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Productivity Perspectives

Kevin Parker

Kevin Parker, editorial director of Processing magazine, has been writing about process industry, automation and information-technology markets for more than 20 years.

Process Control

Get hip to 'virtual' walk-throughs for integrated process operations

October 31, 2012
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The world of television commercials is chock full of integrated enterprises, but not so ours.

Yet there is no doubt progress is being made toward a kind of roles-based, application-driven integration that will further streamline coordination of complex process-industry supply chains, and that promises continuing productivity growth in the 21st century.

One clear trend is for corporations to commit to platforms that allow “object-based” access to information gleaned from multiple systems. Leaving talk about brilliant database technology to the side, what it means is, if you’re interested in a pump, then you go look for that pump in the 3-D model or other type interface, and drill from there to a wealth of information about it, regardless of whether that information ultimately comes from a maintenance, process control, design or some other type of system commonly found in process industry plants.

These integration platforms may be found at either the operation-execution or enterprise level. But for the capital-intensive process industries, organizing information around vital capital assets is as intuitive as it gets.

Product managers from automation vendor Siemens were in Boston recently to talk about Siemens COMOS, its “asset lifecycle management software for process industries.” The talk took place in the wake of a Siemens’ acquisition in September of VRcontext International S.A., Brussels, Belgium. In consequence of the acquisition, COMOS is being equipped with 3-D simulation walk-through capabilities. Users will segue seamlessly, Siemens says, from this 3-D simulated world to the more familiar landscape of P&ID diagrams, other 2-D drawings and other information sources.

VRcontext’s Walkinside 3D visualization software is currently in use in plant operation, maintenance and servicing in more than 200 companies. The vendors say the software directly accesses all plant information to display current status via 3D graphics. VRcontext has specialized in remote offshore installations for the oil and gas industry. With Walkinside, Siemens says the company has created a standard for 3D visualization in the process industries.

But the chemical, pharmaceutical, oil & gas, power & energy and hybrid industries need more than pretty pictures.  For these industries, says Andreas Geiss, VP, COMOS Industry Solutions, “the P&ID [process and instrumentation diagram] is the bible, containing all definitions of equipment and instrumentation. And that’s where we start.”

Use of a platform like Siemens COMOS can begin during the design and construction phase of a new plant and be the means for a sure handover of as-built documentation. After that, “integrated operations” are achieved by allowing access to information from engineering, ERP and operations systems. This can also lead to a rationalization of applications used in the enterprise, reducing their number. A major benefit of a correctly implemented system should be that information no longer need reside in multiple systems and users securely access the most current revisions.    

The latest version of this software solution for plant engineering and operations, COMOS 10, includes a new interface that ensures consistent, bidirectional exchange of information between COMOS and the Siemens Simatic PCS 7 process control system. A solution called COMOS PQM (process quality management) is specific to the pharmaceutical industry. New functions allow project teams to collaborate with each other across different systems and locations, enabling parallel processing of different work packages.

Novartis Pharma, for example, has been using the COMOS software solution since 2004 for plant engineering, life cycle data management and plant documentation. The company points to its ability to perform plant qualification in future and thereby demonstrate “compliance.” This will make it possible to present regulatory authorities with transparent documentation created in accordance with a risk-based approach.

As mentioned, integration platforms, similar to COMOS at least in intent, are appearing at several enterprise levels. Automation vendors have introduced platforms that aggregate information at the execution layer, e.g., Archestra from Invensys Wonderware or FactoryTalk from Rockwell Automation. Enterprise vendors like SAP and Oracle have bought up a half a zillion independent software vendors – for CRM, planning & scheduling, and other type apps – so as to stake their claim as chief data aggregator.

Other initiatives are even more specific to process industries. There’s Huntsville, Ala.-based Intergraph with its SmartPlant and SmartPlant Enterprise for Owner-Operators. Houston-based Aveva says it provides engineering and design software for the process plant, power generation and off-shore industries. In addition, ERP vendor IFS, which originally came out of the asset-intensive industries, believes in the efficacy of a single suite of products across the enterprise including for engineering, operations and resources planning.

Workforces are changing and many insist that companies will need to invest in these type systems to attract effective employees who are used to being served by the latest technology. And some characteristics of this market are unique. Siemens’ Geiss concluded his remarks by pointing out that “while there’s a considerable gap between growth and investment rates in developed countries and those in the developing world, growth in these kinds of software is much more even across global regions. Project execution is changing everywhere. The workforce is changing everywhere. More planning flexibility is needed.”