Case study: using automation to refine processes and reduce costs
19 April 2016
Hardware and software combine in modern industry
Author: Sean Robinson, manager – software solutions, Kerrco Automation Ltd
Industrial operations like factories, mines and utilities are constantly challenged to refine their processes to reduce costs. Investments in automation have delivered on making processes more efficient and repeatable, and the flow of data such automation can provide has also delivered the means to pursue even finer incremental improvements. The richness of that information is the key to gains in material yields, energy efficiency or asset reliability. The challenge is to apply a mix of engineering (and IT) skills and disciplines that can harness that data, and deliver it to a mix of stakeholders each with different ways of using it.
One such firm that has become a reliable engineering partner to Irish industry is Gilroy Control Systems. With a history spanning 40 years and operations in Cork, Dublin and Belfast, Gilroys has developed the expertise to help over 1,100 customers in industries as diverse as life sciences, building materials and food processing make use of their automation and sensory data drive process and business improvements. In the last few years, Gilroys has found customers increasingly looking beyond core processes and equipment, towards improving energy and water efficiencies.
Such sustainability-focused projects pose unique difficulties: assets like boilers, electrical switch panels and water-treatment plants have historically been relatively isolated. Putting utility consumption data into more context than ‘date-and-time’ means building a bridge between different types of systems. In addition, ‘reporting’ is not straightforward, as uses for the data range from re-engineering utility asset control algorithms to supporting carbon reporting to governments and customers.
Gilroys took on board all these complexities for a recent project with one of Ireland’s largest food processors. An operation that spans preparation, cooking and chilling, this firm’s success meant growth in size and related environmental footprint, so energy and water had come into focus as areas to save. A dedicated team was put in place, charged with establishing a measurement and reporting system that could grow with the business and be non-disruptive to current systems and work processes.
Connectivity was a bigger job than previously appreciated. Existing line control systems in production would be relatively easy to access, but different types of programmable automation controllers (PLCs) on different types of plant meant that data would be structured and described differently from point to point in the plant. Measurement of the electrical data would require sub-metering across a wide physical space, and networking costs looked to be prohibitive, as well as potentially disruptive, should a large cabling project be needed.
To solve the energy metering and connectivity problem, Gilroys introduced EpiSensor into the situation. EpiSensor is another Irish success story – based in Limerick, it is a leading firm in the development of smart sensor networks. By taking advantage of technology evolution in networking, cyber security and sensor technology, EpiSensor is able to avoid the cost and disruption associated with traditional metering approaches and that meant a faster, more economical project. EpiSensor’s smart energy meters provided the detailed usage information needed to ensure that variations in consumption could be captured in relation to the production and overhead areas of the operation.
The mix of reporting requirements posed a significant challenge, as well. With some data available from real-time systems, some from EpiSensor’s data streams and some in the plant’s production database, Gilroys needed a way to collect, normalise and link different types of data. The company turned to GE’s Historian product as the core data platform, and to support the detailed, engineering and analytical views needed to drive improvement.
Historian is engineered to bring in raw data streams from PLCs, SCADA systems and smart devices, but can also access file-based data streams and databases. In particular, Historian is designed to take in high volumes of data at subsecond intervals, so there is a very precise base of raw data from which to build rollups, calculations and analysis. Beyond the resource-related data, the Historian is also collecting key information relating the usage and health of both production and utility assets. And while Historian offers its own reporting tools, it is designed to present data to third-party systems in the same way as standard database technologies (via ODBC), so it can serve as an integration hub for other systems or reporting tools. All of those capabilities were brought into play for this job.
The different customer stakeholders are now all served by the same underlying system. Calculations to support cost analysis, or carbon conversion are automated off the raw data that accumulates second-by-second, so there is no ‘competition’ for a single-version-of-the-truth picture of usage and resource efficiency. At the same time, the detailed data is kept in the raw, so the engineering teams can search for hidden patterns that indicate process, asset or maintenance tuning opportunities that will lead to savings in energy, gas or water costs. And all of the data can be cross-referenced to production.
According to Marty McCormack, Gilroys’ project manager, “It was important that information be correlated to production volumes, so that the customer would have a clear understanding of what changes are natural, and what really needs attention.”
The customer’s energy efficiency team is now easily able to work from key performance indicator data, down to the details. And the overall reporting and visualisation systems in place also make it easy to access information relating to the health of the heat, steam and refrigeration assets in the plant, so the team is expecting to identify a range of mini-projects that will have a quantifiable impact on cost and footprint.
Join GE’s seminar May 3 in Dublin to learn more
GE holds regular events to keep existing and new customers up to date on developments in their range of solutions for manufacturing and asset performance management. You can learn more about the GE solutions described here, as well as meet members of the Gilroys team by joining their seminar on enabling the Digital Industrial Operation on May 3 in Blanchardstown. For further details, please click here.