How “decoupling” automation tasks can significantly reduce project time

Every second counts in process industry project execution, where key customer objectives include avoiding costly time overruns, reducing costs and accelerating project delivery. Neil Shah, Global Product Manager, ABB, discusses the critical aspects of efficient project execution, and looks at how to avoid the domino effect of traditional linear methods of execution bringing entire projects to a halt. 

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As the capabilities of modern control systems continue to expand with more and more functionality, the process of designing, building, testing and commissioning new automation projects becomes more onerous and time consuming. The critical path of actions that have to take place, and the order in which they have to be taken, is traditionally linear, with hardware and software engineering typically taking place in a serial, step-by-step sequence.

Traditional, controller-centric I/O solutions tend to lead to inflexible project execution models. Making changes during project execution can be disruptive, resulting in additional costs and delays. With larger projects in particular, the stakes are often extremely high to prevent project drift and ensure that systems are brought online as quickly and effectively as possible without compromising functionality, reliability or safety. As with any critical path, any delay in the project can have significant and costly knock-on effects later on.

Parallel development

Today’s advanced control systems, such as ABB’s System 800xA, are helping to enable a new methodology that allows hardware and software project flows to be completed in parallel. Compared to traditional linear project execution this new approach can save vast amounts of time and costs at the commissioning stage, while also facilitating continuous lifecycle improvement once installed. In addition, this also provides greater flexibility to accommodate late design changes, particularly within larger and more complex projects.

In practice, this means that application software and I/O hardware can be simultaneously configured and checked off-site. The whole I/O structure can then be imported into the master production system containing the application code. Where typically hardware and software are interdependent and configured in sequence, ABB’s xStream Engineering tools incorporated into System 800xA allow both to be worked on separately until the very final stages of the installation, at which point they are seamlessly brought together, this is called late binding. xStream Engineering takes advantage of the inherent functionality and flexibility of Select I/O, ABB’s single channel Ethernet solution.

Important to make the process of designing, building, testing and commissioning new automation projects less onerous and time consuming

I/O flexibility

The key to unlocking the benefits of this approach to automation project execution is in the flexibility of the I/O hardware. Each I/O channel can be individually characterized using a plug-in hardware module, providing the freedom to mix I/O types whenever necessary. Application programming can take place off-site at the same time as hardware configuration, with users able to configure and test I/O in the field without the need for the control application software or process controller hardware, while application software can be dropped in near the end of the project. By standardizing the cabinet, the need to run new cables for each and every sensor is reduced, and users no longer need to worry about certain sensor signals ending up in certain cabinets, as they can be terminated into any equivalent cabinet. This also helps to reduce space requirements as well as the volume and complexity of cabling. Hardware can essentially be shipped pre-wired, with the application software dropped in later, while testing can take place in the factory rather than in the field. For larger projects with potentially thousands of I/O points, this can make a huge difference to project time and costs, while for smaller projects, the cabinet no longer has to be installed in a specific location, and can for instance be installed in the field as opposed to in the control room, optimizing space even further.

Applications are programmed using a cloud-based deployment environment, which can be configured via a single laptop without having to access the physical cabinet hardware. Software checks can be tested virtually against emulated hardware and a simulated process to ensure that the code will perform as anticipated. Again, this can take place off-site, streamlining the process once the hardware and application meet up on-site. Both the software and hardware are configured using the same unique signal names, with digital marshalling automatically converging the application engineering project with the field I/O configuration once the two are connected on-site. This removes the need for space-consuming marshalling cabinets, while also potentially helping to facilitate any late changes required. In addition, the users have access to the application software much earlier than the traditional project execution and hence application testing can be done in iterations avoiding last minute surprise.

ABB’s System 800xA includes an Ethernet I/O Field Kit software, which allows users to configure and test I/O in the field without the need for control software or process controller hardware. The Field Kit runs on a normal laptop or tablet, and can be used for on-site commissioning activities where the I/O is already installed in the field, or split-staging arrangements where the I/O cabinets are located in a panel shop or fabrication yard. In practice, the software can reduce engineering time by more than 90 percent.

Flexibility of I/O hardware allows for optimal automation project execution and ability to mix I/O types as required  - as enabled by the Ethernet I/O Field Kit software embedded in ABB’s System 800xA 

Wider context

Concepts like xStream Engineering are an example of how more and more of the work involved in delivering a project is now taking place off-site, building the disparate parts of the system separately yet simultaneously, and connecting it all together on-site.

The end result is the ability to facilitate a new approach to automation project delivery that allows multiple steps to be carried out discretely, even at completely different locations. Documentation can be stored and shared via the cloud, allowing all parties access to the pertinent information required to deliver their aspects of the project for greater visibility over progress..

For facilities such as offshore platforms, remote locations and associated transportation logistics can mean that any delay to a project can be enormously costly, while late changes to an application can be difficult to implement at short notice. The lack of available space in many facilities, as well as safety considerations, can also create challenges. By utilizing these new methodologies, and harnessing the latest developments in automation technologies, operators can vastly reduce the length of projects, and in turn significantly reduce costs.

In response to the growing demand for faster project delivery, ABB has developed an Adaptive Execution solution, which integrates teams, technologies and processes into a single process using virtualization to avoid delays and budget overshoots. ABB estimates that the system can reduce automation-related capital expenditure by up to 40 percent, compress delivery schedules by up to 30 percent, and reduce start-up hours by up to 40 percent.

Learn more about ABB’s xStream Engineering tools

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