line, from scientific teams developing new processes, to engineering teams designing lines, to operations and back,” he says.

A (simulated) natural progression
As Emerson’s O’Rosky sees it, there are four tiers of use for simulation in a plant. Except for Tier 1, which is for operators alone, each tier could bring benefits to personnel across the gamut of plant job descriptions.

• Tier 1 is basic operator training. “Simulation can help operators learn how to acknowledge and respond to alarms, operate baseline throughput—that is, run the system by gaining the necessary competency to handle things,” O’Rosky says.

• Tier 2 widens out to training around safety instrumentation and functions. Since safety is a plant-wide focus, clearly all levels could participate. “Simulation is excellent for presenting cause and effect,” O’Rosky says. “It can answer what will happen when an incident occurs, and what sounds, sights and graphics are communicating the changes.”

• Tier 3 is wider yet, out to operations that are far from routine and, therefore, potentially overwhelming. “Simulation can teach people how to start up or shut down a plant,” O’Rosky explains. “You can take the granularity right down to individual equipment, how to start or stop it, when to start or stop it.”

• Tier 4, the final tier, is the prevention of abnormal situations. Simulation can in effect say, “Here are the incidents that have happened, and here is the likelihood of them happening again.” O’Rosky adds, “Operators can safely come to know what to do when this or that pump trips, or what levels have to be tweaked when throughput has to increase or slow down.”

Mynah’s Berutti says that “the burden on operators is only going to grow,” but that simulations offer practical help. That “burden is “the result of a good situation,” though: 

“There is a whole lot going on in the process industries right now. Western Canada’s at 4 percent unemployment, with huge investments in oils sands and infrastructure. I’m seeing resurgence in biotech and life sciences. There is resurgence in renewables and new processes, with North American plants making product from [hydrocarbon gases] C2 through C5, which used to be throwaways. Biological processes are making their way into production, displacing old-line chemical methods. We’re even seeing an increase in greenfield plants in North America. [All that means] “the demand for operators, and the demands on operators, are going to be incredible,” Berutti says.

But, he adds, “I’ve never been more optimistic about industry.”

>> Click here for a simulation case history: Immersive Simulation Solution Optimizes Engineering, Operations and Training 

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