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Improving productivity by minimizing unplanned downtime is a driving force in the thermal processing industry. As a result, production and process systems must deliver value by operating in the smartest, most efficient and most sustainable manner possible.

Organizations that do not adopt an integrated automation system risk higher-than-necessary energy costs for day-to-day operations; the safety of personnel and equipment; and penalties for failing to meet environmental standards. Isolated, purpose-built solutions for process control also make it difficult to increase production to meet growing customer demand.

This article will explain how integrated technology solutions can help optimize thermal processes and how they can help connect production assets securely in the cloud. Incorporating such technologies provides for enhanced control and performance monitoring and helps to make critical asset data available on demand.

Facing Current Demands and Hurdles

With energy costs steadily on the rise, reduced profit margins and increasing demands for quality, manufacturers with thermal processing operations need to increase productivity, eliminate safety risks and reduce operating expenses. Their primary objectives include:

  • Enhancing safety.
  • Driving plant efficiency to yield a high return on investment and reduce energy costs.
  • Reducing maintenance costs.
  • Minimizing unplanned downtime to increase the availability of heating systems.
  • Reducing emissions.
  • Boosting productivity to meet customer demand.

Read Part 1 of the Series:

The Data Knows Best: Thermal Solutions and the Industrial Internet of Things

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Data gathering and analysis platforms can securely connect combustion equipment to the cloud, making critical thermal process data that is normally confined at the equipment level available anytime on any smart device or desktop. Image provided by Honeywell Thermal Solutions

Additionally, in thermal process systems such as boilers, ovens and furnaces, information that is vital to efficiency, safety and reliability often is stuck at the equipment level. That is a problem unless a worker is standing in front of the equipment. Even then, it might be too late. Frequently, maintenance technicians are required to travel to the thermal processing equipment to troubleshoot and diagnose problems. Often, they do not always know what tools or parts are required until they are on-site. This can result in multiple return trips to address an issue.

Moreover, the “Great Resignation” is creating a shortage of proven know-how. There are fewer combustion specialists, and the remaining plant personnel are being given more responsibilities than ever before.

When fewer team members are responsible for a heavier workload, it is important to optimize process control. This means meeting certain parameters over time by using inputs from the process and controlling outputs to achieve the desired results. Additionally, the provision of remote-access capabilities can help safeguard against the long-term disruption caused by global events.

Integrated technology solutions for thermal processing can help users overcome these challenges. Implementing such technologies may allow users to make better decisions related to process, productivity, quality and safety even if they are not on-site. Real-time controls to measure and control critical process variables, methods to remotely monitor these variables and ways to predict the future behavior of thermal processes are among these solutions.

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Combustion equipment management software combines configurable safety features with programmable logic in a single, modular burner control platform. Image provided by Honeywell Thermal Solutions

Why Connected Control Matters

Many companies in the thermal processing industry rely on disparate, purpose-built solutions to run critical production processes. They use components from different vendors as well as separate platforms and protocols. Complicated wiring schematics and programming sequences are commonplace. With multiple vendor systems in place, process steps might include manual data exchange between systems, which can increase processing times and the risk of failure. It can be hard to monitor and control a process when it is fragmented across disparate control technologies.

The implementation of a single, connected architecture for industrial heating reduces the control footprint in most facilities and enables remote monitoring and troubleshooting of the production equipment. With integrated control strategies and technologies, all team members are connected through a single automated workflow with access to the same data. The process is monitored continuously, and alerts notify the team about any deviations.

By taking an integrated system approach, manufacturers can realize the benefits of improved operator effectiveness, increased plant availability, reduced maintenance costs and lower lifecycle costs. They also can take advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of operations across a single plant or all plants within an enterprise.

An IIoT infrastructure provides secure methods to capture and aggregate data and apply advanced analytics. Furthermore, it leverages domain expertise and allows processors to use the information to determine methods to reduce or even eliminate manufacturing upsets and inefficiencies. With a large, consolidated set of data — whether self-collected or provided by experts who understand the unique characteristics of thermal processing applications — manufacturers can apply higher-level analytics for more detailed insight. It also is possible to scale data to meet the varied needs of single-site or enterprise-wide operations.

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From the simplest use cases such as viewing asset data on a smartphone or laptop to more sophisticated applications such as sending real-time notifications when an alarm occurs, connected thermal process technologies can change the way process operations run and maintain vital thermal process systems. Image provided by Honeywell Thermal Solutions

Using Connected Control Technologies

Thermal processors can employ connectivity and information sharing to transform their operations. Connected devices and integrated systems can capture real-time process information to:

  • Improve asset productivity through a better understanding of the equipment.
  • Identify variability across production processes.
  • Establish remote monitoring and operational capabilities.
  • Implement manufacturing best practices.
  • Enhance safety and regulatory compliance.
  • Automate repetitive reporting to improve productivity.

Industrial heating operations can implement automation solutions focused on turning data into insight — from edge to enterprise.

For example, one solution combines configurable safety features with programmable logic in a single, modular burner control platform. The system reduces the footprint of control room panels and can be customized for nearly any combustion application relatively quickly. Instead of using separate controllers for different functions, users can purchase modules for combustion control and choose how to use them with simple wiring commands. With fewer assets to support and maintain, they can realize a lower total cost of ownership.

In conventional control systems, a control panel often contains a programmable logic controller (PLC) combined with separate safety devices such as burner controls. In this case, the safety devices are responsible for the operation and safety of critical equipment. Safety modules operate as discrete, self-contained safety controls.

Previously, data produced by safety devices was connected to whatever the control was doing. If the control function included communication, then the PLC captured and interpreted this information using specialized software.

In the latest generation of combustion control systems, all safety module status data and all non-safety control of safety modules are fully integrated into the programmable logic. The base module provides communication and user-programmable logic, while non-safety digital and analog I/O modules provide inputs and outputs for logic. The programmable logic can be used to create any non-safety features required by the equipment that the combustion control system is controlling. This allows an application designer to implement customized, differentiated features in a controller using a configurable touch-screen display.

Data Needs Visibility

Most maintenance managers can relate to the discomfort associated with handling critical thermal process failure and investigating potential causes after the incident. In many cases, the issues may require repairs and eventually cause potential unplanned downtime. To increase productivity, industrial operations are looking for ways to improve the visibility of asset and production issues.

What factory workers need is an effective way to view and share data before they get to the equipment. This includes mobility tools that enable them to receive real-time alerts when operating parameters exceed limits and track historical data to see when and why issues occurred.

In conclusion, advances in remote monitoring are freeing personnel from local equipment monitoring and utilizing facilities’ thermal process potential to drive performance and productivity by connecting people, assets and information across the enterprise.

From the simplest use cases such as viewing asset data on a smartphone or laptop to more sophisticated applications such as sending real-time notifications when an alarm occurs, connected thermal process solutions are changing the way process operations run and maintain vital thermal process systems. Rather than having to integrate, support and maintain purpose-built solutions for combustion control and monitoring, thermal processing operations can now be run more efficiently to optimize production and business results.