Process Industry: Digitalisation can support process safety ambitions

The chemical industry has worked hard to build its reputation as one of the safest around. Nonetheless, infamous incidents over the years mean that it is never far from the safety spotlight.  From the Milford Haven refinery accident in 1994 which injured 26 people and resulted in a refinery re-build cost of over $75 million, to other catastrophic accidents in Seveso in Italy or Bhopal in India, it is clear that if something goes wrong at a chemical plant, the consequences can be devastating.

It is why process safety is vital.

The removal of any major chemical process safety incidents ultimately allows a company the freedom to manage its business without the interference of government regulators, litigation and adverse public opinion.  Focussing on process safety and negating the possibility of injuries to people, major property loss and business interruption will result in the creation of positive business value.

With the adoption of digitalisation – the technology focus behind Industry 4.0 - promising a quantum leap in terms of benefits to productivity, flexibility and quality, it is vital to understand how it can influence even higher standards of process safety performance for the chemical sector, and further enhance best practice to help mitigate any potential problems.

The advantages of digitalisation adoption, the use of advanced technologies and what form it takes, will inevitably differ from one industry to another.

Discrete manufacturing benefits include collaboration between cyber physical systems; using the internet of things (IoT) and the internet of services to adopt digitalisation across the whole value chain leading to increased production flexibility and better productivity performance.

For process industries - the chemical sector in particular, the emphasis is slightly different.  Digitalisation for process involves the integrated engineering and integrated operation of process plants across the whole plant life-cycle, but also incorporates topics such as simulation through the use of  ‘digital twins’ and utilising Big Data to inform better strategic decision-making. 

Integrated engineering, operation and simulated ‘digital twins’

From the ‘virtual’ world, where integrated engineering can be supported through a cloud-based platform and operating system, areas such as data analytics and asset performance management can be married to the ‘real’ world of integrated operation, courtesy of secure connectivity, preventative maintenance regimes and the use of digitally enhanced products.  Such integration offers the potential for improving safety by reducing the scope for systematic errors throughout the lifecycle.

Sitting within this connected virtual and real world, the simulated-based concept of the digital twin can significantly help address safety verification and validation requirements, along with underpinning essential training programmes for operation and maintenance.

A digital twin can be used to thoroughly test the automation layer including the SIS. Simulation is not new, but the ability to auto-generate the simulation from a common data model helps avoid costly and time consuming mistakes. 

Verification testing of the digital twin uses the same code as that which will eventually run in the SIS.  Of course, the validation of the safety system will still need to be undertaken ‘in the real world’ when the SIS is hooked up to the physical equipment, but effective verification and validation using a digital twin can help reduce the time overall.

Ultimately, the digital enablement of integrated engineering and operation offers a number of advantages to the chemical plant operator.  They include: lifecycle plant management with a holistic tool landscape, a common data model to shorten times to market, increased efficiencies courtesy of simulation and testing technologies, optimised operations based on high plant and process transparency and availability thanks to today’s digital twin technology.

Turning big data into smart data

The proliferation of industrial data volumes has enhanced both the level and depth of business insight in recent years, but we are still on the cusp of leveraging its true potential for maximum effect.   The key lies in creating true connectivity between the eight billion devices currently connected to the internet to drive the acquisition of knowledge and assist industrial enterprises.

Increased digitalisation within a chemical plant operation can facilitate the ease of data collection, analysis and use.  It can significantly improve a chemical plant operator’s ability to consolidate data across disparate plant systems into the cloud and help remove the difficulties of dealing with silos of data.

Big or smarter data has the real potential to contribute to process safety in a number of areas such as supporting plant reliability and asset integrity, steady state process control, process optimisation, accident investigation, delivering the collation of leading indicators for process safety, as well as accessing available data from maintenance systems and incidents to better promote future process safety. 

Siemens MindSphere open cloud platform offers a solid foundation for new, data-based business models for chemical plants.  Developed collaboratively by Siemens, OEMs, industrial users and developers, it offers the ideal platform for data-based digital transformation, regardless of company size.

From the asset transparency and analytic insights offered by MindApps, to an open interface that allows for the development of customer specific apps, as well as ‘plug and play’ connectivity with Siemens products, MindSphere is already assisting many industrial users connect the virtual and real worlds in a cyber-secure way, and help turn data into smart data to drive tangible business value.

Remember cyber security

Finally, while digitalisation promises many benefits such as improved productivity, reduced time to market, improved product quality, and enhanced process safety, the additional level of integration across the plant lifecycle, and between its various stakeholders, brings with it added challenges for cyber security by arguably increasing the attack surface even further.e.

The extra connectivity needed to implement digitalisation requires additional consideration of cyber security measures to be put in place to protect the control system and the associated datasets.

It is particularly important that cyber security is addressed in a process plant because the impact of a cyber-attack could be serious; ranging from a financial impact due to loss of production or, in more serious cases, disruption to critical infrastructure or harm to people or the environment.

Current best practice involves the implementation of a number of new and evolving industrial automation and control system cyber security standards.

The adoption of a digitalisation strategy is now the way forward for many within the UK’s industrial base, offering clear benefits in a number of areas; process safety is one.

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