Process automation involves using computer technology and software engineering to help power plants and factories in industries as diverse as paper, mining and cement operate more efficiently and safely.
The background and technology
In the absence of process automation, plant operators have to physically monitor performance values and the quality of outputs to determine the best settings on which to run the production equipment. Maintenance is carried out at set intervals. This generally results in operational inefficiency and unsafe operating conditions.
Process automation simplifies this with the help of sensors at thousands of spots around the plant that collect data on temperatures, pressures, flows and so on. The information is stored and analyzed on a computer and the entire plant and each piece of production equipment can be monitored on a large screen in a control room.
Plant operating settings are then automatically adjusted to achieve the optimum production. Plant operators can manually override the process automation systems when necessary.
Process automation and energy efficiency
Factory owners want their equipment to deliver the highest output with as little production cost as possible. In many industries including oil, gas and petrochemicals, energy costs can represent 30 to 50 percent of the total production cost.
In process automation, the computer program uses measurements to show not only how the plant is working but to simulate different operating modes and find the optimal strategy for the plant. A unique characteristic of this software is its ability to "learn" and predict trends, helping speed up the response time to changing conditions.
The software and controls regulate equipment to run at the optimum speed that requires the least energy. They also ensure the consistency of quality, meaning less energy is wasted producing products that turn out to be defective, and they forecast when maintenance is needed so less time and energy is spent stopping and restarting equipment for routine inspections.
ABB's technology can be used, for instance, to help power plant managers optimize their combustion process and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants by improving boiler controls, monitoring flame quality or measuring coal flow.
It can also be used to measure soot on the inside of boilers in coal-fired plants. Soot reduces the amount of heat generated by the boiler, so controls that help plant operators and engineers choose the right moment for regular cleaning can translate into significant fuel savings.
An asset optimization system can be installed in a new plant so that the facility operates at high efficiency from the start, reaping the immediate rewards of lower costs. Existing plants can achieve the same benefits with techniques that deliver greater performance from systems they already have installed.