Unlocking New Opportunities for Seamless Instrument Integration in Chemical Applications

Article by David Bowers

ABB's David Bowers looks at how new technologies, including cloud computing, edge computing, and data networking, are helping to address some of the challenges of the chemical industry, from tackling communication barriers and reducing cost and complexity, to driving efficiency and safety

EFFICIENCY, safety, and sustainability are paramount concerns for chemical plant owners in today’s industrial landscape. These objectives rely on extracting actionable insights from the vast array of process and diagnostic data collected by instrumentation and control systems. However, achieving seamless integration across the entirety of a chemical plant's operations has been hindered by the proliferation of different technical standards and communication protocols that have obstructed the collection and processing of data, leaving valuable insights locked away within sensors, controllers, and subsystems.

With recent advances in technology, including cloud computing, edge computing, and data networking, these challenges are being steadily addressed, opening new possibilities for unlocking the full potential of end-to-end instrumentation integration to enable enhanced operational efficiency, safety, and sustainability in chemical plants.

Unlocking the power of industrial data

The advent of recent ICT industry trends, such as edge computing and cloud solutions, has revolutionised the approaches to collecting, storing, processing, and exchanging process control and automation data. The NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA) represents a significant stride in this direction by decoupling process control from other plant functions to enable disparate devices to seamlessly connect to a unified network, regardless of their geographical location.

This departure from the conventional automation hierarchy allows for real-time access to a wealth of data beyond mere measured values to encompass diagnostics, calibration schedules, and other derived information. This enhanced visibility empowers plant operators to optimise processes for maximum efficiency while proactively identifying and addressing potential issues before they escalate. Additionally, the ready availability of data facilitates compliance with the reporting requirements set down by stringent safety and environmental legislation, ensuring regulatory adherence.

Tackling communication barriers

As the enabler for data exchange between devices and controllers, communication protocols play a key role in achieving seamless integration between instruments and process control systems. Ethernet, with its superior speed and flexibility, provides instrumentation and process control vendors with unprecedented freedom in selecting real-time communication protocols. The preeminent choice for this task in industrial environments is PROFINET, which simplifies interfacing and data retrieval from devices by utilising an application profile defining standardised data parameters for different devices.

Offering compatibility with network-centric architectures and Ethernet-based communications, OPC UA is also rapidly gaining favour as a versatile open-source standard for transporting data between field devices and cloud-hosted applications. Offering a friendly user interface and eliminating the requirement for time-consuming device-specific programming, OPC UA addresses security concerns by incorporating measures including user authentication and security certificates to prevent unauthorised intrusions.

Security front and centre

The exponentially increasing number of connected devices in today’s Internet of Things (IoT) world amplifies the risks of unauthorised access to corporate and industrial networks. Robust user authentication and instrument identification processes are essential in mitigating these risks and safeguarding equipment, operations, and data integrity. Implementing these and other measures can strengthen integral trust and security, with devices validating attempts at access by authorised clients, and clients themselves verifying that they are communicating with the intended devices.

Reducing cost and complexity

Security and complexity have been traditional barriers to achieving seamless integration of instrumentation systems in the chemical process industry. Traditionally, dependence on a patchwork of communication protocols between different levels of the conventional automation “pyramid” incurred significant overheads in converting and translating between different data types and structures. Today, vendor-led initiatives such as the Field Device Integration (FDI) standard are lowering the barriers to translating data between devices by reducing system complexity, deployment, and maintenance costs.

High-speed data and power

Ethernet is increasingly emerging as a transformative enabler for efficient data collection and exchange in industrial environments. The recent standardisation of Ethernet APL (Advanced Physical Layer) enhances its appeal as the physical networking layer in challenging control and automation environments. Carrying high-speed data plus power over a familiar twisted-pair cable, Ethernet APL brings other benefits relevant to the process industry including operation over long cable runs up to 1,000 m and intrinsic safety for use in flammable atmospheres.

Driving efficiency and safety

The possibility of achieving seamlessly integrated instrumentation systems is being steadily realised through technological advances that are helping chemical companies optimise plant performance through the efficient collection, exchange, and utilisation of production data.

Through innovation and dialogue between stakeholders including equipment vendors, standardisation bodies and end-users, longstanding areas of concern such as cybersecurity and the management of system complexity are also being steadily addressed.

Article by David Bowers

Product Manager, Pressure and Process Flow, ABB Measurement & Analytics

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