Intelligent Automation:

Understanding Process Automation Systems

Welcome to the sixth and last post in the Intelligent Automation Educational Series: Understanding Process Automation Systems, there are a total of six posts and videos that go along with them. The videos are at the bottom of the post, please let us know if there is anything that we can do to help.

Part one of the Intelligent Automation series can also be found on the blog here, you may want to start with that post to grasp the basics of the series.

The first 5 parts of this series covered the different levels of the automation pyramid and how to turn process data into information. Levels 1 and 2 consist of the process equipment, instrumentation, and control systems that automate production. Level 3 is comprised of the information systems used to collect and analyze raw data from the control system. Level 4 provides more detailed analysis tools combined with other information systems such as quality control that add context to the raw process data. Level 5 forms the basis of a fully connected enterprise with bi-directional integrations between production and business operations systems.  The easiest way to understand the pyramid as a whole is to see how information goes from Level 1 to Level 5.

The Flow of Information

Much like the flow of raw material through the process, data can be traced through the various systems that turn it into information. This begins with raw material brought into the facility. A Level 1 and 2 system monitors the tank levels as material is unloaded from supply trucks or rail cars. This gives operators a real-time view of what is available for processing, and can trigger alarms if the tanks are close to empty or in danger of overflowing. Understanding how the tank levels fluctuate over time requires a Process Historian to collect and store the amount of material in the tanks. Combining the analysis tools at Level 3 with the skills and experience of operators and production staff yields some information, but can require a lot of effort to get the most value out of this information.

Using systems from Level 4 reduces the amount of effort required to find actionable insights, by using statistical analysis tools and additional data sources to provide the context to turn raw data into information. Using the raw material example, Level 4 systems might include quality control sample data describing the condition of the raw materials when they are brought into the plant. Based on this information, process setpoints may need to be adjusted to ensure adequate product quality.

Integration of Level 5 systems might include a data entry system the operators use to generate an unloading ticket that combines quality control data, information from the shipping company, and actual process data to verify shipped and received quantities. This system can be synced with accounting systems to ensure shipping/receiving information is correct. Applying the same concept to final production amounts, leads to a system useful for understanding overall production costs and losses based on the amount of material going into and out of the process. This can be combined with utility usage information for even more detailed cost breakdowns. This allows operations staff to spend time using this information to make higher impact decisions than they would be able to if they spent their time only combing through raw data.

This approach can be applied to any part of the process, resulting in an overall system to understand the health of the entire process at any given time.

A Real World Example

This approach was implemented at the Jaxon Energy facility in Jackson MS. The system was designed from the ground up with Levels 1 and 2 in mind, with a PLC and HMI/SCADA system used for process automation.

As part of the process control design discussion, the idea of implementing a Process Historian was proposed and adopted as part of the overall system design. This brought the facility up to Level 3, along with historical trending and reporting tools for data analysis.

During a subsequent design meeting, requirements for reconciling raw material shipping and finished product shipping documents were discussed, and the idea of a product reconciliation system was proposed. This system was originally envisioned as a Level 4 system, with the integration of quality control sample data into the shipping and receiving tickets enabling production operations staff to better understand process set point for the varying grades of material they would be receiving on any given day.

When the product reconciliation system was commissioned, it was quickly elevated to a Level 5 system, supplying information to accounting staff, and generating the forms they use to check production data against bills of lading to double check transactional data.

This Level 1-5 approach yielded a system for Jaxon that surpassed the capabilities of systems at their other facilities, and gave them a solid foundation for continuous improvement of their operations.

Where to Go From Here

The first step for any facility is to understand what level it is at now. From there the next step is to prioritize what systems at the current, or next higher level would provide the most value, and seek out the people who can best design and implement those systems.

Other common systems companies implement as they need more information are Manufacturing Execution Systems to track downtime, additional statistical analysis tools that may include machine learning algorithms, or even finding ways to implement Industrial Internet of Things devices, such as beacons, safety tracking devices, or even Geo-fencing in their facility for a real-time view of where their staff are at any time.

One important piece of the puzzle is to start small and allow everyone to get used to the new systems without overwhelming them in the process.

As technology improves the capabilities of each level of the pyramid will increase, and it is always a good idea to research new tools as they come out. The amount of data is always increasing, and it is more important than ever to find ways to turn it into information.

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Part one on Introducing the Intelligent Automation Pyramid

Part two on Process and Control

Part three on Process Intelligence Tools

Part four on Data Analysis Systems

Part five on Business System Integration

Part six on Understanding Process Automation Systems


Alex Marcy wrote this originally for Oil & Gas Engineering