17 Dec

Legacy Refreshed – Modern Metals

Legacy Refreshed – Modern Metals

Above: Diligent teamwork between the automation vendor and client was key to successfully upgrading a 25-year-old control system. (Shown: Example of a blast furnace.)

Originally published by Modern Metals, Thursday | 17 December, 2015 | 10:48 am, written by Corinna Petry

Sequenced replacement of process controls allows seamless automation upgrade for blast furnace

December 2015 - Any steel plant general manager will tell you that the worst part of upgrading equipment, processes, software or anything else is having to curtail production to get it done. When anticipating a temporary outage, the producer builds up inventory to meet contract and scheduled orders, but it can miss out on spot orders. In other words, plant downtime can suppress already slim margins. Many metal producers, however, need desperately to refurbish machinery, and their controls, to push their capabilities into present and future functionality. What if there was a clever way to migrate to the latest technologies while the factory floor hums along at its normal pace?

Synergy Systems Inc. devised a custom solution for an American integrated steel producer that has become a model applicable to other manufacturing industries. Features of the successful implementation at the blast furnace combined long-term planning with patience, smart budgeting, electrical engineering wizardry, flexibility and humility (more on that later). A consulting engineering firm, the company is also a systems integrator for Rockwell Automation. In autumn, Synergy Systems completed its upgrade of a legacy patchwork of controls for a blast furnace and supporting subsystem equipment.

This project required verification and movement of nearly 2,000 input/output points, installation of new workstations, network communication upgrades, development of 60-plus human-machine interface (HMI) screens with built-in diagnostics and alarms, extensive programming of programmable logic controllers, system functional documentation development and drawing approval, historian upgrades and onsite training. All of that was performed—section by section, month by month—by Synergy Systems engineers working with seasoned blast furnace operators, says Marc L. Hunter, vice president-sales and marketing.

“The client has a blast furnace that had aging control equipment—both old hardware and software,” says Hunter. The key problem with aging hardware is it becomes more and more difficult to find replacement units and stock parts. In addition, the software programs in use were over 25 years old. Most programmers for antiquated software platforms and languages are long retired, and the tools for performing maintenance are limited by obsolete software. “That was the business driver: A limited ability to make modifications and how hard it became to diagnose problems with the furnace using that old technology,” Hunter explains.

The typical systems engineer would recommend the client shut the furnace down, rip out all the old controls, install new hardware, write code, perform factory testing, then recommission the furnace. “Anybody can do that.” Typically, that plan is rejected by operations, and therefore the decision is made to continue to produce with what is in place, which creates a paradox.

Metal AutomationThe legacy and new control screens were designed for a similar look and feel, which allowed implementation requiring a  minimal learning curve.

For those who don’t use it daily, process controls mimic that of a human being doing a particular repetitive task. The eyes, ears and other major senses are the inputs into the system, the brain houses the cognitive decision making and commands the hands, which take actions, in this case the outputs. A good operator pays close attention to the task and responds when needed; a not-so-good operator’s attention flags and may overcompensate when he refocuses on the task. “The brain between the input and output is the control,” says Hunter. In the event an operator’s responses become flawed, problems can arise. That is why companies rely upon computers to stay on task, especially for mundane and repetitive work, and only alerting humans to aberrations in the operation.

“What we effectively did for our steelmaker client was to replace the eyes and hands first—input and output devices.” Synergy Systems replaced the input/output hardware in the blast furnace’s main control system one point by one point, modifying the existing software to read from the new field equipment and verified that each section connected properly and worked together. It then rewrote the control algorithm in the new controller (featuring new HMI graphics) in parallel with the existing system—“all according to the way the process engineer wants it,” Hunter says.

By replacing I/O first and putting a control strategy in place, “the furnace is still up and running and we swing pieces to each new I/O point.” That meant putting a new microprocessor in front of every old CPU from the old platform. “Our application engineers recreate the intelligence within the systems in the new brain by modifying the decisions the old brain makes. Finally, you retire the old brain,” he explains.

Sometimes the wisest operator works third shift, so Synergy Systems engineers also work around the clock.

Hard wiring
Another crucial dimension of migrating and integrating new controls, at least for Synergy Systems engineers, was to solicit and receive “constant operator input,” says Hunter, because “we have the opportunity to recreate intelligence in the new brain while capturing all the ‘tribal knowledge’ of operations staff.” It’s critical that future operators learn a blast furnace operation’s nuances, which are second nature for those who have run the plant for 30 years or longer. “All the things an experienced operator does in the process, through his experience, get captured and programmed into the new automation.”

That brings us to humility. Not only must tech-savvy engineers realize that their client knows a lot more about how a particular process actually works than they do, they must bend to the willingness of operators to adopt and suggest improvements. Along with fixing all the items that “never get used” or “that never worked” and “that program is fine, but let me tell you how we have to run the furnace to get the expected yield—safely,” Hunter cites a client “whose most knowledgeable guy prefers working third shift, so our biggest asset is on midnights. But a guy like that is training us as much as we’re training him.”

Creative financing
One of the steelmaker’s requirements, besides keeping the blast furnace online, was to perform the upgrade in a way that could be paid for out of the maintenance budget—in other words, month by month, instead of getting approval for a hefty lump sum capital expenditure.

“It was a phased approach,” taking more than 18 months front to back, but “the client didn’t have to write a capital budget proposal for this. Funded out of maintenance money, it was done as a gradual migration,” says Hunter. This type of financing also makes the project feel rather affordable and the client gets at least 99 percent of what it expected to achieve by tearing the system apart and building it back up at once, he suggests.

This screen for the new gas injection control system is much simpler and clearer than the legacy version the steelmaker used.

Industry know-how
Synergy had a leg up on securing this job because its engineers have metals experience, says Hunter. “We are experts because many of our people come from the industrial environment, including seasoned people out of steel industry. We are versed in applying—in hazardous locations—computer and communications technology. Electrical engineering is our wheelhouse, and we can build systems to handle heavy, wet environments, dust, heat and corrosion. Additionally, the client can leverage or scale up the new automation where needed.

“When we staff projects,” he continues, “our people understand how to commission the system. Our people work swing shifts to train second and third shifts.” Although Synergy Systems tackles such projects “all the time, this was probably the biggest system we did it on, and the most critical operation.”

When steel demand resurges, Hunter believes the client will tackle Phase II. “They have two blast furnaces sitting side by side, and will do the second one when market conditions allow the investment,” which would again likely be financed through the plant’s maintenance budget. “I think more projects will be delivered like this in the future,” he remarks, because it’s not necessarily the capital spending that creates concern. “It is more, ‘Can we allow a plant outage of an unknown length due to commissioning an entire new control system?’” A typical industrial client cannot allow zero production. “But if we come in and say we’ll never shut you down but it will take longer, and the price tag might be slightly more,” the client is gladdened by the prospect of not losing business to competitors.

Mark V. Urda, president of Synergy Systems and a 40-year veteran of steel plant automation, says the first furnace controls upgrade “went so well that the client wants to repeat that success with the second. That speaks to the fact that we had few bugs and worked with operational and tech support folks to fix the bugs immediately. The outcome was better than we expected.”

As to designing the new automation system and executing on major deliverables, says Hunter, “I hope we repeat that and build a backlog of other clients who want to do this.” The steelmaker’s project manager has already provided references to potential, noncompeting companies. MM

11 Feb

Synergy has made immense contributions to overall plant process control

Synergy has made immense contributions to overall plant process control

Synergy Client Testimonial - Food Processing Enterprise

Our company is a major international food producer and one of our plants is the biggest worldwide producer of mayonnaise. I had the pleasure of working very closely with Synergy and can state with confidence that Synergy conducts their business with a high degree of integrity, professionalism and the technical skill so desperately needed in today’s fast-changing processes.

Synergy has made immense contributions to overall plant process control and automation improvements, providing us solid technological advances in the past 13 years.

The nature of our plant operation, which runs 24/7, required round-the-clock, highly trained personnel to provide support and Synergy was always there when we needed them.

Synergy was hired as a consultant and main project developer for all process control-related issues utilizing the Foxboro DCS control system. They joined our team at a very busy and critical time for the company.

They have developed, installed and supported many projects, utilizing the Allen-Bradley PLC system and have also been involved in many Database, Instrumentation and Information Technology related projects for us.

Synergy was able to quickly understand our objectives and priorities, then make positive, quality contributions to the design, configuration and testing processes. The quality of their work was recognized and appreciated by all plant members and technical staff alike.”

24 Apr

Address your Vulnerabilities in Cyber Security

Address your Vulnerabilities in Cyber Security

Control Engineering recently published the results of their 2014 Cyber Security study. Data was collected from individuals directly involved in their organization’s cyber security efforts. The most alarming results involved threat levels and vulnerability assessments. A quarter of respondents claimed their threat was high and nearly the same amount reported they had never performed a vulnerability assessment.

Cyber security continues to be a hot topic as plant assets become more interconnected. These systems provide huge benefits for optimization and monetary gain. With each new addition or replacement in a plant, safety and security measures should be considered.

Threat levels can’t always be changed. Certain systems must be connected to the internet and some industries are targets simply by existing. For example, power plants are tied to national security. There is no avoiding the threat level and need for security. The good thing is, effective cyber security is out there.

Vulnerability assessments are crucial to defining where the largest threats are at.  When people think of cyber security, they usually consider computer viruses and hackers. While these are very real threats, a vulnerability assessment may bring to light other areas of concern, such as internal threats. The perfect example of this is flash drives. While they may be convenient to use and seem harmless, a person can accidentally transfer a virus with these devices.

Cyber security measures are just as important as plant safety. When systems are at risk, the machines they control may also be at risk. With so much of today’s businesses revolving around cyber data, going without cyber security is no longer an option.

16 Apr

Is There Potential for Google Glasses in Process Industries?

This photo, “Glass Magic” is copyright (c) 2014 Erica Joy and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

For a short time this week, the public was offered the chance to purchase Google Glass. These glasses have the ability to display information, like GPS, emails and weather, right in front of you without blocking vision. The price of $1,500 might seem like a lot for fancy glasses, but they quickly sold out. The world is paying attention, including the worlds of manufacturing, automation and integration.

Perhaps the idea of having a display in the corner of your eye seems superfluous for everyday life, but Google Glass could provide a great addition to safety within process plants. Plant engineers often work with delicate and hazardous machinery. Safety is a top priority because it would often be far too easy for something to go horribly wrong. There has been a lot of talk about mobile devices, such as tablets and smart phones, being used in manufacturing environments, but they still demand the attention of our hands.

The technology that could evolve out of Google Glass removes the need for hands, allowing a person to work with both while still reading information transmitted by the glasses. In a temperature sensitive environment, workers could always have the temperature displays before them. While performing time sensitive work, a time display could sit just on the edge of their vision in the glasses.

Following the tablets and smart phones that came before, it’s only a matter of time before technologies like Google Glass make their way into manufacturing and process plants. While the current model is a bit limited, with the potential to display only one set of information at a time, it’s not that much of a stretch to consider the possibility of safety glasses with displays. Removing the need for engineers to have to leave a task and check a display could even take a step beyond safety and establish a new standard for optimizing personnel within plants and process systems.


26 Mar

What We Can Learn From the 100 Largest Losses

What We Can Learn From the 100 Largest Losses

Recently, Marsh released its report on the 100 Largest Losses in the hydrocarbon extraction, transport and processing industry from 1974 to 2013. Using the Nelson-Farrar Petroleum Pant Cost Index, the report includes inflated values to show how much these 100 incidents would cost in 2013.

Of the top 20 events, eight have taken place in the United States. Most of those losses are associated with vapor cloud explosions at petrochemical plants. While the study covers 40 years of plant operations, these events are hardly in our past. A petrochemical explosion on June 13th, 2013 was one of the eight events.

While different sectors were involved in the report, all problems can be narrowed down to a few key areas that exist in all plants: Hardware, Management Systems and Emergency Controls. These are the systems that keep everything running smoothly and their failure can be catastrophic.

One of the easiest ways to ensure your safety systems are always running is to have a maintenance plan in place for routine checkups. The more regular the maintenance, the more you reduce the risk of a catastrophic event. In addition, new and emerging threats should be considered when upgrading hardware and emergency controls. This is why cyber security has been such a huge topic of late. Explosions and natural disasters may be at the heart of these 100 losses, but negligence towards emerging threats leaves the door open to something new creating even more damage.

If you want more information on protecting yourself from all safety threats, contact your local engineering consultants at Synergy Systems Inc.

19 Feb

Deciding When to Automate

Energy Usage In the January 2014 issue of Control Engineering Magazine, Mark T. Hoske makes ten predictions for the new year, one of which is more processes will be streamlined and add automation. Hoske expands on this idea by pointing out that return on investment is the highest when automation is applied to lean processes.

Un-optimized processes can unknowingly generate a lot of waste. Automating anything in such a system will likely have little benefit, if any. You can’t know if automation is the rights step to take if you don’t know whether or not you’re creating waste. The last thing any business needs is an automated system that uses too much fuel or materials.

The reason why Mark Hoske singles out lean processes is because they have already been optimized to such an extent that nothing is frivolous or wasted. Every asset in the system is performing its ideal job and producing ideal information. In such a system, it is easy to identify the areas which would benefit most from automation.

When you find the right engineering consultant, you don’t have to worry about the potential waste your current system is producing. The best in the business know the first step requires a look at the whole picture. There is no point in automating just for the sake of automation. The right partner will make sure you understand if what you want can accomplish your goals and if there are any methods that can accomplish them more efficiently.


23 Jan

The Effect of Industrial Automation on Job Growth

The Effect of Industrial Automation on Job Growth

Today’s news on industrial automation often revolves around the speed of growth. Similar to other technologies, automation has grown faster than we could ever have expected. Intelligent systems can measure almost any Key Performance Indicator (KPI) and predict future plant needs. The abilities of today’s industrial technologies are nothing short of astonishing.

The truly great thing about the evolution of industrial automation has nothing to do with its capabilities. Instead, it’s in how it effects job growth in industrialized nations. Martin Buchwitz wrote a column in Automation World crediting automation with the prevention of de-industrialization.

Before the rise of today’s advanced technologies, voices in the industrial world discussed automation as a job killer. We see today that advanced industrial automation has done quite the opposite. The catalyst of low job growth is not in the advancement of machinery, but in the competitive low wages of developing countries.

Industrial automation provides businesses and process industries significant monetary savings. As such, many do not feel a need to move out of industrialized nations. Buchwitz speaks about this effect on Germany, but the same can be said for the United States. Those businesses who may have considered moving production out of our country have the superior alternative of adopting money-saving technologies that allow them to stay right where they are while still competing in the global market place.

The influence of advanced automation in the job market is especially evident to Synergy, as we reach out to people with an interest in automation technologies. We’ve even created a job posting on LinkedIn. Industrial automation will only continue to benefit future businesses and economies. Perhaps it will even play a role in the return of industries which, until now, had to rely on cheap labor to save money.

15 Jan

Updates to EEMUA 191 Alarm Systems Guidelines

This photo, “209/365/329 Red Alert!” is copyright (c) 2014 Alan Levine and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Engineering Equipment and Materials Users’ Association, or EEMUA, has revised their alarm systems guidelines. According to a Control Engineering article on the subject, the association has added an additional 80 pages to the original publication and has expanded upon the industries addressed to include those associated with gas and water.

Of particular importance for the revision was what they call Human-Computer Interface (HCI) management. Even the world’s greatest technology can be brought down by human error, making human interactions with alarm systems crucial to any industry.

A healthy alarm system and a method of management is essential for business asset reliability. Synergy has the expertise to create systems with predictive alarm capabilities. This specific information is useful to the human element of a plant. The staff, notified before any real problem arises, then has the opportunity to be proactive. Such alarm systems can dramatically reduce down time and prevent damages.

The updated EEMUUA guidelines also goes into alarm suppression; that is, when should and shouldn’t an alarm be ignored? With predicative technology, it’s important to recognize which alarms should be addressed right away and which can wait.  Safety is always key, which is why Synergy makes a point to provide training to our clients on any new system we install.

06 Nov

Savings Potential of Variable Speed Drives

Businesses often question the profitability of energy efficient investments and the speed of their return on investment. The fact is, the areas of a business that can most benefit from efficiency investments are unique. This article from Control Engineering Magazine, lists these areas among the many that have the greatest potential of financial and energy savings:

  • Supply voltage optimization
  • Power management solutions
  • Increased factory or process automation
  • Intelligent lighting control and low-energy lighting
  • Building controls
  • Monitoring and targeting systems
  • High efficiency motors
  • Variable speed drives

Variable speed drives, which include variable frequency drives or VFDs, are one of the simplest energy efficient devices a business can invest in. Using customer experiences and conservative predictions, Control Engineering detailed the potential financial savings over 5 years with VSD installation for 10 countries. The United States shows the greatest potential for savings.

VSDs can reduce energy consumption by 70%, with the most receptive applications being pumps, fans and centrifugal compressors. Other assets that can make use of these drives include mixers, centrifuges, reciprocating compressors and extruders.

Keep in mind, the above figure illustrates the savings potential of just one application, variable speed drives. Combined with other advancements in energy efficient technology, savings can rise even higher. There are plenty of energy efficient initiatives for industries to adopt.

30 Oct

Tools That Enable Remote Support

Tools That Enable Remote Support

One of Synergy’s standard support services is that of remote support, which allows our expert engineers to take control of a client’s computer. Regardless of the time of day, or the location of an engineer, updates, repairs and maintenance on control systems can be performed. While there are certain things that cannot be addressed remotely, a large number can. Remote access saves clients time and money when engineers don’t need to travel in order to immediately address site issues.

Synergy has been using a service called LogMeIn for remote access at various client sites. LogMeIn is a web-based application, meaning our engineers can use any computer with internet access to control a computer at a client site.

Recently, we looked into a complimentary service from eWON. Their units provide VPN remote access for PLC systems without the need to install much hardware on a client site. So long as the engineer has a computer with eWON software installed at their location, they can access the PLC system remotely.

The benefits of LogMeIn and eWON are undeniable. We call them complimentary because, where one may have a slight limitation, the other fills the need and vice versa. With LogMeIn, an engineer can access a PLC from any computer with internet access. However, in order to do their job, a PC with the correct software must be installed at a client site. In the case of eWON, only a computer with the right software installed can be used to remotely access a client’s system.  There is no need for there to be a PC on site because eWON allows an engineer to take direct control through software installed on their own computer. The engineer is not controlling a computer, which controls the PLC. eWON technology installed on their device is the computer and directly links engineers to the PLC system.

The correct system for a client to use is up to client goals. There are clear benefits to having remote access abilities using any PC in the world. There are also benefits associated with being free of the need to have a full computer system installed at a client site. With both LogMeIn and eWON options, clients have more opportunity to customize how their systems are be managed remotely by Synergy’s expert engineers.