Petrochemical Company Launches Refinery of the Future With IoT

By Claire Swedberg

Texmark Chemicals is using technology from Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Aruba to automatically collect real-time data regarding the function of critical pumps on the plant floor, with long-term goals of managing assets, as well as employee safety and access, via video and other wireless technologies.

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Petrochemical company Texmark Chemicals has completed the first phase of a deployment to create what it calls a “Refinery of the Future.” The solution starts with Internet of Things (IoT) technology to track wireless sensor data on two of its most critical pumps.

The deployment consists of an IoT solution provided by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Wi-Fi connectivity from HPE company Aruba. The deployment is one part of a holistic plan to manage safety and efficiency using cameras, Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies, all on a single platform. The company intends not only to use the solution at its own plant in Galena Park, Texas, but also to assist with the adoption of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions by other companies in the petrochemical industry.

Texmark is the largest North American producer of dicyclopentadiene (DCPD), a chemical used in resins, inks, adhesives and paints. DCPD results from the production of ethylene and is recovered through the use of fractional distillation. A considerable amount of heat is applied during the manufacturing process. These hazardous or flammable materials must thus be carefully regulated and managed.

Traditionally, the company has managed the safety and efficiency of its production by dispatching physical inspectors across the plant floor on a regular basis, who must visually check equipment and conduct vibration analysis to ensure that the plant’s 130 pumps and other devices are in good working condition. This requires approximately 1,000 hours of manual labor annually.

Throughout the past few years, the company has been investigating multiple business needs to improve on its existing operations management, as well as to automate and boost safety and efficiency. The firm had two primary initiatives: first, it needed to replace its distributed control system (DCS). Second, it sought to create a new, formal, mechanical integrity plan that could provide an inventory of its assets—such as boilers, tanks, piping and other process equipment, including pumps, control valves and meters—and their maintenance, service and use history. Such improvements, says Linda Salinas, Texmark Chemicals’ VP of operations, would help Texmark to meet OSHA standard compliance needs, reduce insurance costs and, to put it simply, “do the right thing.”

The company began discussing solutions with HPE and, in November 2016, visited the technology company’s IoT Innovation Lab, located in Houston. No technology deployment would work without the support of the company’s own staff, says Doug Smith, Texmark Chemicals’ CEO, so the focus from day one, he adds, was to bring together Texmark participants from multiple departments. Any solution implemented by Texmark had to be driven by those who operate that plant, he says. Therefore, the firm transported about a dozen employees to the lab.

The group was impressed with a demonstration of a sensor-based system for a Flow Serve pump, Salinas says. A sensor was attached to a pump to monitor pressure, temperature and vibration, and the collected data was then displayed in the software in real time. It tracked not only the amount and temperature of fluid passing through the pump, she notes, but also the vibration of the pump itself, in order to determine its operational health.

The employees brainstormed throughout the 45-minute drive back to their plant, Salinas recalls. Without the technology, she says, “If we wanted to measure the vibration of a pump, it would be a spot check” conducted on a month-to-month basis. However, the Texmark sensor “measured in real time, all the time,” which could indicate if equipment might be approaching a failure, as soon as the vibrations changed.

The software’s computer-modeling function would enable the prediction of how soon a particular pump might fail, Salinas explains, based on the specific chemical being used, as well as the temperature and vibration levels, all compared against historic results with other pumps. “After that field trip,” she states, “people were very inspired.” According to Salinas, employees—ranging from those actually operating the equipment to those operating the plant from behind desks—began innovating with new ideas for the technology.

For the first phase, the company installed six Aruba access points around the 7.5-acre facility, so as to provide Wi-Fi coverage throughout. It then installed HPE’s EL400 Edgeline computers to manage the collected sensor data, and also created a 3D scan of the entire plant so that assets could be located on that virtual map of the facility.

The Aruba access points will use the ClearPass to authenticate the sensors before collecting and transmitting their data securely to the Edgeline server. Additionally, the system employs HPE Edgeline Converged IoT platform software, which takes the sensor data and couples it with data culled from any other sources. HPE Pointnext Services installed an HPE Micro Datacenter in the Texmark Plant Control Room that, in turn, hosts the EdgeLine converged platform and will host new DCS system.

This year, Texmark has installed sensors on its two most crucial pieces of equipment: one on a DCPD process vacuum pump and the other on a boiler feed water pump, each of which could cause critical problems if it failed. The sensors capture temperature, pressure and vibration data at preset intervals, then forward that information to the EL 4000. Managers can view that data in real time, or receive alerts in the event that conditions exceed established parameters. Operators can also access that data, as can maintenance staff or inspectors.

The installation is only the first step of the Refinery of the Future plans, Salinas says. Next, the plant intends to apply sensors to all of the pumps associated with the entire DCPD process. Ultimately the company might deploy sensors for all 130 of its pumps, as well as to other equipment, such as fans, mixers and reactors. The data culled can be used not only to prevent or predict a failure, but also to understand the efficiency and quality of each of its processes under production, based on the time, the chemicals fed into the system, and the conditions under which they are mixed and processed.

Texmark wants to share the knowledge it is gaining, Smith says. “This is less about new technology,” he states, “and more about a road map. We already know the technology works.” Now, he says, the firm hopes to create a manual for deploying such a system that it could then provide to other refineries or factories.

“We are one of the first to implement IoT in the operating plant,” Salinas says. The firm now intends to gauge the results of the two sensors throughout the next few months, and to then begin further installations.

The company has other strategies for its Refinery of the Future initiative as well, Salinas adds. The company plans to install video analytics to track camera-based information for purposes ranging from providing security to improving production on the plant floor, as well as a safe-worker system with hardhat sensors, such as those provided by technology company GuardHat.

In addition, the company intends to create a “connected worker” platform by which a worker could be automatically identified at any location; the software could then analyze that location, linked to his or her role, in order to provide the employee with relevant information on an app-based handheld device or integrated hard hat. For instance, a maintenance worker could view details regarding a specific piece of equipment at the spot where he or she is standing. Finally, a total asset-management platform in the software could manage the data from all four features within the system, and thereby provide real-time, historic and relevant information.