Plant operations were automated to minimise manual intervention
Published on : Wednesday 05-04-2023
B Sai Ramesh, Head, Chennai Engineering Division.
For operating a plant, Instrumentation is a very crucial element and yet young engineering entrants find other disciplines more enticing. What would be your suggestions for making Instrumentation more attractive for bright minds?
All of us know, Process Operations takes the lead in the operating plant, as Production is the key. Any loss in production, operations look for the scapegoats and hence in production plants Automation/Instrumentation engineers have to wait for the shutdowns to attend any instrumentation related issues/maintenance. Normally, in a Petrochemical, Petroleum or Fertilizer plant, we coordinate with the Operations-in-Charge to attend to the maintenance of the critical items.
To create this awareness on criticality of instrumentation, we conduct training for the newcomers, not only the critical operational requirements but also the entire process including the safety features of the plant. We ask them to prepare notes and get it cleared by the training in charge. This will help all newcomers to get familiar with all the items in the plant (including Mechanical & Machinery items). We normally ask the trainees to work with the models/simulators so that it is more interesting to the bright minds.
What are the typical challenges faced by young engineers in the process industry? What are the key learnings?
Normally young engineers feel that the operating plants do not provide adequate opportunity to learn. They think it is monotonous. It is always better to rotate the job functions so that they get better exposure when working in different job functions. Key learning is ‘Job Rotation’. That is the reason management looks at the revamps, modernisation as well as addition of new plants, where the people get better exposure.
Instrument engineers need the exposure of not only Instrumentation subject, but Electrical, Mechanical, Machinery as well as piping design specifications, etc. To be a very good Instrument engineer, his complete knowledge of the process is absolutely needed. Also, associations like ISA, IEC, etc., provide such opportunities to upskill the youngsters.
How do you describe the interplay of Automation and Instrumentation in a process plant? Is there a major difference in this regard between the Energy sector and other sectors?
Normally some people describe Instrumentation as an overall entity and Automation as a specific process within Instrumentation, by which we control the process. Normally automation could be discrete so that any issue we can stop and take over and operate manually. Maybe there is a loss of production until the automatic systems are back online.
In my view, there is a major difference in the Energy sector and other sectors such as Automobile or component manufacturing, etc., and it is time to bring the process back to its original levels. In a Process plant it may take a few hours to a few days to bring the process back to its original state. In the Automobile sectors, etc., it is much less. Also Cost of Loss in Production is high in Process units compared to the other sectors.
Can you share any one of the critical control systems you designed in your career which you feel important?
As an engineer who started his career in design, construction and startup and commissioning, I think we contributed when we executed a Pharma Plant along with my process counterpart in the sequence of operation of the Fermenters. The licensor could only provide the description of the process. We had to prepare the block diagram of the operations and then prepare the control system and operational sequence for each block. It had few manual operations, few semi-automatic and few automatic controls. We could design the entire sterilisation systems, fermentation operations as well as controlling the heating and cooling sequences along with the agitator speed controls. We need to design the control system for the temperature control of the fermenters which had the limpet coil in which we had to admit steam, normal water, tempered water and finally chilled water. It also included operation of many valves from trickle to max flow. Please note it is not one fermenter, but there were six of them, producing one a day.
I think that as an Instrument engineer, we did design a very robust system.
How has the process industry evolved during the last three decades and the transition from analog to digital era?
The process industry has changed a lot in the last 3 decades. It has improved in terms of the technology, specific consumptions, automation as well as in safety of operations of the units. For example, you may observe the current capacities of refineries, fertiliser plants, etc., have increased up to three fold.
Plant operations were automated to minimise manual intervention. Also predictive maintenance has been implemented with strong digitalisation efforts by the companies. The signatures of valves, pumps and machinery are being continuously monitored to keep the plant operations going on seamlessly. There are exceptions in a few plants that are manual labour intensive, where we could now see automatic loading, stacking as well as billing systems.
Digitalisation also helped us in production planning, product mix based on the demand and including raw material sourcing. Having said that, the basic control systems remain in analogue mode, encompassed by the digital systems.
How has the entire process from concept to commissioning changed with emerging technologies providing new tools for design and simulation and modelling?
Due to the new digital systems, the technologies have also improved providing safe, digitalised plants. We start with the basic process, the simulations have improved drastically. Now the mechanical design of equipment has also improved due to the newer design software so that the margins are kept just adequate. The machinery operations were improved with the control systems, and the packages are also being designed and constructed with proper design criteria. The piping design, 3D modelling tools help us to construe the entire plant in advance and ensure maintainability during the engineering stage itself. With the advent of digital communications (audio, video surveillance), we could secure the entire plant.
If you look at the Instrumentation alone, we have tools to create the database, doing calculations, sizing, data sheet preparation, creating instrument schedules, the cable schedule, wiring schedules, JB wiring modules, marshalling system design and finally loop checking and commissioning. Instrument engineers now participate in Hazop, Hazid as well as SIL reviews and model reviews, and ensure the Instrumentation requirements are fully taken care of, including maintenance safety.
We can say slowly we are moving towards digital plants. The technology providers, EPCs construction contractors and the clients are well equipped to achieve the same.
There are fewer Greenfield projects nowadays. Expanding an older plant brings about an interplay of new and old technology elements. How do you evaluate Indian system integrators and consultants to master this challenge?
Due to the new environmental regulations, operability, maintainability and market conditions, we are compelled to modernise our old plants. Modernisation, capacity augmentation, product mix and quality requirements are always challenging. We observe the documentation is either not available or very minimal, and the quality of design inputs was not good and getting the plant operation data is another challenge. We have to go hand in hand with the old technology provider (if available) otherwise it is really impossible to achieve the desired results. In my experience as a project person, we have to be prepared for newer requirements every day as we progress as fouling of existing drains, cable trenches, process drains, foundations, etc., and to modify the designs to suit the site conditions.
We use to mark in P&IDs few concepts, say,
1. Demolition items (foundations, structures, equipment, piping, valves, instruments, etc.)
2. Modification (refurbished items), and
3. New items, etc., to systematically approach the challenges and minimise the surprises.
Having said that, it is fully dependent on the correctness of the data and information provided by the owner, technology providers and the company which does the feasibility report.
I can say that in India, we have few highly skilled consultants, system integrators and EPC companies, who can execute successfully; but the constraints could be project schedules and the correctness of inputs and the validation of the same.
Having more than 30 years of experience in automation, what is your message to the new generation of automation professionals?
My message to the new generation of automation engineers is as follows:
1. Deep learning of the process is the priority
2. Should possess knowledge of the entire plant
3. Getting associated with the professional societies such as ISA, IEEE, IEC, etc., to upgrade your knowledge and sharing is also beneficial to both.
4. Always understand the need of the operations and always keep the safety, security and environmental impact of the system being suggested.
5. Always ask your management for a Library in your plant/company to be upgraded in the knowledge space.
Do you wish to share any particular project, close to your heart?
I learned many things in each project. As an EMS trainee I did a marketing study of Complex fertilizers in 1982-83 and recommended to the management on promoting the extra 15% of Sulphur in FACTAMFOS and the same was implemented in 1986-87 in addition to many other marketing recommendations. I was also responsible for the implementation of SPEC 200 split architecture for the first time in India in 1984-86. I have also worked from concept to commissioning of the entire Instrumentation systems with UOP technology. I also did my M.Tech Project using MS Access, prepared the Instrument schedule, data sheets and specifications and reports in 1988.
In SPIC SMO we have executed Ammonia modernisation, SPIC Pharma, DCDA Conversion of SA Plant, Chlor-Alkali Project, PO/PG Polyol plant, ONGC Gas gathering stations, effluent treatment plants, SFCL ammonia urea relocation (stopped after 60% due to the feasibility.
In Technip, many challenging, first of its kind projects were executed, in terms of size and complexity, including as PMC.
B Sai Ramesh is currently heading the Chennai Engineering Division as well as working as IOC Engineering Coordinator. A former SVP Projects at Technip India Limited, he is DVP – ISA APAC, and has 39 years of experience in oil and gas and petrochemicals, heavy chemicals, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, in basic, FEED and design, detailed engineering, project management, engineering management including that as Dy Project Director in PMC services.
Endowed with excellent leadership qualities, B Sai Ramesh established estimation formats for the onshore engineering and benchmarking of discipline man hours for detailed engineering of onshore/offshore projects. He has varied experience in dealing with international and Indian clients; has excellent organising, communication, presentation and analytical skills; exposure in HSE, Quality and BSC including RMS has an added advantage; handled all discipline leads in terms of quality, productivity as well as coordination interdisciplinary coordination, Project control, project management; and takes care of the profitability and cost control.
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