MechTech talks to Barry Elliott of Rockwell Automation about the advantages of modern connectivity and its role in fostering leaner and more sustainable process plants and enterprises.
“The ‘Connected Enterprise’ is the phrase we at Rockwell Automation use to embrace the Industrial Internet of Things, the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0,” Elliott begins. “It captures our interpretation of the tangible outputs we can deliver by leveraging modern networking and connectivity technologies,” he tells MechTech.
“Connectivity, through Wi-Fi and cellphone networks, for example, has already led to an explosion of social media platforms which has fundamentally changed the way people stay connected and communicate with each other.
In the automation industry, through the Industrial Internet of Things, a similar ‘revolution’ is taking place, where most devices now have an IP address and some level of intelligence, enabling their status and condition to be interrogated and made visible to anything, anyone and anywhere,” Elliott says.
He points out, though, that connectivity in itself is not new. “In the mining industry, from the surface to the very ends of horizontal shafts and to the bottom of vertical shafts, mines are connected. But this is traditionally achieved via a multitude of network topologies and gateways, which create complexities and inherent limitations.
“More importantly, while it has long been possible to collect information, the question is what to do with it. Aggregating and gathering data is easy, but transforming it into useful information that can trigger a response or a management decision is the real goal. Typically less than 1% of the data collected from all of the currently connected ‘things’ is actually used – and here lies an enormous opportunity,” Elliott believes.
As a concept, The Connected Enterprise involves connecting plant, process or manufacturing equipment at the production level of an enterprise to all of a company’s other production sites; to its entire supply chain, including raw materials and component suppliers, logistics, energy resources and utilities; and directly through sales to its customers.
“At plant level, if the condition of all of production equipment is made visible through a networked system, then historical data collected can be used to establish trends, while real time data can highlight the current status and condition of every machine. Together, if the data is analysed effectively, good predictability and reliability is assured.
“But the same data used by the operator and the maintenance manager might also be processed differently and displayed on different dashboards: to track production for the COO; predict operating costs for the CFO; or to compare investment options for the CEO,” he explains.
Elliott says that it is even possible to identify value drivers that enable live profits to be calculated. “In the event of a breakdown or a power outage, for example, the effect on profit can immediately be calculated and displayed, highlighting the urgency of the reparation action required. Competitive advantage, waste reduction, time to market, research and development needs and a host of other performance indicators can be targeted and improved through the process.
“In the current market, few have the luxury of replacing their plant with a newer and better-connected one, so we are mostly involved with analysing what we can do now to better sweat existing assets for clients. The current focus is all about improving overall equipment efficiency (OEE) and The Connected Enterprise is an obvious way of doing this,” Elliot informs MechTech.
“One of the most fundamental misunderstandings about this ‘revolution’ relates to costs. These systems are not big cost adders compared to total project values,” emphasises Elliott. “Sensors are integral to the equipment, anyway, and the cost of aggregation and analytics software to process the data is often insignificant compared to total project costs,” he points out.
“A process control system for a refinery or mineral processing plant, for example, is typically in the region of 1.0 to 1.5% of the total cost of a project. On a US$1.0-billion project, the entire control system is likely to cost in the order of $10-million to $15-million. If connectivity and a little smart analytics pushes that cost up by even 25%, say, the overall cost increment will still be below 0.4% – and on a Greenfield project, the savings that will accrue through implementing such a system can be huge compared to the investment,” Elliott asserts.
Citing a relatively simple local example on the mechanical side, he says that Rockwell Automation Sub-Saharan Africa has successfully connected an entire compressed air fleet in the mining sector. “Around the platinum belt of South Africa, we have connected our customers’ entire fleet of nearly 30 compressors in sizes ranging from 2-8 MW. While we don’t supply the compressors, we provide the control systems and all components are fully networked.
“Over time, we have developed some pretty clever management techniques – for surge control of compressed air, for example – along with sophisticated algorithms to measure performance and determine predictive maintenance needs,” he relates.
“By aggregating the data from all of these compressors, we compare the performance of each unit and each shaft. This allows live changes to be made to the ventilation system in response to breakdowns, to reduce energy use, or to increase or decrease the amount of compressed air needed in a particular area,” he explains.
“Simple dashboards give visibility, which underpins all efficiency management drives. And even though the compressors are spread over a 30 km radius, managers can quickly react to maintenance issues and target poorest performing units for replacement.
“Simply put, the dashboard view enables management to take control of the compressed air fleet and to optimise performance and energy use, all of which minimises operating costs,” he says.
While this example is tangible, “a Connected Enterprise is not really something ‘you can have’. It needs to be customised and broken down, and specific analytics, algorithms and metrics need to be developed and translated into software to enable valuable information to be effectively used,” Elliott suggests.
As well as mine compressors, mine winders, mills, pumps and conveyors, a host of other energy, safety and production critical equipment can be connected for optimisation proposes. This makes it possible to systematically optimise each unit or plant area, simply by adapting the poorest performers to the strongest possible operational level.
In addition, according to Elliott, by bringing in other information, such as the 20-year life-of-mine plan, enterprise-wide progress can be tracked and adapted to best suit emerging realities. Through transparency, mining operations can be redirected or new investments made to improve yields.
Once the connectivity infrastructure is in place, the software-based analytical possibilities are almost infinitely scalable. “Once people see the potential, they invariably want more,” Elliott says, adding, “this is the gist of what one should seek to achieve by adopting a Connected Enterprise approach – and it’s all underpinned by OEE.”
While Rockwell Automation can offer all the control system and connectivity technology required, “establishing a Connected Enterprise does not depend on the sole use of our products. Although the integration and data gathering capabilities, and therefore the potential benefits, are significantly enhanced if a complete solution is implemented using our technology platforms. The single biggest thing that we hang our technology on is our use of standard Ethernet IP for connectivity across all our networks. Ethernet IP is open, unmodified and standard, so anyone can access it. The Connected Equipment does not require bespoke devices, nor is it limited to a particular vendor’s set of compatible components,” Elliott says.
“But while open is good, it has industrial security consequences. This is the biggest risk area associated with connectivity,” he warns, citing an example of a steel mill in Russia that was “hacked for fun” and put out of action for several months.
“But most of the damage caused to systems happens as a result of people with legitimate access making mistakes,” he continues. “The real difficulty is striking a balance between enabling people to do their jobs and preventing them from making critical changes.
“Security for a Connected Enterprise cannot rely in bolt-on, antivirus-type solutions, though,” Elliott advises. “Security has to be built in. Increasingly, system designers are using the term ‘defence in depth’, which we all know in South Africa from the multi-layered approach to home security. The idea is that if a user gets though one layer, there are several more to go through before any ‘dangerous’ access is granted,” he explains.
“For the next five years, I do not foresee any surge in the price or demand for commodities. OEE is, therefore, likely to remain the priority as producers are forced towards becoming leaner in order to survive,” Elliott says
“Rockwell Automation has the ability and the scale to deliver Connected Enterprise solutions of any size; solutions that have short payback periods and, once installed, have the same low-cost potential for growth as social media platforms,” he concludes.
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