Optimising plant Performance

Data intelligence and automation technology is key to water companies' delivering operational efficiencies, argues Andrew Reeks from Siemens Industry Automation

The water industry is at the beginning of a significant period of change as all suppliers prepare for an increasingly competitive environment. In the future, businesses and eventually consumers may well have the freedom to freely choose who supplies their water, and although decisions have yet to be finalised on this, it is perhaps sensible to start early preparations for the opening up of the water market for the benefit of commercial and residential users.

In the short term, potential business customers looking at an open market may well ask themselves such questions as: Who offers the best water service? Who can solve my problems? Which company offers best value? What else could my water supplier do for me? Against this background, there is a central need for water companies to embark upon a journey to gain a deeper understanding of their business across a number of key areas. These could include ensuring consistent quality control, a proven security of supply, tighter cost control, better plant optimisation and increased business intelligence to enable management to undertake key strategic decisions on pricing and future investment.

But before the journey can commence you have to know where you are starting from. Investment in technology to deliver valuable real-time data to enable a holistic picture to be formed, alongside a plant optimisation strategy (enabled through technology) can help management teams position themselves to be able to meet competition head on. Indeed, it could be strongly argued that even if the water market is not ‘opened’ there can be no downside to a better understanding of your core business and how it operates.

With planned capital expenditure concerning potential new water treatment plants limited, and the reality of financial pressure associated with supporting an ageing infrastructure, water companies will have to rely upon existing assets when it comes to competing in any future new world. Optimising the performance of such assets is going to be key in driving a competitive position and delivering value.

Plants will need to satisfy regulators and users, but with a tight control and understanding of the processes involved to provide consistent quality and security of supply. This is allied to cost control so that any new competitive landscape driven by price can also be accommodated. Intelligence-led data and automation technology will be central to achieving such objectives.

A simple plant model on how to optimise performance through technology and turn data into valuable information embraces three key levels – a management system, an automation system and the asset itself. The management system sits at the top to meet external regulatory reporting responsibilities and drive internal strategic decision making in order to inform investment, operational and maintenance decisions for the asset below.

Sitting between the two is the automation system. This will automatically drive the flow of data and information from the asset to the management system and vice versa, and as such is the key component in delivering operational efficiencies and plant optimisation.

Real value
The technology support system can be utilised in many forms on a typical plant to deliver real value for companies. Technology through an automation system can set up unmanned operations on assets, enable remote intervention for geographically difficult locations, help develop preventative maintenance programmes to cut costs and plant downtime, provide analysis of historical trends, and deliver better risk management.

A typical water treatment works architecture will have a management information system and local HMIs linked to flow, level, valve positioning and drive components. This set-up is often at the mercy of existing telemetry links and limited data transfer capability meaning the potential for process understanding and plant improvements is not being realised. While limited information may be available, the full benefits derived from an alternative integrated automated approach are not obtained.

Taking the previous atypical example of a treatment plant, an alternative architecture could utilise the benefits of a top level enterprise SCADA system linked to a process fieldbus network which would seamlessly link all the levels to deliver real asset optimisation.

From the over-arching SCADA management information system through a convergence of telemetry control and local SCADA via a Profibus network that linked intelligent instruments the new integrated architecture is delivering a flow of real-time data, information and intelligence up and down the automated system and gives management the knowledge on which key decisions can be based.

With a challenging future ahead, water companies need to address some fundamental questions that go to the heart of their operations. True optimisation of existing plants is a key driver in this process, and integrated automation technology across the asset will be the gateway towards data and intelligence gathering and a more strategic management approach to achieve optimisation.

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