Process Control Building Blocks and Standards

Submitted by Chris Sullivan || Valin Corporation
In the industrial refining marketplace, process control building-block manufacturers of transmitters, valves, and flowmeters are positioning themselves to become single-source suppliers for their customers. Although the manufacturers' portfolios are attractive and support most engineering applications, the future desire of the marketplace is to convert to universal language protocols that communicate with the best-in-class building-block products in their applications.

What refineries really want are the best-in-class products that employ a universal language that will communicate with their legacy instrumentation to improve productivity and the bottom line. Universal language protocols may reduce process control building-block variable risk and increase process throughput. Customers are looking for their suppliers to become partners who help improve their processes, standardize communications protocols, and drive their profitability. Despite the demand for standardized communication protocols among manufacturers, both the manufacturers and end users face challenges when it comes to agreeing on a path.

The Pitfalls of Single-Source Suppliers
Before the Internet, business between manufacturers and customers was carried out between engineers and salespeople. Businesses received their information, parts, and application understanding from competing sales representatives. However, after the Internet began to take hold of the market, that relationship diminished due to the availability of online information and product offerings. Engineers and purchasing personnel found that they could choose what was best for their processes without a middleman.

Unfortunately, understanding the qualified products available in the market and where to find them took a great deal of time that the engineers didn't have. This brought back a rise in the relationship between engineers who were experts in their processes and salespeople who were experts in their markets and products. Refineries wanted a single-source supplier to take care of their product and process parts-buying, isolating the variety of products available to them. These suppliers became single-source and the only resource a refinery could use for process-control building blocks.

However, there are a few concerns with using a single-source supplier. The first is that the best-in-class product ideal for the application may not be on the refinery's approved vendor list, and therefore, unavailable for purchase to the single-source supplier. The second is that a single source prevents learning about better products that may be available to become qualified products. The third is that if a single source is unable to provide a product due to floods and natural disasters, the refinery has no alternative to replace the single-sourced product it needs. This can mean a serious loss of productivity and profits. Of course, pulling process control building blocks from multiple sources has an internal cost, but the improved process performance and uninterrupted process flow may outweigh the cost of finding out.

What is Best for the Consumer?

For obvious reasons, selecting best-in-class process instrumentation is what is best for the customer, but standardization is becoming more necessary for profitability. This is due to the difficulty of communicating between parts that are not from the same supplier. For example, an engineer might find a transmitter that works best with his or her process, but can't properly communicate with the much-older flowmeter already in the process because they are from two different suppliers. This requires the engineer to make a software upgrade in the process to compensate for the different language protocols.

The problem here is a software upgrade is essentially just a Band-Aid on the process, and doesn't allow it to run at maximum efficiency. Another concern is that with the attrition rate of older personnel retiring, the software upgrade employed may be outside the awareness or not understood by the new personnel inheriting the process. In a single application, this may not be a concern. However, in hundreds of applications it may be.

Making the Change

The challenges manufacturers must overcome to realize a universal protocol are enormous. Some refining customers have been making oil products since 1900. Oil refineries in today's marketplace are using legacy technology that has not been upgraded to 21st century standards because what they are using works for their current profitability models. For refining customers who want to upgrade their refinery's technical capability and make the investment, universal protocol is being requested to support their needs. This includes communicating to legacy instrumentation seamlessly, securely, and robustly. Manufacturers are being asked to consider universal protocols in their process control building-block strategies to bring these older refineries up-to-date. The challenges refinery engineers and procurement personnel have in making this transition are equally vast. Even though upgrading processes can be expensive, the reward for manufacturer and customer is increased product throughput and profitability.

Refining customers also need manufacturers to provide experience and knowledge of the customer's process in order to improve it. Manufacturers can provide this capability through their distributors. With standardization comes the risk of creating a commodity mentality in the marketplace.

To overcome this, distributors must provide good technical knowledge of their customers' processes including not only instruments they are providing, but a clear understanding of all available products on the market. Distributors now can become the resource of information, experience, and best-in-class products for their refining customers. A partnership can be created to strive toward universal protocol communication for process control building blocks and encourage the marketplace to continue to strive for that outcome. It is in the best commercial interest of all.

What is the Future for Standardized Communication?

Refinery customers always will ask, "How can a product help me make my process more efficient and profitable?" Cost management, unit performance, experience, and process knowledge, along with universal communication protocols, are all part of the answer. Manufacturers face the challenge of convincing their customers to upgrade processes with their products, and standardized communication among process control building blocks could give them an advantage. The refinery will be more inclined to invest and improve their process because the universal protocol language will make it easier and more efficient. Essentially, the customer is the market, and the market has decided that the next step it wants to take in employing process control building blocks is universal communication with manufacturers and distributors that can improve their processes and profit. Suppliers who provide this capability will have priority over those who do not.

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