Sean McDonagh, business manager, chemical at Siemens Industry, has outlined why adopting a condition monitoring system (CMS) can deliver benefits for UK chemical manufacturers seeking effective and efficient operating strategies, as well as looking to safeguard their futures.

The old adage “time is money” has never been more important to UK chemical manufacturers. Look at any company report and sustainability is at the forefront of their drivers, remaining a critical factor for the business if it is to maintain a competitive advantage and grow in the global market.

A key challenge for many manufacturers concerns investment. Do they, for example, look to invest in a managed whole life cycle strategy for their assets or, having made previous capital investments, continue to sweat assets to the point of failure increasing the risk of equipment outages, expensive downtime incidents and, ultimately, costly lost productivity?

For those following a course of ‘make do and mend’, damaged reputations, reduced profitability, missed delivery schedules, and potential closure, have, unfortunately, been the bitter experience for a number of UK chemical manufacturers who have fallen victim of not taking a holistic and long-term view.

Recognising such risks, the chemical sector is beginning to realise the benefit to be gained by adopting a whole lifecycle approach to assets, and are starting to take strategic operational investment decisions, aimed at increasing equipment and process data visibility and asset availability for the foreseeable future.

Condition monitoring systems are playing a central role in this approach, helping to deliver tangible benefits to underscore operational efficiency, plant maintenance, safety and energy reduction objectives.

Benefits of Condition Monitoring

High system availability is the most effective lever for increasing productivity. The less downtime, the better. This is why it is important to identify potential sources of error early and to perform scheduled maintenance at the right time within the production cycle. The benefits arising from such a strategy include the provision of greater transparency for the status of components and machines; increased productivity levels; reduced time and expense required for inspection and maintenance, and real time visualisation from the cloud.

Plant operators in all chemical industries consider increased availability and shorter downtimes to be the most effective lever toward increasing productivity.

Investigations have shown that downtimes are frequently the result of insufficient maintenance – despite the fact that maintenance is responsible for a significant portion of the lifecycle costs. Companies can avoid downtimes by implementing measures before problems occur and schedule such measures based on time or workload. Regular servicing work is an example of time-based measures with maintenance based on workload determined by the number of switching operations, operating hours or peak times.

Adopting condition monitoring strategies provides information on the remaining useful service life of critical components and machines, and condition based monitoring involves implementing maintenance measures only when the wear of the device or device parts has exceeded a certain limit. It has been shown in practice that companies can achieve optimum results when they combine different maintenance strategies in a smart way.

By creating models of the machine’s performance and then constantly comparing the data, customers can also look at achieving optimum performance for their asset. Support in the form of the Siemens cloud based visualisation cockpits can, for example, allow a customer to see asset performance remotely.

Application in a chemical process

With a well implemented CMS, the state of components subject to wear and tear, including motors, gear units & bearings, and other critical machine parts, can be continuously monitored.

The CMS should provide constant monitoring for the protection of machines and processes providing early detection of damage through vibration, loading stresses and temperature, whilst monitoring power consumption, flow and pressure data. Available statistics on the remaining life of the asset and energy wastage levels can significantly help to optimise service life of the units and facilitate improvements in maintenance planning.

Some of the typical data monitoring points beneficial in chemical manufacturing can include: automation and IT networks, conveyor belts, mechanical drive trains, centrifugal pump monitoring, pump cavitation, heat exchangers, control valves, process pipe work, instrumentation, motors, generators, fans and pumps. These are all asset areas that can benefit from a condition monitoring strategic approach.

Keeping assets performing effectively also makes good business sense. Thinking about daily operations costs, if a critical process fails and production is shut down, resulting costs can be in excess of £100,000, which is not uncommon. As important, associated environmental cleanup costs can also add to the bill, not to mention the negative impact upon a company’s reputation and brand. A chemical manufacturer that experienced a leak in a pipeline was forced to account for environmental cleaning costs in excess of 1m, making such occurrences a significant business risk and the need to avoid them a necessity.

With up to 50% of preventative maintenance investments deemed unnecessary, and with avoidable expenses potentially increasing up to 20%, there is a clear case for the benefit that condition monitoring of assets can deliver as it underpins a move from a preventative to a predictive maintenance strategy.

Solutions for condition monitoring

In the chemicals market, bulk, specialty or consumer manufacturers, all face similar challenges across a plant’s production, utility material management, and logistics areas. 

Implementing condition monitoring of a specific equipment type is a good start.  However, the vast potential to significantly enhance operational performance through a well planned fully integrated approach to IT, automation, electrical and mechanical equipment, will improve operational performance throughout the entire life cycle and should be considered essential best practice to fully maximise efficiencies.

Fully integrated technology platforms deployed with a proven maintenance station as part of the SCADA or DCS provides a view of the entire production process, with embedded reporting and trend data analysis tools providing key diagnostics and maintenance condition data. In essence, this provides the insight on which to base strategic decision-making. Such data is crucial for plant support teams, allowing them to plan and implement maintenance operations in an appropriate and timely manner.

Finally, running alongside the technology, companies also need to consider staff resources as a key asset. Increasingly, skilled engineering internal resources are becoming leaner and highly utilised, with analysis from the chemicals sector estimating that upwards of 50% of experienced engineering staff could retire over the next decade and leave the sector for good.

Chemical manufacturing operations need to assess their ongoing engineering and project management capacity to carry out audits, produce improvement reports and take on design responsibility.  Should they, for instance, seek to look outside the organisation for support from proven suppliers offering results-driven condition monitoring technologies and services to not only tackle current concerns but also safeguard the future?

It is a key question chemical manufacturers need to be considering today.