The future potential of process control systems

HRS systems can be connected by ethernet or 4G

Thanks to developments such as Industry 4.0, increasing digitisation, and the development of the cloud, together with improvements in process control and communication technology, it is easier than ever for equipment manufacturers to offer remote assistance and monitoring. The restrictions on travel and face-to-face working imposed by the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the benefits of remote commissioning to companies, many of whom are now looking to extract the most benefit from this technology.

By: Matt Hale

HRS Heat Exchangers now offers remote telemetry and control options for all applicable products and systems, using class-leading technology from both Siemens and Allen-Bradley Products. Both companies are well established in the sector: Allen-Bradley developed the original programmable logic controller (PLC) in the 1970s, while Siemens have been involved in the steering group for Industry 4.0 since the term was first coined at the 2011 Hannover Fair.

Like other manufacturers, we are keen to exploit the potential of the process controls which regulate and monitor the processes involved in our heat exchange systems (ensuring that equipment operates reliably and efficiency) – to improve levels of operational knowledge, process management and operational efficiency. It goes without saying that process controls need to operate reliably over the working life of the equipment of which they are a part, another reason for using tried and tested systems from established manufacturers.

Process controls can incorporate a range of functions, such as visualisation and Human Machine Interface (HMI) solutions, as well as programming tools and advanced software applications. We utilise a combination of PLCs and graphic terminals to provide easy to use, reliable controls for human-machine interface operation.

HRS Heat Exchangers also utilises a standard suite of bespoke software which has been developed in-house to monitor and control key parameters such as material levels, flow rates and density, as well as aspects such as valve position, temperature and the flows of inputs and outputs. This standard data can easily be transferred to remote systems – either those belonging to the client or HRS Heat Exchangers itself, using either hardwired (ethernet) or wireless (4G/5G) communication technology. Security is a key consideration for both the hardware manufacturers and our software engineers, meaning that clients can be confident that their data and equipment will remain safe.

Remote operation and monitoring provide a number of benefits, including the ability for clients to view and control equipment from a central point, something which is particularly beneficial for complex installations, or those which are spread across numerous buildings or sites. It also allows HRS Heat Exchangers’s staff to assist with operations such as commissioning, upgrading or running-in, and to provide ongoing technical support should this be required.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced many new businesses to virtual or remote commissioning, demonstrating benefits that go beyond avoiding the need to fly personnel around the globe. For example, clients have discovered that they can use remote commission to test automation functions in advance, discovering and rectify faults well before the factory acceptance test (FAT) stage.

Looking to the future, digital process control technology is likely to become even more beneficial to processing industries. If we consider where such technology was 15 years ago, it is possible to see that in the next five to 10 years we will see a real shift in process control – facilitated by technical developments such as open architecture, data exchange protocols, 5G and HTML5 – which will make it even easier for systems to talk directly to each other – the need to download of swap CSV files and spreadsheets of data will become obsolete.

As clients and suppliers increase their engagement with this technology, the improved communication will begin to fulfil its potential to provide long terms process and efficiency improvements. Control software can be constantly kept up to date, helping to keep systems operating at peak efficiency, but it is perhaps in the area of simulation that the greatest benefits could eventually be realised.

Engineers and commentators increasingly refer to the concept of a ‘digital twin’ – a virtual version of a physical system or piece of equipment which can be used to simulate any change to operation, from differences in product specification to adjusting physical settings such as valve diameter or tube length. Such systems are already widespread in the design phase of heat exchange equipment, but the difference in the future is that they will be used for the day-to-day management and operation of equipment. When coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), such virtual systems can determine the optimum hygiene regimes, best energy efficiency and even the most productive time of day to run certain operations.

While our technology is not at this advanced level yet, there is no doubt that as an industry we are getting closer. It is important to stress that the idea of a ‘digital twin’ is not an all or nothing term. Digital twins will probably develop gradually as plant- and operational-data is slowly combined with corresponding models of the system, resulting in cloud-based applications which will mirror, and then control, the status of the physical equipment. Of course, if such a future is to be realised, then information technology (IT) and operational engineering functions will need to become even closer, a trend which we are already seeing in many businesses. Industry 4.0 is a term that is often discussed, but not always fully appreciated. However, the last year has begun to show us what the near future will look like for process control.

This article was published in Food & Beverage Asia’s August/September 2021 issue.