Metering out?

Elaine Kearney poses the questions that metering experts at the National Engineering Laboratory (NEL) in East Kilbride have been considering recently.

How will developments in flow measurement technology impact on UK industry? Which metering techniques will continue to develop and which will fall by the wayside? What impact will the internet and global communication have?

NEL maintains the UK National Standard facilities for flow measurement on behalf of the DTI, and so is in a prime position for recognising how flow measurement could impact on industry in the future. However, while large organisations in industries such as oil and gas, pharmaceutical and food and drink may be knowledgeable about how metering impacts their business, there is still a noticeable lack of awareness in smaller manufacturing and process organisations. So, how can developments in flow metering help UK industry reach its full measurement potential?

Critical for cost reduction
To begin with, flow measurement is very likely to gain a higher profile across all industrial sectors as process efficiency improvements are critical for cost-reduction and therefore survival. Rather than just monitoring flow, measurement of both quantity and quality are obviously important necessities. Historically, only high value products such as oil and gas benefited from flow measurement, but today most manufacturing organisations have to demonstrate accurate measurement to remain competitive in their market. The water industry in particular is under pressure from regulatory authorities to standardise metering techniques and place greater importance on controlling leakage. With the massive volumes of water the companies have responsibility for comes the problem of accounting not only for inaccuracy but also for uncertainty. A 5% error in metering is expensive enough, but there are also many sources of uncertainty in metering and so NEL is working with the water industry to improve understanding of how to determine realistic uncertainty levels.

Intelligent metering systems, incorporating flowmeters with smart sensors and signal processing power, will yield valuable information to enable the process engineer to quickly anticipate or diagnose problems. An important issue, however, is that sensor systems not only need to be flexible enough to ensure communication with a wide range of control systems, but that organisations these days demand customised solutions to their flow metering needs. The market for both wide-ranging and tailored process analysis and modelling software is simultaneously growing to meet the need for minimising uncertainty and maximising profit.

Maximise design
So how does the engineer select which metering system will meet their needs, now and in the future? Clearly, the "modern" flow metering instruments - in particular electromagnetic, ultrasonic and Coriolis - will continue to lead the way, owing to their potential to benefit from signal processing and computational techniques. However, the older, well-established metering techniques, such as orifice plates, Venturi meters and even turbine meters, are all seeing a revival, in particular from the ability of computer modelling to maximise design. So the important issue is assessing the application - not only the current set-up but also how it could develop. For example, changes to legislation could require better accuracy in metering effluent discharges, leakage, or perhaps a metering system will need to be designed with flexibility in mind to cope with a growing product range. Multi-functional meters such the Coriolis range are versatile, reliable and particularly useful for processes demanding cleanliness. Many of these meters are now installed in food and drink organisations to control valuable products.

NEL carries out relevant and practical generic work to support UK manufacturers, operators, users and ultimately the consumer, as part of the DTI's Flow Programme.



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