Build your all-star chemical workforce with a modern DCS

July 8, 2020
An information-enabled distributed control system empowers chemical operators through useful insights.

It’s a truth that has passed the test of time in industrial operations: You’re only as good as your workers. Providing tools to empower staff to continually improve is a major advantage of a data-enabled modern distributed control system (DCS).

Even today, with more information and greater automation, your success still hinges on those veteran operators — the ones who have a detailed understanding and situational awareness of your process and seemingly always make the right decision, whatever the situation.

But what happens when these valuable resources retire? The less-experienced workers who take their place likely won’t have the same level of experience or the ability to anticipate and rectify issues quickly. And you can’t afford to spend years, or even months, replacing lost knowledge.

With a modern DCS, your new operators can become virtually as effective as your best operators in mere weeks.

A modern DCS is information-enabled, and seamlessly connects all aspects of your chemical operations — including both automated and manual tasks — arming your operators with clear, actionable information. And it can help guide them through operating problems in real-time. This helps operations focus resources on further improvements in people and processes.

As a result, you can have greater confidence that even your newest operators will soon be among your best workers. This is essential to lowering overall enterprise risk.

Empower all workers

By guiding operators’ decisions, a modern DCS can reduce your operational reliance on veterans who have accumulated vast operations knowledge. It can also reduce the time it takes for new operators to get up to speed on their jobs or cross-train on different processes. This could prove critical for managing the turnover of millennials who may only stay in one job for only a few years, not a few decades.

So, how exactly does a modern DCS do this?

It uses a high-performance human machine interface (HMI), which provides critical information to operators and guides them to the right decisions during production and maintenance. This involves using a combination of proven situational-awareness techniques and graphic screen designs that enhance an operator’s focus and response time.

It can capture manual steps that are not automated in the context of digitized sequences which can display standard operating procedure (SOP), video content and Augmented Reality all while capturing timing and results of manual actions. This contextualized data drives consistent operations, more detailed root cause analysis (RCA), and continuous improvement initiatives.

By guiding operators and avoiding non-essential data that can distract them, a modern DCS improves process visibility, decision-making and safety. These capabilities can benefit experienced workers just as much as they do new workers, if information is limited in your operations.

In fact, when one chemical company replaced the control system across its plants with a modern DCS, better information and financial reporting was one of its goals.

The new, information-enabled system displayed real-time data, helping operators make much better and more timely decisions. In addition, the new system transformed data collection, data aggregation and reporting, allowing insights to be shared on-demand with business management for improved decision-making and financial reporting.

Due to the improved decision-making, the $16 million project paid for itself in just nine months and the modern DCS will be used in four other projects the company is working on.

Reduce alarm burdens 

Sometimes less-than-optimal alarming can create more problems than it solves.

Legacy alarm systems, in particular, can generate distracting nuisance alarms. They also often lack historical and contextual information. This can make it hard for workers — especially inexperienced ones — to figure out the root cause of an alarm quickly and effectively.

A modern DCS, however, helps to reduce nuisance alarms and make remaining alarms in your chemical operations actionable. The result? As alarms do occur, operators are guided by the DCS to immediately know what they need to do and how urgently they need to perform these actions. This cuts troubleshooting time and costs and overall enterprise risk — which ultimately reduces downtime and lost production, as well as reducing incidents.

For example, at a small-batch chemical production facility in California, the plant control systems were no longer supported. They were creating production issues, such as pop-up alerts that frustrated operators and alarms that were difficult to manage. The systems also lacked clear documentation to help operators find the cause of alarms, which led to guesswork and precious time spent on troubleshooting instead of other value-added tasks.

After implementing a modern DCS, the new HMI resolved the pop-up and alarm-management issues that had been frustrating operators. By rationalizing alarms and implementing a new grayscale HMI, operators can more quickly spot priority issues and understand and identify the root cause of issues faster, eliminating guesswork.

Get ahead of downtime 

Chemical operations are being flooded with smart devices in the hopes of improving asset reliability and reducing downtime. These goals are achievable, but only if you can turn the raw device data into clear, actionable information.

That’s exactly what a modern DCS can do for you. It turns diagnostic and performance data into actionable information.

Operators use this information to see if an equipment unit or production unit is nearing failure — and even track when those failures are most likely to happen. They then prioritize when assets need to be serviced or replaced and schedule that work during planned maintenance windows, before unexpected downtime occurs.

When one chemical company needed to expand a unit to meet increasing market demand, it chose to update its entire production unit to a modern DCS. The older control system was operating inefficiently, resulting in unplanned downtime and high maintenance costs.

The modern DCS now delivers historical and real-time production data to the plant operators in a clear, understandable format for easier analysis. Today, when a system issue occurs, downtime is significantly reduced. Operators can more easily pinpoint the issue using captured production and equipment performance data. In fact, the chemical company reduced ongoing two-hour downtime instances to less than one-hour of recovery with a 50% increase in maintenance cost savings.

An easy decision 

Whether you’re building a new chemical processing plant or replacing a control system that’s nearing obsolescence, you already have reason enough to use a modern DCS. It gives you:

  • A single control platform to improve productivity and efficiencies across all operations  
  • Scalability to grow with your production demands
  • Real-time information to improve decision making across roles

But a modern DCS becomes even more valuable when it can fill the knowledge gap of newer workers and elevate the performance of all workers.

Chris King is the PlantPAx migration business development manager for Rockwell Automation. He has worked for over 41 years in industrial process control and joined Rockwell in 2017. Previously, he was with Emerson Process Management for 14 years and Honeywell Process for 23 years.