A German idea, with its origins among the future-thinking German engineers who want to see industry advance in line with technology, at its most basic level Industry 4.0 means going beyond the level of automation we’ve seen over the last couple of centuries and moving towards the computerisation of work and manufacturing.
Industry 4.0 will draw on information technologies in order to facilitate greater levels of data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes concepts and technologies like cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing.
The industrial gases business is already in the midst of a digital transformation throughout the supply chain. There are countless industrial and specialty gas plants around the world that are automated on some level. Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor technology are already deployed in remote plant monitoring and asset management technologies.
The challenge facing the industry is a many-splintered thing, from the level of investment to make to the projected returns on investment to the fundamental human factors to be considered in-between.
The Linde Group is among the forerunners in embracing automation and digitisation in the gases industry and tackling these challenges head-on, with the robotic technology behind its new $35m specialty gas facility upgrade in Sydney (Australia) just the latest regional step in advancing its operations globally.
Linde is also working with Siemens to implement a virtual training platform at its site in Pullach, Germany, which combines great utility with very high economy, as the latter explains here in an exclusive feature with gasworld.
Many industrial gas customers must be able to rely on the round-the-clock availability of the gases needed for production. As a highly regard worldwide partner of end-users, The Linde Group continually proves its process-technical competence in more than 4,000+ completed plant projects and the company keeps setting new standards in the operation of the plants.
For more than 10 years Linde Gas, part of the Linde Group, has been bundling the operation of globally distributed plants in so-called Remote Operation Centers (ROC). This concept has proven itself for Linde in the very competitive industrial gas market: engineering and operating know-how are focused in few locations, with processes standardised and optimised across several plants.
Linde thus achieves better availability and supply security. In addition to ROCs for air separation plants, the group also operates control centres for hydrogen and synthesis gas plants, so-called HyCO plants. Using steam reformation of natural gas, they produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, or both in combination.
It’s clearly a demanding business, and these demands are only increasing – requiring the technology, training and future-thinking to match.
Of more than 1,200 gas production locations in the world that are operated by Linde, around 10% are HyCO plants. The majority of these are connected to one of the four HyCO ROCs that Linde runs in the US, Asia, and Europe. Local laws, criticality, complexity, and customer requirements decide whether on-site synthesis gas plants are operated self-sufficiently or remotely connected to a ROC.
On average, more than 20 plants are operated by one ROC. For such an operating concept, suitable automation infrastructure and uniform solutions in the plants are decisive. The most stringent requirements come from issues concerning safety and plant integrity. The Linde Group has increasingly automated its plants for years and relies on Simatic PCS 7 for this purpose.
The process control system by Siemens supports remote access optimally and offers corresponding operating and monitoring functions, as well as network and communication technology with integrated IT security. The second factor for the efficient central operation is a high standardisation level, both for software and for hardware.
“In terms of automation technology, our connected plants are 90% at the same level. Otherwise our ROC concept would not work”, explained Florian Hang of HyCO Development at Linde.
“In the last years, advanced process control algorithms and innovations in the functional design resulted in a massive development of automated process control. Our approach benefits from this,” Hang continued.
The more complex controls reduce the need for manual intervention in the process and thus, Linde integrates more and larger plants into its ROC concept than before. “This makes the remote operation of on-site plants even more efficient, but also poses completely new challenges,” Hang’s colleague Sven Wawrzetz affirmed to gasworld. “As operating interventions become rarer, they tend to have a greater impact on the processes when they occur.”
“The interaction of individual control organs or switches is based on a high level of mathematical complexity the operators do not have to understand. But it is absolutely vital that they understand the connections.”
Plant simulator for operators
But how can you teach these connections? How can you train realistic operating interventions without endangering the real plant?
“Aviation has been leading the way for decades: flight simulators create realistic flight scenarios under completely safe conditions. Pilots can repeatedly train various challenges without ever endangering a single passenger,” Wawrzetz noted. “And according to studies, real hands-on training is up to 15 times more effective than on paper,” Hang added.
The automation market has a number of simulation tools. Linde Gas based its selection of a suitable solution for simulating HyCO plants on two main requirements. Firstly, it wanted to get as close as possible to real conditions at a reasonable price. Secondly, the company’s expertise in process technology and process automation should be used.
For its process planning and modelling, Linde uses UniSim, a simulation solution by Honeywell. Engineers use it to optimise stationary and dynamic processes. In terms of process automation and control technology, the company trusts in products from Siemens. This suggested the use of Simit, Siemens’ uniform platform for real-time simulation and emulation. “We wanted to create a solution that was as efficient as possible. So we decided on Simit”, explained Wawrzetz.
Simit – a cornerstone for the virtual training platform
When Hang and Wawrzetz collected their first design ideas for training simulators in 2014, the foundational framework was quickly agreed – UniSim, Simatic PCS 7, and Simit. Now they faced two further challenges.
On the one hand, an interface had to be expanded over which all systems were able to communicate with each other. In addition, the economy of their solution was being tested – to get an additional license for each control system, process modelling and simulation tool for every single simulated plant would have been far too expensive.
“We also wanted our simulator to be flexible enough to use for different plants”, explained Hang. The creation of a cloud-based platform solution was the optimal approach, especially since the virtualisation of the systems for the operation of the ROCs already covered quite a distance along the way to a centralised simulator. “When we noticed that the virtualisation of the process modelling could also provide good performance, we decided to create a central training simulator that could be accessed worldwide via a cloud solution,” Wawrzetz recalled.
They asked Honeywell and Siemens to help them create a software adapter to facilitate the communication between the process modelling tool and Simit. “It allows us to bring the training simulator to life using existing data. To achieve this, we utilised both the operating and monitoring interfaces already developed for a project and the control software responsible for the automation logic of the controllers and couple these to our process model with minimal effort”, Wawrzetz elaborates.
The entire system is operated on several servers by Linde Engineering, a division of Linde AG, at its headquarters in Pullach. It provides the virtual environment for training sessions – from the instructor station to the model computer. Participants access the system via the Linde Intranet.
Extension of applications
Currently, the virtual classroom is mainly used by employees in the ROCs, gasworld understands. More than 3,000 training hours have already been absolved and the feedback of the participants is always positive, Siemens explained.
Users can book training sessions in advance; the trainer then loads suitable plant simulations for the participants of the training event, and then implements the training in the local ROC.
In addition to start-up and shutdown scenarios, the participants mainly train for special incidents such as device failures, I/O errors, or abrupt process deviations. “Repeated training sessions counteract our natural tendency to forget things,” Hang enthused. “In addition, our plant simulator is increasingly used to train future operators.”
Further to expanding the selection of simulated plants – the first air separation plant into the simulator was integrated recently – Linde is understood to be interested in developing additional applications, and the potential benefits are not to be overlooked.
“At the moment we operate the platform purely internally with one license respectively for UniSim, Simatic PCS 7, and Simit. However, we could scale the system up at any time. At the moment we are testing first concepts for external uses”, encouraged Hang. “With this system we can give our customers the possibility to train their own personnel – even before starting up their plant and thus operate the plant efficiently from day one!”
This demonstrates another benefit of the simulation platform – as part of the development of a simulation model for a specific plant, the technology can also perform functional tests with Simit even before the plant starts up. Hang concluded, “At the control system level, this means that we deliver a system that is almost completely error-free. The time savings when starting up the plant are significant.”
The clever combination of simulation software and virtualisation helped Linde create a highly available and extremely flexible operator training platform which combines great utility with very high economy.
Evidently, the Industry 4.0 movement is coming to the gases industry in more ways than we first realise.