Human-Machine Interfaces are the Future of Petrochemical Refining

Submitted by Corey Foster
on Wed, 01/08/2014
What specific advances or innovations do you think will be the driving force behind the future of the petrochemical refining industry?

The future of the petrochemical refining industry will be driven by human-machine interfaces (HMIs) pushing information to where it is needed. An HMI that pushes production, quality and alarm information to the right level of user or management anywhere in the world has the ability to increase the visibility and reaction time to problems as they arise. This type of innovation will help with plant coordination and troubleshooting recovery.

In a refinery using control architecture implemented decades ago, when a sensor’s report back to the controls is out of the ordinary, the controls will throw an alarm. This is typically in a central control room removed from the location of the sensor and the problem. There may or may not be any indication of this alarm at the location of the problem, and if there is, it is probably just a flashing light on an electrical panel or HMI somewhere in the vicinity. If no one is there to see the alarm, then response times to certain problems can be unnecessarily long.

A solution currently available that helps shorten these lengthy response times is when that information is “pushed” to wherever the user wants it to go. This includes e-mailing or texting an alert to a specific person. If the first user does not respond in an allotted time, the controls system can automatically “escalate” it to the next person. Then the users can respond to the alarm and appropriately react from wherever they are. This is the kind of modern advancement the industry needs to embrace in order to keep moving forward.

There could also be opportunities for dynamic context-sensitive information. What if users could then open a Web browser or app on their smart phones and look at more details about the alarm to see its severity, location and perhaps even a suggested resolution?

What could be possible with dynamic context-sensitive information?

I think the best way to describe what I mean is through an example. Think of a copier machine that is jammed and it gives you information on fixing the problem. Or think of the “help” buttons in programs that give you assistance on a specific topic, depending on what you are doing. Both of those are “context-sensitive,” but they are still static and local to the application. What if these applications could be dynamically updated as solutions are developed for commonly occurring problems? A copier machine that utilizes this dynamic context-sensitive information would be able to display fixes for common problems and potentially warn you before a problem even occurs.

Hypothetically, a company that implements these systems all up and down a pipeline can update a PDF or webpage that is linked to all of their other customers’ systems, creating a large network of helpful information for everyone involved. OEM customers would always be sure to have the latest and greatest support information before they even have a problem. FAQs on demand!

Any other new innovations you see that will impact refiners?

Other notable new innovations include traceability, authorization and escalation when dealing with HMIs. Many times, problems are caused by operators pushing buttons they shouldn’t be, entering incorrect information, and then not being truthful about what they did. Being able to record their steps would give accountability to the operators, along with traceability on their actions, and thus allow for the gathering of troubleshooting information. This application has tremendous value in every other industry where the same problems exist. This kind of technology will go a long way in improving operator performance.

Additionally, most control systems these days provide some sort of security or authorization level capability. These features are especially useful in the pharmaceutical industry, which is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and requires strict security standards (21CRF11). Those same capabilities are also well used in other industries for the same purposes, even if deemed less critical. The innovations that are taking place in newer tools aimed at 21CFR11 compliance allow a user to make certain adjustments only after receiving a manager’s approval, ensuring that the operator isn’t going to make a mistake that a higher-level user would have detected.

Where and how have these innovations already been implemented? What effects have they had?

The idea of “pushing” information to the right place has been used all over the manufacturing industry. HMIs are just one specific way of using this innovation in a pipeline or facility application. Great visibility means greater production efficiency and throughput, no matter what the industry.

The notion of dynamic context-sensitive information is a relatively new idea that requires more thought, planning, programming and updating. Because of this, there are very few applications that I know of using this technology, since most companies prioritizeproject completion first. Cost efficiency would always be a concern with this application, which, unfortunately, has limited its scope up until now. However, the effects on efficiency and timeliness would be immense if this technology was utilized on a wider scale.

What are the biggest obstacles to improving the industry, and how do you overcome them?

The most pressing obstacle when it comes to implementing new technology is the resistance to change. The industry is inherently conservative and doesn’t always welcome change with open arms.

Some good examples of this resistance to change come from my experience in selling valves and filters to the pharmaceutical industry. When I would present process engineers with a new valve and filtration technology that would improve their process control, yields and process times, their first question was always, “Who in the pharmaceutical industry is already using this?” I found that, in each case, the new technology had to be vetted and approved in an intensive small-scale test process in order for it to even be considered.

While many industry professionals are resistant to change for safety, financial or regulatory reasons, we in the automation industry try to make them see the potential that technologies such as the ones I’ve described can offer. We have to start in small bites in the industry to get them familiar with what is truly possible.
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