While programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and advanced controls proliferate in many industrial operations, thermal processes often are the exception that proves the rule. Even in applications where data is collected from burners and boilers, it is rarely interrogated for useful information. This occurs, in part, is because plant personnel may assume that a substantial capital outlay is required to introduce intelligent, real-time monitoring. Also, any potential benefits may be viewed from “silos” of safety, emissions or reliability. The value of improvements to any one silo is considered insufficient to justify the expense.
For many facilities, these are misconceptions. Instead, operational, safety and maintenance data from devices and assets can be captured and shared using low cost sensors and thermal-process analytics. Implementing such an approach can be accomplished without significant capital expenditure and with modest operational expenses. The benefits are derived across many areas of the plant.
Gathering and using this data can help address long- and short-term challenges facing thermal operations. Societal changes such as an aging and retiring workforce and an increase in remote working are beyond any one facility’s control. The maintenance of safety-related processes and efficiency despite thinly staffed operations present challenges that remote thermal process monitoring can address.
Tackling Thermal Process Operators’ Low Enthusiasm for Data
The last two decades have seen unprecedented progress and substantial investment in industrial automation. PLCs and advanced controls proliferate, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promises further gains. By 2026, according market forecasts, the global industrial automation sector is expected to be worth as much as $296.70 billion. This is not too far from doubling its size in 2018 (by $157.04 billion).
Sensors and PLCs together account for about one-third of the current demand. With the increasing availability of cheap wireless sensors, that is likely to grow. The pressure sensors line alone is forecast to see compound annual growth of around 8.9 percent over the next five years. For wireless temperature sensors, growth in the coming years is expected to be almost 7 percent annually.
Yet, while many industrial operations have reshaped processes with technology in the last few years, thermal operations often remain the exception. In some cases, operation and monitoring of burners and boilers remain almost entirely manual and paper based. In others, at least some sensors are in place, but the data is left largely untapped.
Wireless sensors are available for thermal processes and can be deployed in applications that, only a few years ago, would have required extensive wiring. Improvements in battery technology and even self-powered devices have expanded the potential uses. In many cases, upgrading the thermal processing control technology may be as simple as adding a modem to an existing sensor network to make the data available. Likewise, in terms of latency and reliability, the performance of sensors continues to expand the range of potential and safe applications.
Still, the use of sensors and their data in thermal processes remains limited, with growth lagging in some sectors.
Monitoring flame-signal strength or air/fuel ratios over time can identify maintenance needs or prove that a repair worked. For example, the image on the left shows the flame scanner being blocked, and the image on the right shows a fixed leak that has been optimized for production quality.
There are perhaps three key related reasons for this. First, there is, in some cases, a misconception that introducing intelligent, real-time monitoring involves a significant capital expense. For reasons already discussed, this is no longer true. Low cost wireless sensors can be deployed to capture and centralize data from thermal processes. In some cases, wireless transmitters can be used to share data from existing wired sensors.
Most thermal processes already will have at least some measurement data that can be captured from the burner management systems and temperature controllers. Simple analytics combined with these two devices can generate more than 40 performance metrics or analytics showing the thermal asset conditions. Often, results can be achieved with a modest operational expense.
Second, while the expense of implementing real-time monitoring may be overestimated, the benefits often are underestimated. As already mentioned, the benefits often are viewed individually rather than across the enterprise. Different functions within the operation may consider only a narrow range of opportunities the technology can bring — thinking solely in terms of safety, efficiency, reliability or compliance benefits individually. Yet, each is legitimate and significant. Data and analytics from thermal assets can:
- Reduce fuel costs by improving burner control.
- Boost reliability by helping keep within the operating envelope.
- Reduce maintenance by detecting problems and eliminating runs to failure.
- Help businesses comply with environmental regulations by monitoring and predicting emissions.
Taken together, these benefits build a strong case for investment in sensors and analytics.
Other potential benefits of such projects sometimes are overlooked as well. For instance, the cost of the failure to harvest and use operational, safety and maintenance data captured by devices and assets often is ignored. Yet such data can be used to avoid significant downtime costs via timely preventive maintenance. If avoiding such costs due to insights gleaned from the data were included in the benefits, it is doubtful that any thermal data-monitoring project would be considered too expensive.
Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind Boiler
Thermal equipment such as a boiler is reliable. As long as the boiler is producing steam or hot water for operations, it is largely ignored.
Case In Point. At one manufacturing site, the operations team recently installed basic sensors, cellular modem and cloud analytics to monitor boiler operating conditions. They quickly identified a high cycling issue. An investigation showed that a few months back, when their contractor had replaced the feedwater pump motor, the motor was oversized. This caused excess water supply, quenching temperatures and driving rapid burner firing.
The visibility provided by thermal data-monitoring technology drove an appropriate replacement. Immediately, firing rates levelled out and the oxygen (O2) levels increased — a key indicator for fuel efficiencies. Ultimately, the site achieved approximately a 5 percent efficiency gain and approximately $5,000 in savings.
Generally speaking, the long-term benefits of such projects often are ignored. Yet by automating data collection and providing insights and analysis, the technology can address long-standing challenges facing many thermal operators.
The technology can, for instance, enable operations to cope better with thinly staffed environments, allowing them to do more with fewer people. Aggregating data from across plants eliminates journeys to the field to collect it, making it available on-demand on a tablet, PC or phone remotely. Global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are seeing value in minimizing the initial warranty periods. Service contractors minimize the impact of remote locations, lack of onsite expertise and visibility into the actual asset performance. With this approach, distant locations and remote support service can assist maintenance teams with their expertise.
Analysis tools can accelerate troubleshooting and deliver insights that would take longer to draw out manually — if they could be realized at all. This, in turn, addresses another long-term challenge facing many industrial operators: The aging workforce and retirement of experienced engineers, operators and maintenance staff. Centralized historians and analysis tools harvest and retain the insights and best practices developed by experienced staff and make these available to less-experienced workers and trainees.
Operational, safety and maintenance data from devices and assets can be captured and centralized using sensors and thermal process analytics.
Avoid Being Data Rich and Information Poor
In many cases, even where those operating thermal processes do appreciate the widespread availability and low cost of wireless sensors, there is a reluctance to invest. Often, that is because the experience of using existing data has disappointed: Operators find they are data rich, but information poor, a condition sometimes fortuitously known as DRIP.
It is not enough to simply capture and aggregate data — or even just provide tools to sort it and identify trends. Businesses operating thermal processes often lack the domain knowledge or in-house resources to be able to benefit from the data collected, or they lack the time or incentives to address this issue. These businesses require solutions that incorporate the domain knowledge they lack and demystify the data, turning it into actionable intelligence. In short, they need solutions that show operators and others what to do with their boilers, furnaces, ovens, burners and other associated assets to achieve the desired business benefits. This information is much more important — and more valuable — than being told why they need to do it.
In conclusion, running combustion systems is not usually the core business of those operating them. For many businesses, it may make sense to outsource responsibility for capturing and converting thermal systems and burner data into actionable intelligence.
Thermal process technology providers can provide near plug-and-play, internet-based solutions. They can draw on experiences and findings from across businesses and across industries to inform them. Using low cost sensors, cellular/satellite communications and cloud-based solutions, thermal process technology providers can capture data, make it available and turn it into easily understood intelligence. This allows operators to concentrate on what really matters: Making the changes that will have a genuine impact on the success of their business.