Automation advances aim to control cash flow
The last 12 months have seen several advances in the process control field, including new products, supplier mergers and further developments in open architectures
Sifting through the reams of marketing material from the industry’s main automation suppliers this year, one major issue keeps catching the eye – cost-cutting. It is clear that many suppliers are focusing their marketing efforts on the potential financial gains offered by their process control solutions. Obviously, the marketing departments are keenly aware that they have to appeal to their customers’ main concerns as most players in the paper industry have been tightening their belts and trying to boost efficiency in one form or another over the past few years.
Another major feature of the automation market over the last 12 months has been the growing number of mergers and alliances between suppliers (Box 1 ). Behind both these trends is a subject that has been touched on in these pages a number of the times over the last few years – the increasingly open architecture of pulp and paper automation solutions. It appears that open systems are not only allowing producers to cut costs, but they are also making it easier for suppliers to forge alliances with each other.
Taking the question of cost-cutting first, Neles Automation believes that upgrading a more traditional automation system can offers be expensive and disruptive since significant parts of both the hardware and software must be replaced. The company’s new NelesDNA system allows additional applications to be added without replacement projects or the major upgrades that are necessary with traditional systems. According to the company, the new concept has been made possible by technology changes that have occurred in recent years. Commodity hardware, software and communications have evolved to a point where they are now suitable for process control use. In NelesDNA, the amount of proprietary hardware, software and communications used is less than in a traditional solution. According to the company, “Since the development of commodity product technologies is amortized over very large markets, the substitution of commodity products for previously proprietary solutions has the potential to greatly reduce costs. The better tools possible by leveraging on commercial software also leads to savings in the configuration and system integration components of an automation project.” Without the move to more openness in automation systems, integration between different pieces of process control equipment would not have been possible, and in turn, cost reductions would still be out of producers’ reach.
Another company which has been working hard to help papermakers cut their costs is Kvaerner Chemetics. As Jan-Olof Stromberg, a business manager at Kvaerner Chemetics, puts it, “Today, the focus in the paper industry is to maximize the return on assets. One way to do this is to improve equipment efficiency/availability, especially on paper machines, by reducing lost time and lost product.”
According to the company, paper producers are throwing away a valuable corporate asset every day, ie the history of their production processes. With the Production Loss Analyzer (PLA) software package, Kvaerner Chemetics offers the industry a fully automated solution for collecting and analyzing the information. The PLA can be used with the company’s mill-wide automation package, the MOPS application, to track production and losses throughout the pulp and paper mill, and can include just about any process that is continuous and measured online.
The Swedish supplier, Lorentzen & Wettre, has also been keeping a close eye on cost reduction trends in the paper industry and has developed its L&W Autoline 300 with these goals in mind. According to the company, the pulp and paper industry has adopted the idea of automating as many functions as possible in the past few years. But at the same time, producers are looking to chop costs by optimizing staff resources and improving process parameters.
L&W Autoline 300 is a compact and fullyequipped automatic paper testing unit which measures all important paper properties in a few minutes, according to the supplier.
One company that has been particularly impressed with the system’s performance is Abitibi-Consolidated (A-C), which decided to install the unit across all of its mills. So far, A-C has ordered seven systems for its mills in Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.
While some suppliers have focused their efforts on bringing down costs in the paper industry, others have concentrated on improving the open architecture of automation systems. One champion of the open automation cause is Honeywell of Finland. According to Matti Pulkkinen, the company’s communications manager, “The newest area of expanding openness in automation systems is the field interface. For the entire two decades of their existence, digital automation systems have had their own proprietary IIO solutions to interface to the process instrumentation. Until now, that is. Now, the picture is rapidly changing along with the technical advances and market acceptance of open field networks as a basis for the field interface.” Honeywell’s latest offering in this area is the Field Controller, which was released earlier this year. In terms of cutting costs, the open solution leads to less cabling, improved maintenance and diagnostics as well as reduced project lead times. On a technical level, the controller offers perhaps even more benefits. Currently, there are several fieldbus standards available in the market, each generated for a variety of needs. For example, some fieldbuses focus on the control of analog data or digital information, while others have speed as their major feature. According to Honeywell, users have had to compromise in the past due to restrictions in the automation systems’ fieldbus connectivity and the particular features of the fieldbus itself.
This is where Honeywell’s Field Controller comes in. According to the supplier, the unit is easy to connect to any fieldbus type and on its release the controller covered a number of interfaces, including Profibus, DeviceNet and Interbus standards. Honeywell plans to boost the number of standards that can be used within the next 12 months.
The new equipment will be used as the fieldbus controller in the company’s TotalPlant Alcont and Printa printing press control systems. Pulkkinen explains that the equipment is used to control continuous and batch processes, machines, stand-alone drives and line drives. The controller tools cover the conventional controls and logic, plus advanced control methods such as fuzzy logic, neural nets and optimization.
Ron Powell, Honeywell’s vice president Finland operations, believes that the new approach will speed up the adoption of fieldbuses in the process industry. “Commitment to a single field– bus, possibly acquired at an earlier stage, is no longer a must,” he explains. “Instead, the automation system will integrate all the recognized standard fieldbus types into a uniform process interface and place them at the users disposal. This will reduce the investment costs and will also enable continuous exploitation of technological developments.”
Although Honeywell is by no means alone in the crusade to integrate systems and open up the automation field, the company’s latest product is certainly another major step forward in the battle. As Pulkkinen puts it, “As much as bringing field networks to the backbone of the automation system, the Field Controller can be thought of as bringing process, machine and drive intelligence into the world of field networks.”
THE JOB IN HAND
The question of ‘intelligence’ is also on the minds of many other workers in the industry. With the arrival of highly intelligent automation systems in the pulp and paper industry, workers may feel justified in fearing for their future as operators are increasingly replaced with automated alternatives. But as the suppliers see it, the automation solutions will make the operators’ lives easier, not replace them completely. According to Markku Kappi, director of communications at Neles Automation, the two hot topics going forward will be embedded technology and information and knowledge management. Neither of these concepts sounds very appetizing on first bite, but both will make the operator work more efficiently and give him/her access to a wider range of information. Neles believes that the operator’s role is like that of a racing car driver – “He should concentrate on the road ahead, not worry about what is going on underneath the hood”. The quantity of information that automation can offer nowadays is staggering, but often far too complex for the human brain to comprehend. Kappi explains that it is not enough that processes are controlled automatically, the user must have different tools and benefits at his/her fingertips.
Some of Neles Automation’s solutions in this area include fuzzy logic-based controls, soft sensors and multivariable predictive control (MPC). The fuzzy logic solutions are used in situations where the operator has several options available and must choose which to employ at a particular moment. Instead of the operator doing the hard work, the computer can emulate human decision patterns for effective control.
Another emerging control technology is multivariable predictive control, which Neles Automation has been using in its wet end management concept. Controlling the wet end usually involves many loops, each controlling a single variable, which can be difficult to operate and may lower a machine’s productivity. The IQWetendMD from Neles combines wet and dry end measurements in a single coordinated MPC controller, which models the interactions between the loops and boosts performance. According to the supplier, the system can also handle major upsets such as set point and broke usage changes much better that the previous single loop strategies on machines.
In other areas, the supplier has tested out advanced mathematical techniques to extract more knowledge from existing data. Approaches such as principal component analysis (PCA) and neural networks have been used to make so-called “soft sensors’. For example, a soft sensor might predict board strength properties from known furnish characteristics and machine running conditions. Neles Automation’s Profile Shape Identification system uses spectral techniques to quantify CD variations and trigger suggested actions to the operator when quality limits are violated.
The other major trend in the industry over the past 12 months has been the surge in alliances between suppliers. The flurry of merger and acquisition activity among papermakers has not slipped the attention of the industry’s automation suppliers. While Store Enso linked up with Consolidated Papers and International Paper swooped in on Champion, the automation companies have been playing their own consolidation game.
The increasingly open technology that is being developed by the automation industry and the rise in intemet-based technology has certainly played a part in a number of recent tie-ups (Box 1 ). Among the most high profile alliances announced so far this year was the deal between ABB and the new Internet portal, paperloop.com.
Dave Biros, marketing manager for ABB Pulp, Paper, Metal & Minerals Industries, explains, “The ABB/paperloop.com alliance represents the ‘next’ way of thinking for the paper industry, because it is two information companies — one publishing and one industrial – coming together in the intemet arena to provide a whole new generation of information technology to the pulp and paper industry.”
The linkup will allow ABB to put its technical information databases online, offer consulting services via the web and provide industrial software that customers can download or use directly online.
According to ABB, the benefits for the producer would be:
lower capital investment cost
higher system utilization, since producers would only use the feature when required
lower lifecycle costs, because the user would always have access to the latest version of software online.
As Biros sees it, “All of these benefits would be very interesting to paper companies considering the pressures everyone is under to show more shareholder returns.”
ABB is not the only automation supplier that is getting in on the Internet act, though. Honeywell is also involved in another Internet venture, through its Hi-Spec Solutions division. The company launched its MyPlant.com site last year to provide software and knowledge-based plant solutions to a range of processing industries, including pulp and paper. According to Honeywell, on-site plant operators can directly apply Internet-based advanced technologies from the site to solve plant problems in real time. The site is already attracting the attention of large investors as the US giant, Microsoft, recently made a strategic equity investment in MyPlant.com.
A glance at the New Technology briefs seems to confirm the trends toward openness, alliances and cost-cutting that have been mentioned above. The quest to find more open interfaces between different pieces of process control equipment is firing the research carried out by automation suppliers. It is also driving, and making possible, the hoard of alliances that have been carried out over the past 12 months. (Of course, the economics of the paper industry have also played their part, forcing the fragmented producer and supplier base to merge.)
Automation is bringing suppliers together, but it is also creating a closer relationship between the operator and the process, by providing the link between the two. Instead of the enemy robot on the front cover, workers should think of the process control equipment as a helpful tool that will get them from problem A to solution B on the paper machine.
And up in the boardroom, the industry’s executives are likely to be scrutinizing the money saving potential of next generation automation solutions, or at least looking at the marketing blurb to find out what it’s all about.
Copyright Miller Freeman Inc. Aug 2000
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