Simulation: Ensuring the Perfect Balance

Simulation technologies are being adopted at plants wanting to ensure thorough training while minimising risk. The benefits do not stop there, as Muriel Axford finds out.

Designing, building and running a modern chemical plant is a complex and costly undertaking. Coupled with hazardous process conditions and highly technical operating systems, confident and experienced plant operators are crucial.

Ensuring that plant operators are aware of the many scenarios that could arise in a chemical process facility, or indeed any large industrial plant, now involves the use of sophisticated plant simulation software. As well as an invaluable training tool, helping to ensure a process plant runs safely with tools such as dynamic simulation software also helps to reduce control room errors and keeps unplanned shutdowns to a minimum, providing cost savings, reducing any negative impact on the environment and importantly protecting life.

The need to minimise risk is behind the ongoing development of simulation software. The most recent additions to this area have come from US firm Invensys Operations Management, a division of Invensys, Honeywell and Emerson Process Management.

Invensys and the changing workforce

In the middle of September 2009 Invensys Operations Management made its virtual reality immersive training solution known as EyeSim commercially available. The system is said to use "familiar gaming and skill sets" that will appeal to employees new to the engineering and plant workplace as well as experienced engineers, according to Invensys Operations Management vice-president of advanced applications Tobias Scheele.

"The need to minimise risk is behind the ongoing development of simulation software."

"The increasing complexity of plants, combined with a changing workforce, demands next-generation tools that can safely and interactively train new operators and engineers without putting them, the community or the environment at risk," Scheele says.

"This system provides a stable, realistic environment for practicing routine operational and maintenance functions, as well as rarely performed volatile tasks such as plant shutdowns. In addition, using computer models of real equipment allows endless experimentation without ever taking the equipment offline."

It is the changing knowledge base that is of concern to many involved in the area of process safety. EyeSim is geared toward the chemical, energy, oil and gas and other process industries that are facing knowledge management, training and retention challenges brought on by an ageing and dwindling workforce.

"The loss of experienced workers and associated knowledge is increasing the risk of conducting safe, reliable and efficient plant operations," says Tom Fiske, senior analyst with ARC Advisory Group, speaking as Invensys unveiled its system.

"Traditional operator training simulators play a significant role in protecting knowledge assets, and these systems are evolving into increasingly more sophisticated simulators such as the new solutions from Invensys," Fiske adds. "Additionally, outside operators and other operational team members can use such simulators to provide more realistic and complete training experiences, or to assist in other asset management and operational activities."

Honeywell helps with design

Other leading players in the field of simulation technology include Honeywell Process Solutions, part of Honeywell's Automation and Control Solutions, and Emerson Process Management.

"The loss of experienced workers and associated knowledge is increasing the risk of conducting safe, reliable and efficient plant operations."

Honeywell's UniSim software has found widespread application across many industrial sectors. The software can be used for plant design, operation and optimisation.

At the beginning of 2009 Swiss Casale Group, involved in the design and refurbishment of chemical facilities, said that it would supply Honeywell process simulation solutions to its customers.

Casale Group, which was responsible for pioneering ammonia synthesis in the 1920s said: "The Honeywell technology will be applied to the design of new chemical plants around the world, helping our customers remove production bottlenecks and optimise their assets. As a process licensor, simulation is a strategic resource for the design, maintenance and optimisation of our customer's chemical facilities around the world."

US chemical producer Lyondell Chemical Company has also incorporated Honeywell technology in its production plants. As its workforce aged and moved into retirement Lyondell used Honeywell's solutions to train new employees and prepare them to deal with unexpected situations.

Newer facilities incorporating UniSim include methanol plants located in Oman and Trinidad, which have been in operation since 2007 and 2005 respectively. Both facilities were built by MAN Ferrostaal, which procured Honeywell's system for both units.

Emerson keeps costs down

While training, preparing for the unexpected and keeping costs down is key to the use of simulation technology, protecting human life and the environment is perhaps the most compelling factor for its use. This is most evident where a facility may be located in a densely populated area and where strict environmental controls are enforced.

Con Edison, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison, one of the US's largest investor-owned energy companies, partnered with Emerson Process Management to provide simulation technology for its East River Repowering Project.

"Protecting human life and the environment is perhaps the most compelling factor for simulation's use."

The combined-cycle facility is located in Manhattan, New York, US and maintains a reliable and reasonably priced steam and electricity supply for customers in New York City. The location means that Consolidated Edison must adhere to the environmental constraints such as emissions levels.

Using Emerson's Scenario simulation technology engineers from Con Edison and Emerson worked to configure a Scenario solution, which comprises actual plant control software and duplicate workstations that mimic the East River control room.

Scenario is used extensively to continually train operators as well as optimising East River's processes for improved efficiency and reliability.

Further plant tuning, as well as the addition of any new equipment, can be tested and confirmed using the simulation technology before integration into the live system.

Undoubtedly the development and use of simulation technology is costly. For any process plant, maintaining such a system along with ongoing training requires significant budgets. But the costs associated with unexpected plant shutdowns are potentially even more significant, and as such plant operators are seeking ever-more sophisticated systems as they look to minimise costs and importantly maintain a safe working environment.