Oil IT Journal ventured downstream last month, attending a conference on Intelligent Operations organized by the Netherlands WIB process industry body. WIB provides a focus for peer group counseling, lobbying, functional safety and best practices exchanges to around 50 member companies including Shell and ExxonMobil. The debate polarized somewhat between advocates of people and process and those in favor of automation and robotics.
On the ‘people’ side, Alex van Delft (DSM and WIB chair) characterized intelligent operations (IO) as being about new ways of designing plant and about working together to close the different loops of process, production and the business. The key is to leverage measurement and to bring workers into a virtuous circle of transparency and self-regulation. ‘IO is mainly about people.’
Joachim Birk (BASF-SE and Namur) sees the people’s role as diminishing. In fact this trend is already well underway with for instance, Linde, which operates 15 air separation plants and 50 Ecovar units remotely from an operations center in Leuna. Production is tuned to demand and energy costs. BASF has a roadmap that aligns different levels of IO development with investment. This goes from low level DCS-controlled plant to a highly automated plant with no operator intervention in normal operations.
The ultimate is the ‘semi-autarkic’ plant which is unmanned. Centrally located personnel provide expertise and distribute tasks across the technology cluster. Unmanned plant integrity can be assured by video, thermal and noise surveillance. Sequence based automation with ISA S 88 for batch and ISA SP 106 for continuous also ran.
Rob Everink (DSM) asked if it should be intelligent operations or an intelligent operator. He believes that a true vision for automation is lacking. Humans need to focus on highly skilled activities as robotics take over the ‘monkey business!’ Control systems, not operators, should control the plant. After 40 years DCS control systems are far from maturity, today they ‘resemble a computer game for operators.’ Modern PID controllers are very different, but we don’t use the difference! 100% automation should be possible. Inertia and conservatism are holding this back. Download the WIB presentations here.
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