Integration of control activities presents attractive cost-saving opportunities. It allows companies to get more from less by eliminating satellite units.
Without careful pre-project analysis, though, such streamlining initiatives can have a negative impact on the quality of the overall process operation.
No matter what degree of centralisation is adopted, process industries will always need field resources
Over the past decade, for instance, the UK water industry has been networking SCADA systems together to transmit more data to central head-office computer systems. But, as reported at a recent conference hosted by Mitsubishi Electric, head-office managers and other personnel have often found themselves overloaded by the extra data, much of which they saw as either irrelevant or hard to understand.
Despite such concerns, though, more and more plant owners are exploring the possibilities of centralised operations, according to Suchit Rout of Barco, a global supplier of control-room visualisation technologies.
This move is being fuelled by concerns over rising capital expenditures in maintaining multiple operations centres and increasing manpower costs, said Rout, who leads Barco’s global strategic marketing initiatives in the utilities, process control, telecom and oil & gas verticals.
“We see this rising trend of integrated operations today more as a hierarchical centralisation as compared to physical consolidation,” he commented.
“No matter what degree of centralisation is adopted, process industries will always need [some] field resources for first-hand situational awareness and emergency response operations.”
For issues to be resolved efficiently within such scenarios, Rout argues that ‘situational awareness’ should be raised to the next level of being distributed and shared. This means ensuring that all stakeholders are looking at the exact same visual information - made up of process control data, KPI information and scenario video feeds - at any given point of time.
Finally, to support this new way of centralised working, Rout believes control-room visualisation systems must be extremely reliable: supporting continuous 24/7 operational monitoring, through multi-level redundant subsystems that ensure industrial-grade up-times for alarms and other visualisation information.
Erik Jan Kwekkeboom of Yokogawa agrees that consolidation of control rooms should be seen as more than just a way of reducing the workforce. Rather, he said, the goals should be improved levels of co-operation throughout the plant, enhanced agility and integrity of automation systems. Optimised safety and efficiency should also be central to the project.
Underlining the importance of this strategic approach, Kwekkeboom said the companies that best adapt to this new control arena are likely to gain a business advantage, particularly in highly competitive markets such as downstream oil & gas.
The Yokogawa expert, therefore, listed the key drivers in this area as including; harmonisation of operational procedures throughout all sections of the plant; plant-wide optimisation of communication and integrity of information; and improvement of safety and efficiency of operations. Other factors, he said, include pressures to improve knowledge transfer and training and to create an environment that enables ‘situation awareness’.
Operators, added Kwekkeboom, “should be aware of the different maintenance requirements that result from segmented organisation and diversity of technologies/brands in the installed base. Likewise, there are also issues raised by veterans retiring and succeeded by less experienced personnel.”
For his part, Jason Urso, chief technology officer of Honeywell agrees that the process sector is now seeing a clear move towards the centralisation of control room operations. Beyond that, he also notes a trend towards the centralisation of many of the functions peripheral to the control room, particularly in the extractive industries, such as oil & gas, metals and mining.
“Staffing such locations and retaining talent is an on-going challenge, and annual turnover rates as high as 40% are not uncommon. This results in very high staffing and training costs that can burden operating companies’ margins.”
Another driver is the centralisation of expertise, which can allow much greater knowledge sharing, establishment of best practices, and overall improved knowledge management.
Urso concluded: “A sophisticated understanding of as-is and to-be work processes is key, as well as an over-arching change management effort to accompany its implementation. Without this, we have seen initiatives implemented at great expense, with advanced technology, which ended up being used for a one-hour weekly meeting, and that would remain empty the rest of the time.”