Control rooms set to disappear in the future

Author : Michael Babb reports from the Honeywell User Group conference in Barcelona

05 November 2010

Modern, progressive companies who use the latest communication technologies will find their large control rooms rely less and less on operators sitting at central control panels. Much of the work can be automated, and the operators sent to other areas of the plant that need special attention.

Toshi Hasegawa of Yokogawa Electric and Khalid Hussain of Qatar Fertiliser Co
Toshi Hasegawa of Yokogawa Electric and Khalid Hussain of Qatar Fertiliser Co

Disappearing control rooms? And equally surprising as that prediction was the source of the comment: Toshi Hasegawa, manager of the Technology Marketing Department of Yokogawa Electric. Honeywell had invited him to attend their users’ group conference in Barcelona and sit on the ‘Wireless Roundtable’ discussion of the future of the technology.

Also on Honeywell’s panel were Jay Werb, Technical Director of the ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute, and an end-user, Khalid Hussain, head of the Instrument Section at the Qatar Fertiliser Co. Mr. Hussain described his company as the “world’s largest producer of ammonia” and said he had already initiated several wireless projects at his site. He said that, like many users, the desire was to have only one wireless standard, and ISA100.11a appears to be the standard his company and many others will adopt.

Honeywell panelists included Ray Rogowski, director of Global Marketing for the Wireless Business and Diederik Mols, EMEA business manager for Industrial Wireless Solutions.

Mr. Hasegawa made his unusual statement about control rooms after being asked what future wireless technology would bring to the processing industry. He said that wireless communications will enable much greater sensor communication with the control centre, and that operators equipped with wireless notepads could easily carry on other work outside the control centre, roaming about the site.

An example of this already happening is at the NAM natural gas project in the Groningen province in The Netherlands, where control centres at twenty clusters of gas wells are basically unmanned, and the overall operation is tied together—nearly a million I/O signals—into one large DCS staffed, as a safety precaution, by two operators.

At its conference in Barcelona, Honeywell was showing wireless mobile stations that they said would eventually allow operators to move outside the control room and confidently maintain a complete connection with the Experion control system.

“We’ve already done this in a French chemical plant,” said Diederik Mols. “Although we weren’t using the Mobile Stations we have today, we were using wireless PDAs.

“The company asked us to find a solution to provide more operator mobility. The operator was sitting in the control room all day, with very little activity. There was useful work he could do in other areas of the plant, so we devised a way we could send alarm signals and other important information to a wireless PDA that he would carry with him. It wasn’t a complete control solution by any means, but it worked for their purposes, and today you’ll hardly ever find someone sitting in their control room.”

Another factor changing the overall control strategy at processing plants is the large number of sensors that will be deployed using wireless communications, said Ray Rogowski. Large vertical units such as distillation columns could be outfitted with hundreds of temperature sensors which would give operators a complete picture of what is going on, enabling them to make better decisions. Such a strategy would be unthinkable with wired sensors, he said, as it would be cost prohibitive.

Confidence in ISA100
Representatives from Honeywell and Yokogawa expressed their confidence in the ISA100.11a wireless standard. “We chose to implement the standard because that is what the users told us they wanted to have,” said Mr. Hasegawa, an obvious reference to the many large end users who participated in writing the standard.

Jay Werb, of the ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute—who wrote much of the original material in the standard—said there had taken more time than anticipated to prepare the work for international standardisation, but the work was completed and he anticipated it would soon be recognised. The Compliance Institute has already certified a half dozen products. When asked if he would “absolutely guarantee” that a Yokogawa wireless instrument would be interoperable on a Honeywell system, he said “Yes, absolutely.”

He described it as a “complete” standard, one that employs “future proofing” technology such as IPv6 addressing that will make eventual migration to Internet technology possible, if that is what users want to do. In any case, the addressing permits far greater numbers of sensors and other devices, such as video and personnel tracking, to be included in the system.

The ISA100.11a standard is flexible enough to support Fieldbus Foundation, Profibus, and HART running on the application layer. It can support networks composed of clusters of these different protocols with different sensor types in the same cluster.

“I’m not opposed to WirelessHART,” said Mr. Rogowski. “If you have a small project, say a half dozen or a dozen sensors and you just want to connect them, WirelessHART may be the answer.

“But if you have a large project with hundreds or even thousands of sensors, ISA100 makes more sense. It will scale up to very large numbers, and it will cover the full wireless environment from sensor level to the boardroom level,” he said.

“Another advantage,” said Diederik Mols, “is that the ISA100.11a standard allows the user to define either a mesh network or star topology for his sensors. A mesh network that does a lot of “hopping” will use up battery life more than the star topology, but it may be more secure. The user has the choice.”

Mr. Mols said he did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for a theoretical mesh network consisting of 250 sensors. “The battery cost alone would be very great,” he said. “The sensors located the closest to the gateway will have to bear all the communications traffic for the network, and will use up their battery power quite quickly. You would be replacing batteries on them every few days.”

He suggested that Honeywell’s star-topology using powered gateways would last much longer, but admits that for some situations where radio interference may be critical, the mesh topology could be used. “The beauty of ISA100 is that you have a choice between the two topologies, so you can design a system appropriate to your location.”

Too much data?
The panelists admitted that, with so many new sensors and sources of data being placed out in the field, companies could soon be overwhelmed by the amount of information they would be required to handle.

“The solution is for Honeywell and the control system providers to have software to be able to handle the load,” said Mr. Rogowski. He said that end user companies were expecting them to help with the coming overload, and that Honeywell must concentrate on applications software that will analyse and summarise the data and turn it into usable information.

Digital video based applications such as the Digital Video Manager is an example of such a tool. Honeywell is working on other collaboration tools. One will be used to connect a field operator with a technical expert over the OneWireless backbone.

Video and security
High on the agenda of most plants is the topic of security, and this is an area that wireless technology will provide great assistance, agreed several of the panelists.

“One of the big problems we’ve seen comes from contractors working on plant sites,” said Mr. Mols. There are so many of them, they’re hard to keep track of, and they may inadvertently go into hazardous areas without being aware of it.

He described the instance of a contractor who, upon completing his work, took a “short cut” to walk back to the main gate. It took him into a hazardous area that triggered alarms and caused part of the plant to be shut down.

Wireless personnel tracking devices coupled with GPS technology will be able to monitor the exact positions of everyone in the plant, all the time, said Mr. Mols.

And, added to that, Honeywell was showing for the first time its gas detector, intended to be worn by individuals working in the plant. It will give immediate indication to themselves and to the control room if they come into contact with hazardous gases. “This application wouldn’t be possible without wireless technology,” said Mr. Mols.

Wireless video cameras can be placed at various locations around the plant to monitor both personnel and critical equipment. While video cameras certainly aren’t new, the idea of placing them in key areas and then moving them around is an advantage of wireless connections.

At the users group conference, Honeywell was showing several new ISA100.11a products that it had recently released. These include

* FlexLine Wireless Radar Gauge for tank farms;
* Wireless Gauge Reader to attach to existing manual gauges which will “read” the gauge using machine vision technology and send the values to the control room on the wireless network;
* XYR valve position switch for valve position monitoring;
* Mobile Stations to support operators in the field;
* ISA100 HART adaptor that mounts on HART devices and transmits HART data on an ISA100 network.

Diederik Mols, EMEA business manager for Industrial Wireless Solutions and Ray Rogowski, director of Global Marketing for the wireless business.
Diederik Mols, EMEA business manager for Industrial Wireless Solutions and Ray Rogowski, director of Global Marketing for the wireless business.

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