Picture the process

For the men and women who operate process plants the control room is their window to the facility. It is essential that they are provided with the correct tools to accurately monitor the process and communicate effectively with their colleagues. Anna Mitchell explores how audiovisual technology fits into the process.

In the process industries millions of euros of feedstock are handled by process plants that themselves are worth billions. It is essential that the control room, effectively the brains of an operation, provides its operatives with the resources and an environment that will allow them to undertake their critical jobs. Audiovisual technology plays an instrumental part in these control rooms, visualising plant operations, feeding video in from the field and providing vital communication links.

Dave McMahon, of Dubai headquartered audiovisual integrator Almoe AV Systems has worked in the control room area long enough to remember the days of CRT cubes. He thinks technology has made his job a lot easier since then and along the way has improved life for control room operatives.

“As far as displays, the progression, has been from rear projection systems, through plasma, LCD, and now increasingly LED based solutions,” he explains. “One of the challenges of cube based display solutions, has always been finding the space in which to implement them, particularly in retrofit situations. We really like Christie’s new automated sliding rail system, and are specifying it on forthcoming projects.”

Claude E Wells, managing director of Saudi Media Systems and Jim Glosser, the company’s principle consultant for control rooms who boasts more than 30 years in the industry, agreed that audiovisual technology provided valuable contribution for operations.

“This is where these guys live,” explains Wells. “The environment is very important to them, they want to have something that is livable, that they enjoy going into even though it’s like walking into a cave. They want a place that is light and open, that provides for their human creature needs and overcomes operator fatigue. With the latest technologies we’re able to go to brighter displays, have full room lighting – nothing is dimmed down to keep the operators alert.”

Wells argues that it’s necessary to keep the operators happy to improve plant safety. Operators will often be required to sit in the control room for eight hours a day and if they are tired or stressed they are likely to miss important alarms or react slowly to emergencies. “For a process everything is great as long as it doesn’t change,” adds Wells. “For an operator staring at a screen, that can be a stress in itself”.

Videoconferencing equipment is also becoming evermore important within process control rooms. Sveinung Boga, technical manager at Norway’s Viju believes this will help solve the acute skills shortage that most process industries currently face. “Specialists can be brought into a control room via videoconferencing. We’re also setting up facilities to enable teams in support centres to provide expertise to multiple sites. Often the largest cost is to have people off-shore and it’s not cost-effective to provide the same skills on each platform. Using videoconferencing we can centralise the skills in one on-shore location.”

“Another exponential growth sector for Almoe has been the integration of videoconferencing and streaming systems into control room solutions,” agrees McMahon. “It’s important to provide our clients an integrated visual communications solution from within their control rooms. Not only do they need to display process information, but the ability to ‘Window’ or ‘PIP’ in an expert on the problem, from a remote location, is vital.”

Wells says video streaming isn’t just used for videoconferencing purposes, explaining that its very useful in pipeline surveillance. “There you have a lot of video that is bought along the fibre that runs parallel with the pipeline. Previously it was coming in as analogue and would be available in a separate security room or on a couple of monitors scattered around the control room. Now, by streaming, it’s available directly at the workstation in front of the operator or up onto the wall and it can be allocated to multiple locations.

“The fibre is installed throughout the plant for the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system and it can be used for high-speed IP traffic. With IP you can carry voice, video and data simultaneously along the same pathway so its open to more applications that can come back in from the field.”

Wells says it is usual for the control room upgrades to be driven primarily by the upgrades to the SCADA system and the SCADA vendors will specify control rooms. “Most plants are fairly conservative in the technology they bring into the control room,” he says. “They want to ensure it’s rock solid, it’s tried, it’s tested, it’s proven. It offers dual redundancy and 99.99999 level of guaranteed non-faults. That’s much more important to them than having every bell and whistle.”

Process industries, like much else, took a battering in 2008 and as oil prices fell the squeeze spread far and wide. Explaining the effect the financial crisis had on control installations Wells says: “The control room business is divided into new construction and new development. Existing control rooms are being upgraded to change to workstation based operations requiring flat panel displays. Furthermore traditional mimic boards are being replaced by large screen digital displays using projection and video walls. They require a lot more interactivity between what is outside and what is inside the control room. Because these kind of upgrades are not major capital expenditures they have continued. Furthermore they serve to make the plant more efficient and there is direct return on investment from the renovations.

“However,” he continues, “there have been some delays in opening up new fields in the oil and gas sector. That investment has been held back, but we’re talking about multi-billion dollar projects.” Things are looking good for the next fiscal year with Wells claiming that large new fields are set to open in Saudi Arabia. “For us that will show up in maybe two or three years because the control room will be bought on at the punctuation point of the development. We’re not looking for immediate business from these developments but, in the meantime, there is plenty of ongoing renovation and upgrade work. In a recent project with Saudi Aramco we upgraded 45 control rooms.”

Boga also says that the financial situation caused some delays in “the final go” for projects but explains different companies handled the challenges in various ways. “Some companies see audiovisual equipment as a means to reduce costs. They invest equipment such as videoconferencing which can reduce the amount of operators, particularly ones with specialised skills, that are required. There’s increasing demand for personal videoconference systems to be integrated into the PC.”

For the integrators that are involved in control room projects a process industry boom has been good news. In particular, the oil and gas giants have eagerly lapped up increasingly sophisticated display solutions, utilised video technologies and implemented videoconferencing systems. As the events of 2008 shook the market some projects were put on hold but audiovisual technology still triumphed in many areas as a valuable investment that offers a tangible return.

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