In today’s competitive business climate, process plants are looking for ways to quickly reduce costs, improve operations, and comply with regulatory requirements. Addressing these challenges with yesterday’s technologies, while practical, often has unsatisfactory results and does not yield the desired competitive advantage. But there is a technology ready for deployment right now that can address many operational challenges, and it is proven in use with more than 5 billion operating hours. This innovation consists of adding wireless sensors to process plants, and then connecting these sensors to internal intranets or to the Internet to create an industrial Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure. The data from these sensors can then be interpreted and analyzed to help users save energy, improve reliability, and increase throughput. This is not some futuristic vision of the IoT, but is a current reality at many process plants around the globe.
The first step is to identify plant processes or equipment where substantial savings can occur with real-time, continuous information and interpretation. Plant personnel typically have a long wish list of such areas, and suppliers can assist with a study to uncover more. In most cases, countless areas for improvement have been neglected or forgotten because of the high cost, long installation time, and required downtime for wired sensor installations. Now that these negating factors have been eliminated, rapid improvements to plant operations can be made at costs often low enough to be funded by operating budgets.
Installing wireless sensing technologies is quick and low cost, because battery-powered wireless sensors can be brought online in a fraction of the time of a traditional sensor. No wiring is required either for power or for delivery of actionable information to plant personnel. An increasing number of today’s sensors are nonintrusive, further easing installation.
Once this sensing network is established, a combination of smart software and personnel with domain expertise can interpret sensor data. This can be done on site if a plant has the right people, or off site by either corporate engineering or supplier personnel.
For both on-site and off-site analysis, the industrial IoT delivers data to the right personnel without requiring connection to the plant’s real-time control system. This is important, because control system connections require careful vetting and strict procedures, lest plant operation be compromised.
Wireless sensors can be connected directly to plant maintenance management systems or historian databases, and from there to the cloud via secure one-way Ethernet or Internet connections. These clouds can be public, private, or hybrid—in each case providing the required level of data security.
Once the data is received, actionable information can be ascertained and securely delivered to the right people. With this information, plant personnel are empowered to make decisions to immediately improve plant operations.
In some instances, the most pressing need for a process plant is not the bottom line, but rather compliance with health, safety, and environmental regulations. In these instances, the cost of noncompliance can be extremely high, ranging from daily fines to plant shutdowns. As an example, a refinery needed to prevent vapor cloud releases associated with pump failures. It installed wireless, nonintrusive vibration sensors to tell operators which pumps needed service. They now monitor more than 100 pumps at less than the cost of manually checking just a few pumps, and the wireless system has given early warning of three impending pump failures in its first year of operation.
The industrial IoT is here today, being used by hundreds of process plants in thousands of unique applications globally. Wireless sensors have opened up countless new opportunities, and are now able to quickly deliver bottom-line benefits. The question to be asked is this, “What if there was a way to . . . ?”
A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.