It’s becoming more and more common to hear about the Internet of Things (IoT), a proposed development of the internet in which everyday objects have the power to send and receive data through network connectivity. It’s touted to be the next bearer of the industrial revolution following the steam engine, electrical power and computers.

In the industrial gas industry, applying IoT to the production of air separation gases is about to take hold in a serious way. Although cryogenic separation is a mature technology, IoT is expected to contribute to software by means of improving both security servicing and personnel training.

Industrial plants can apply IoT to simulation technology, which is used to discover problems in equipment and systems in advance by applying information collected from ‘soft sensors’ to a unique statistical model.

This method is already being used in petrochemical plants with some in the industrial gas industry believing that it could be even more effective in production of combustible gases – which faces potentially hazardous explosions should the reaction proceed too quickly – compared to cryogenic separation.

In the near future, it is anticipated that IoT will be used to enable various sensors to gauge temperatures, pressures and flow rates, collect information through networks and then analyse the information. Eventually, it is thought IoT applications will actually replace physical operators to monitor gas production.

Transition period

The utilisation of IoT in plants is now in a transition period but it will be important to foster a balance with current methods.

Increasing the application of IoT to produce air separation gases is on the rise, with Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation (TNSC) planning to apply the IoT to operator training simulation, whilst Air Water also plans to apply it to its remote batch monitoring operations.

TNSC has unveiled plans to apply IoT to its Operator Training Simulator for air separation units (ASUs), which will be used to practically train employees.

Air Water also plans to use IoT at its Remote Control Support Centre starting from April this year. Both companies will evaluate the value of using IoT in its operations going forward.

TNSC currently uses a distributed control system (DCS) in the majority of its plants to connect measuring devices for flow rates, pressures, purities, temperatures and other parameters to computers in a control room. This network then monitors the sites through the data that is collected.

The system accumulates data 24/7 from measuring devices placed within the plants and produces the results in graphs. If abnormal values that exceed pre-set ranges are detected, the programme triggers an alarm to alert an employee to action. Plant capabilities are affected by temperature so the data is stored by season to help monitor trends.

data analysis concept

In parallel with DCS monitoring operations, workers patrol inside the plants and carry out inspections to oversee the plant equipment that is not covered by the DCS. The possibility of these inspectors using wearable cameras in beginning to be introduced in order to communicate more efficiently with the control room.

Daiji Nakajima, General Manager of the Gases Production Technology Department at the Onsite and Plant Division at TNSC, said that although the company’s current system enables real-time monitoring where said monitors are installed, he feels that some form of solution is also necessary in areas without measuring devices where the workers have prevented accidents by using rule of thumb.

He went on to say that there would be advantages of using soft sensors if they enabled areas within the plant to be visually monitored by employees more consciously. He revealed that TNSC is currently studying the development and implementation of systems for smaller equipment as a starting point for this theory.

The Internet of Things – Future opportunities in gases

The precision of the system increases as the data accumulates. TNSC has started to use the data they have already collected with its DCS system to achieve optimum plant operation. This allows the system to assume the role of using soft sensors so it can predict and prevent problems that may occur in the future.

Daisuke Sekigawa, Manager of Gases Production Technology at the Onsite and Plant Division, highlighted that whilst the introduction of DCS has proceeded and initial data has been collected, the technology to analyse the data is still in the transitional phase.

He added that TNSC is not relying too heavily on the system as it is being implemented with the intent to achieve a balance between IoT introduction and physical monitoring.

Experience

Fellow industrial gas company Air Water has been operating the first ‘Gas Total System’ in Japan. In operation since April 2016, it performs 24-hour batch monitoring of the company’s 230 plants around the North Pacific rim country from its Remote Monitoring and Support Centre in Sakai, Osaka.

The Gas Total System collects data for flow rates, pressures, temperatures and other parameters from measuring devices with the trends displayed on graphs. It shows everything from plant status to gas supply amounts and measuring device maintenance management, enabling a rapid support system.

To achieve this system, Air Water maximised the unification of its plant specifications, standardised plant equipment by series and increased its efficiency – all results stemming from its corporate policies. In addition, Air Water Plant Engineering and Air Water Maintenance were merged last year to provide enhanced communication from plant production through maintenance.

Air Water plant

Source: Air Water

Air Water plant

On the whole, plant monitoring is carried out by four or five employees, with an experienced worker posted as plant manager and the other staff members hired locally. In this instance, Air Water’s Remote Monitoring and Support Centre plays a major role in in allowing roles for employees without expertise in the industry.

Koji Tanaka, General Manager of Operations Management and Quality Assurance of the Industrial Company, implied that the lack of available experienced workers has become obvious over the year. He continued to say that experienced workers can handle unexpected problems based on their own experiences, whilst younger staff members only have knowledge from manuals in the beginning and are unable to proritise their responses to problems. Therefore, he said that trend monitoring must be improved.

In terms of the viability of using IoT under these operating conditions, Tanaka said that monitoring can be improved to no end if companies are willing to invest the money, but he also highlighted that disturbances in ASUs are limited so it is often difficult to assume the occurrence of the unexpected.

He concluded by saying that the ultimate question is how to achieve sufficient monitoring with minimum investment and, as a result, Air Water’s current stance is to centralise monitoring operations at its Remote Monitoring and Support Centre and only introduce IoT if it makes sense.