Developments in temperature controller technology are providing process and equipment diagnostics.

As technology improves, products continue to evolve. For example, the cost of electronic devices has fallen, even as they became smaller in size and offered improved performance. There is no reason to believe that this trend will slow any time soon. Likewise, temperature controllers have experienced these changes; and at the same time, their role in processes has changed dramatically. Temperature controllers now are used not only to control temperature but also to identify process behavior and prevent downtime.

The electronic controllers of the 1970s and early 1980s had an analog design. While these instruments improved upon the performance of their predecessors, they were limited to providing a single function -- controlling the process's temperature. With advancements in microelectronics and integrated circuit development, it was only a matter of time before electronic temperature controllers would become microprocessor based. In the late 1980s and 1990s, digital technology provided control engineers with the ability to implement more complex control strategies. This technology also provided a wealth of new capabilities such as autotuning, soft wiring, mathematical function blocks, digital communications, improved displays and smaller size. Yet with all of these enhancements, the microprocessor's true power had not yet been harnessed.

Hybrid controllers automate small-to-medium-sized process equipment, either stand-alone or with open Ethernet Modbus/TCP connectivity.

Diagnosing Problems Before a Breakdown

In today's competitive environment, it is important to extract the maximum value from a process: It is no longer sufficient to simply control the process to the desired temperature and produce a quality product. The product must be manufactured in the most efficient manner while maintaining a high standard of quality. To derive maximum value from a process, factors such as labor content, maintenance cost and downtime must be controlled. You cannot wait until the process breaks down and then fix it. The cost of such a breakdown can be extremely high in terms of lost production and substandard quality. The ability to monitor, analyze data and predict failures is key to improving operations and minimizing costs.

Because it is coupled directly to what is likely the most important variable being controlled, the temperature controller is a critical process component. Internally, the controller stores a vast amount of valuable data relating to the process. The controller tracks:

  • Temperature value (setpoint).
  • Actual process temperature (process variable).
  • Percentage of power required to obtain a desired temperature (output).
  • Error signal or setpoint deviation.

The controller also knows if the process is in automatic or manual mode, any alarm conditions and the tuning constants required to keep the process on track (i.e., the process dynamics). How can this information best be used to provide the insight into the process's performance and the equipment's overall health?

First, consider what areas you want to target for improvement. Do you want to improve the performance of the process equipment (oven, dryer or heater, for example), or do you want to optimize the process itself? Are there things that can be done that will allow you to anticipate required maintenance in the controller itself?
Temperature controllers are available with diagnostic functions such as digital counters and digital timers. Using these features, process engineers can track important variables related to the process. For example, a process engineer could use the counter function to track the number of times:

  • An alarm was tripped.
  • The control and output relay cycled on and off.
  • The temperature was out of the acceptable range.
  • The controller was put in manual mode.
  • The controller automatically retuned in response to the process dynamics.
  • A digital input closure occurred.
  • The controller went into fail-safe mode.
  • Power to the controller was interrupted.

Likewise, an engineer could use the timer function to track:
  • Total process operating time.
  • Time in manual or automatic control mode.
  • Time in alarm.
  • Time since last input activation.

With this information, it becomes only a matter of matching important process parameters with available information. For example, if you wanted to determine if downtime is being caused by a failed contactor, use a digital counter to track contactor cycles. If you know the average life expectancy of the particular contactor used in the process, you could count the total number of cycles and set a diagnostic alarm to trip when you reached approximately 90 percent of the contactor's life. Then the contactor could be replaced during a normal maintenance cycle, thus avoiding a shutdown during regular production hours. Likewise, counters also could be used to monitor wear in the alarm controllers and control relays to predict failures, reduce equipment downtime and increase product throughput.

Counters and timers can be used in combination to monitor the process's health. By tracking the number of times that the temperature is out of spec and the length of time for each occurrence, a trend might be noticed. By logging significant information such as time out of spec, a routine maintenance schedule could be established to reduce downtime.

These are only a few examples of how diagnostic data provided by a controller could contribute to improving process and equipment integrity. Obviously, not all processes are alike. Consider your process's unique attributes to uncover additional opportunities to leverage the data captured by the controller.

The costs associated with a breakdown can be extremely high in terms of lost production.

In addition to the diagnostic functions that the controller can provide, consider the value that communications can add. Communication between the controller and other devices has been possible for many years, and manufacturers are routinely developing networks to tie processes together. It is easy to visualize how the diagnostic data within the controller can be communicated to a personal computer (PC), analyzed and reviewed by a process engineer.

It is no longer necessary to locate the PC near the process. Instead, process information can be provided to any interested party such as the production manager at a remote location. Further, with a connection to the Internet, anyone with the proper passwords and a standard Internet browser can access this data. In fact, it is possible for the controller to send an e-mail to alert personnel when maintenance must be performed.

As control technology continues to evolve, you can expect additional functions and benefits that today might only be imagined. As with other technologies, temperature controllers are evolving from fixed function devices to valuable tools that can help the user improve a process and remain competitive.