Are you smarter than your field devices?
Are you smarter than your field devices?

Are you smarter than your field devices?

Cloud-connected, digital field devices have arrived with a broader value proposition than their legacy counterparts, but it's still all about building a business case.

Across the industrial economy, the move to digital, cloud-based systems is on. The rise of inexpensive sensors coupled with remote monitoring and control, and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) is set to disrupt businesses in both process and discrete manufacturing industries. Even so, would-be early adopters still must make a compelling business case for substantial capital expenditures to replace what is essentially not broken.

There are market forces driving the move to digital, connected devices. One of the most visible is the aging workforce within industrial sectors. As experienced field technicians retire, they take with them experience and institutional memory that cannot be readily replaced. New workers must train on myriad tools, and they won't stay in their jobs as long as their predecessors, making it less likely they will ever amass the same level of familiarity with the systems they work on.

Digital, connected field devices that support remote monitoring allow field techs to do more with fewer people because they can access both equipment and experts in disparate locations. Smart devices come with a host of other benefits, but theywill not simply appear as soon as the instruments are installed. Realising value from digitalisation investments requires realistic expectations and a value proposition comprised of multiple use cases.

A tale of two device classes
Adoption of digital field devices is not uniform, especially when comparing sectors of the economy. Water agencies and food and beverage manufacturers have been early movers in the application of connected digital equipment, in part because the cost of failure is so high (e.g., threats topublic health). Being able to track ingredients from farm to finished product, and water quality from source to end user, is extremely valuable.

The energy and chemicals sectors, by contrast have not been as quick to adopt digital, even though their relative capacity for large capital projects might appear to make them prime candidates. To understand the differences between industries in their approach to digitalisation, it's important to first understand the nature of the field devices we're talking about.

Some devices, like gas analysers for example, are valuable capital assets costing upwards of $100,000 that will require twice that amount in operations and maintenance costs over a 10-year lifespan. These devices require-often by law-regular calibration and maintenance checks. Should one fail in the field, the cost of the ensuing downtime can be steep.

The criticality of bigger-ticket devices like analysers means owners are more likely to splash out for on-site service from the manufacturer, if only to ensure compliance with applicable regulations. The risk associated with doing otherwise is seen as too high.

Instrumentation, on the other hand, refers to a family of lower cost sensors (typicallyless than $1,000, though they can cost more) and other field devices that are seen more as commodity items. Users don't worry about maintenance because they have spares on site to replace any that fail. The potential impact to ongoing operations is relatively small.

However, when you consider the hundreds or thousands (or more) field devices in use at any large industrial facility, the possibility for a disruption in production due to a device failure becomes more immediate and the implications more concerning. But if the answer is to go digital and remote, how does that work?

What "remote, connected" looks like: device validation
Field device validation involves checking the health and accuracy of the equipment in question on a periodic basis. Traditionally, this has meant an on-site inspection performed by the manufacturer or authorised service provider. If any problems are uncovered that require recalibration of the unit, a qualified service tech would be dispatched to do the work on site.

Digital devices connected to asset management systems present an appealing alternative by allowing field techs to do much of their work remotely, verifying devices in distant locations and flagging only those that need calibration for a site visit. Modern field devices are also easy to install as they don't require retrofits to work with older equipment, and theyconnect to enterprise systems via industry standard protocols.

This is where the business case for digital field devices deepens because the data these devices provide can be used to drive condition-based maintenance programs and reduce downtime. With the high cost of disruptions in many industries (e.g., in the paper industry it's around $100,000/hour), it becomes clear that the real value of this new generation of instruments lies not so much in the devices themselves (e.g., lowering total cost of ownership), but what they enable businesses to do.

Value-stacking in the field
Remote device validation is only one example of the improvements that digital, connected devices can deliver to any industry with a substantial number of i/o points in the field. This section provides brief summaries of the range of benefits that modern devices can provide.

Cost savings: Connected field devices' first cost is soon outweighed by the savings they generate in reduced O&M. A major component of maintenance spending is on-site work, which can also mean downtime. So, reducing the frequency and duration of on-site maintenance with remote monitoring and predictive maintenance can help reduce overall opex spending. In addition, data from field devices can help identify opportunities to boost process performance.

Safety: Smart devices allow operators to see when an instrument is faulty or about to fail and to act accordingly to avoid a disruption. Analytic tools can evaluate operational data coming from the device(s) to spot non-standard process conditions and warn operators of any deviations that might indicate a safety risk. Remote monitoring and control also allows personnel to interact with devices without putting themselves in a potentially dangerous area.

Efficiency: Most industries are looking for ways to reduce resource consumption and cut waste. The data generated by digital field devices represents a wellspring of insight to identify potential efficiency improvements.

Resource deployment: As noted in the validation example above, there is value associated with limiting human intervention in the field to only those cases where it is necessary. Connected field devices can also give technicians advance notice of what the issue(s) might be and what tools they will need to fix the problem. In light of the staffing issues noted earlier, another benefit of modern devices is the ease with which they can be setup, used and maintained and how readily their data output can be accessed and interrogated. In the event expert advice is needed, today's instruments can also simplify the process of obtaining supplier assistance, even providing for pro-active contact from the manufacturer to address newly discovered issues before a failure occurs.

Maintenance: In addition to streamlining device verification, connected devices enable ongoing predictive maintenance to identify and eliminate potential faults before they happen rather than relying on reactive maintenance practices. As noted earlier, this has less to do with the health of any particular device and more to do with the criticality of that device to the process as a whole.

Data collection, management and analysis: Data-or more specifically the information derived from it-is the currency of any business. Digital, connected field devices generate multiple data streams that can be used for many back-end applications.

When applied across the plant, the control operator gains a holistic view of instruments and analysers together via a single interface. This allows users to share information more easily with other parts of the organisation and brings the benefits of monitoring to commodity instruments.

The extent to which a plant operator can realise value in multiple areas will have a strong impact on the business case for deploying smart field devices. Fortunately, many of these benefits are interrelated, with investments aimed at one objective producing results in others as well.

What should we expect from today's smart devices?
Given the potential of this technology, what should industrial facilities look for on their digitalisation journey? What is the new normal for field devices?
First, since their fundamental value lies in their connectivity, they should be able to update firmware and software remotely and should ease on-site work with tools for engineering, commissioning and maintenance. They should be equipped with some level of self-diagnostic capability and be able to flag potential problems.

As costs continue to decline, many instruments are beginning to incorporate multiple functions. For example, coriolis mass flow meters can capture temperature and electromagnetic flow meters can also detect gas bubbles in the measured material. This consolidation will help bring costs down and will produce still more data that can be used for analytics and various enterprise applications. This is critical because creating new applications for field data expands the "market" for the device's output and allows a wider range of users to derive value from the investment.

What's next?
ABB expects to market a fully automated cloud-based solution for field devices within the next two years. This will set the standard for users across a variety of industries, but the transition will be a gradual one for most users. Moving forward, "virtual sensors" that calculate a given value based on other reading will bring additional functionality without the cost and disruption of installing new hardware.

Predictive emissions monitoring systems (PEMS) are one example. Software-based solutions provide reliable, accurate, real-time emission estimationsfor CO2, NOx, SO2, CO and other compounds using mathematical models that draw on process parameters already being collected (pressure, temp, flow, etc.) Virtual sensors can act as the primary monitoring source or as a backup to traditional instrumentation. As backup, PEMS can identify possible malfunction (i.e., if divergence appears between it and the primary source) and provide an alternative measurement during maintenance on primary analysers. Virtual devices also use no consumables or spare parts and are by definition maintenance-free.

Advances in field device technology, data capture and analytic tools are making more and more functionality available to more users as costs continue to come down. With wider application, industrial operations in process and discrete industries alike stand to benefit from lower O&M costs, reduced downtime and greater visibility across their operations.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya, HUB Digital Leader - South Asia, ABB Ltd.
He is a HUB Digital Leader with diversified functional experience in product life cycle management, strategic marketing, operations and lean. Successful in designing and executing strategies, he has been instrumental in conceptualising and bringing to market new innovative digital products and solutions, which deliver topline and bottom line impact to customers.

Related Stories

Indian Cement Review