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ABB - the automation system of the future

Monday, January 23, 2017

Automation and power company ABB is developing new technology to make it easier to manage offshore platforms, help people work collaboratively, deliver new automation systems faster, and help companies better assess functional safety - with a new learning centre for customers just outside London.

Automation and power company ABB is developing a wide range of new technology to help make it easier to operate oil and gas platforms, help staff collaborate, and help oil companies make sure their safety systems are working well.

It is has also built a new customer training centre in its premises just outside London, UK, so customers can get a better understanding of what is on offer.

ABB is the biggest manufacturer of distributed control systems in the oil and gas industry, including pipeline monitoring, security systems.

Control system of the future

ABB is developing what might be the offshore oil and gas 'control system integrated platform of the future'.

The system integrates with radio communications and video cameras throughout, so it is possible for staff to communicate with the control room, and with remote experts, wherever they are on an offshore platform or other remote site. They can also bring up information which may be useful on tablet computers as they walk around the platform or asset.

There is a collaborative software system designed to enable the right remote expert to be brought in quickly, if there is any problem, and talk to both the control room staff and the engineers who are trying to fix the problem.

The communication networks need to be 'ruggedized', to make sure service is reliable and safe in all conditions. Staff working remotely can have their location continuously monitored.

The central control room has physical indicators, to make it clear to everyone that the staff are fixing a complex problem.

If the control room moves to an 'alert' phase, red lights will flash and the operators table will slowly rise, so staff need to stand up, putting them in a different frame of mind, that they are now solving a problem, not monitoring a situation. This also gives a clear signal to anyone entering the room that something out of the ordinary is going on, and gives a signal to people working.

A new term ABB uses is 'distributed cognition', which means to bring in more brain power, including remote experts, to try to solve a problem. It is otherwise known as 'collaborative operations'.

New learning centre

ABB has launched a new learning centre at its building in St Neots, just outside London, UK, spending around $1m (£770k).

It is aimed to help customers understand what kind of systems, or combination of systems can give them the best value, and help them learn how to use it, and help people learn.

There is a 'technology area', where different products can be seen, an 'interactive café' featuring an Oculus Rift pod, and a control room environment.

Collaborative operations

The company is now using the term 'collaborative operations' instead of 'integrated operations', to emphasise that integrating technology together may not be the right approach in every circumstance.

In future we will probably see much more collaborative technology being applied in the industry, helping oil and gas people work together in different ways, says Steve Royston, Principal Engineer for Process Automation with ABB.

For example, future oil and gas workers are more likely to work with tablet computers, for communicating with the control department, safety systems and the plant equipment itself. They will receive supporting information to help make decisions from remote software systems.

Collaborative operations can be applied to individual systems or to a complete plant.

Perhaps there would be no day to day workers actually in the plant.

Continuing the theme, Mr Royston prefers not to use the term 'internet of things' because 'the emphasis has to be on people,' he says. Instead, ABB uses the term 'Internet of Things, Services and People.'

Analytics could also be an important component of this, as a tool to help people. For example, an analytics system could put together a detailed report of the cybersecurity status of an automation system.

An analytics system could manage all the condition monitoring data for an asset, including electrical monitoring, vibration monitoring, instruments and valves.

You can run 'smart' applications which look at the equipment condition.

Companies could potentially collaborate on a global level, comparing a platform in the Gulf of Mexico to one in the North Sea, he said. ABB plans to learn from some of the experience in its marine (shipping) division, about how to work with a fleet of offshore installations, not just one at a time.

The company wants to move its services to a more 'predictive' culture, where it is spending more time predicting what might happen in advance, rather than fixing problems which have already occurred, and helping clients to optimise performance. It wants to get better at providing useful 'actionable information' to the people working offshore.

Better project delivery

ABB has a project called 'ABB Edge', to make it easier to implement new automation systems, taking them off the critical delivery path.

Currently, many automation projects end up with cost overruns and schedule delays.

The work builds on ideas from Sandy Vasser, facilities Instrumentation and Electrical (I&E) manager with ExxonMobil Development Corporation, who gave a talk at a supplier meeting in January 2014 about how the Exxon's automation and electrical partners might be able to achieve better business efficiencies.

At the meeting, ExxonMObil representatives said that the challenges in instrumentation and electrical are not unique, they are seen in all large industrial projects, and have always existed, although making projects much bigger makes the challenges harder.

Making automation projects go better will need suppliers to work better together with each other, not just the operator to work better with individual suppliers.

It was suggested in the meeting that the work with automation suppliers could be done in a completely different way, not just improved slightly. This includes specifying what is needed, collecting and managing bids, making contracts and documentation.

It was stated at the meeting that most of the challenges with automation systems are around data, which is often owned by others, often delivered late, sent in batches and often changing, leading to re-work, and forcing much of the work to be done in the field.

The automation system needs to be moved off the 'critical path', ie it should not be a factor holding the whole project up.

ABB Edge is a 'project execution model', to try to make the costs and schedules of installing instrumentation and control systems more predictable, and shorten delivery time, says ABB's Steve Royston.

It is made up of 'intelligent engineering' and 'intelligent infrastructure'.

By intelligent engineering, ABB means that as a main automation contractor, main electrical contractor and main instrumentation contractor, ABB provides project management, expertise and products, and manages the interface with different engineering suppliers, and takes responsibility for the data transfer. It can also suggest technologies like simulation, emulation and virtualisation to improve project execution,

By 'intelligent infrastructure', it means taking advantage of the Ethernet interfaces in much of the instrumentation devices, automation systems, electrical power systems and telecoms equipment (such as security, CCTV, radio, and telephones).

ABB Edge also calls for more standardisation and automated data management systems.

With more standardisation, there is less need for documentation work, and systems will integrate much better. Software can also be made available from a central database, to all project execution groups. It means that less changes and modifications should be required on-site.

There are also developments in input/output (I/O) systems, enabling devices to be wired to the nearest cabinet, rather than being wired directly into their controller, leading to complex cabling design work.

The control system should do more than just connect things, it should create a collaborative operational environment, Mr Royston says.

Overall, the time for a typical project execution design to commissioning should be reduced from over 100,000 hours (as it was in the 1980s-1990s), to 50,000 hours, he said.

The automated data management can automatically turn engineering data to a format the application software can work with. The jargon is 'soft-marshalling', he says.

ABB is also providing more 'engineering in the cloud' - the software can be tested on the cloud to check it all works, and then installed fully tested onto the onside hardware.

Another idea is that the control system should be able to automatically detect, interrogate, configure and document I/O ('DICED') for all devices.

Assessing functional safety

ABB also has a project to make it easier for oil and gas companies to manage functional safety.

Functional safety is defined as the part of the safety system which looks at the risks inherent in how the control system functions - how the system operates in response to its inputs, taking into consideration possible operator errors, hardware failures and environmental safety.

The two most relevant standards published by the International Electrotechnical Commission, IEC 61508, 'Functional Safety of Electrical/Electronic/Programmable Electronic Safety-related Systems', and IEC 61511, a special standard for functional safety in process industries.

The standards show you how to assess risks, decide if they are 'tolerable,' and what to do about it if you think they are 'intolerable'.

There can be disputes about who is ultimately responsible for managing functional safety. Is it the operator of the equipment, or the equipment supplier?

The latest version of 61511 upgraded many of the 'shoulds' to 'shalls', emphasising that the 'duty holder', the company actually operating the equipment, needs to look at it, says John Walkington, managing consultant, ABB Functional Safety Lead Competency Centre.

It also requires that oil and gas companies assess security risks, make periodic reviews and ensure there is redundancy.

The approach is 'risk based' - so the effort and complexity is aligned to the amount of risk.

Getting the complexity of the specification right is very important. If a system has been over-engineered, it can need more testing, Mr Walkington says. If it is underspecified, 'you might find it doesn't work.'

Many companies have a challenge of needing people to do more than they are capable of, leading to a loss of focus. There are also fewer technical skills available, he said.

You need to optimise the 'proof testing', where you see if your safety systems can do the intended task and is being maintained correctly.

Everything in the 'safety implemented function' must be tested, to check it is working, and not working in a degraded mode.

A SIF is defined as a 'safety function with a specified safety integrity level which is necessary to achieve functional safety'. This is pretty confusing.

To try to make it easier. ABB has developed a software tool which can be used for this testing, which asks the right questions, and generates a report, showing where you need to improve, and where you are now compared to a year ago.

It asks lots of questions. 'You start to build a picture of how good you are,' Mr Walkington says. 'It is a fast and effective way of getting to grips with the subject matter.'

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