Simulation Closes Performance Gap
EP Editorial Staff | November 29, 2023
Automation’s future will rely on digital-twin technologies to ensure personnel and process plants operate at their best.
By Dustin Beebe, Emerson
Process manufacturers who want to stay competitive in today’s global marketplace face a wide array of new hurdles. A worker shortage is making it increasingly difficult to find and retain qualified personnel to operate a plant, just as competition and demand are increasing around the globe. Not only is it difficult to find the necessary people to operate a plant, but the newest generation of personnel also expect to work in modern facilities with the latest technology so they can perform their tasks efficiently and effectively.
Further complicating things, corporate and public scrutiny are making it essential for organizations to operate as efficiently and profitably as possible while reducing emissions, energy use, and waste. As with the personnel shortage, these challenges cannot be met simply by finding more people. The solution lies in finding the technology stack that enables personnel to meet these seemingly opposing objectives.
Fortunately, the same toolset can hold the keys to success. One of the primary technologies helping process manufacturers increase the efficiency and output of personnel and processes is the multipurpose simulation software used to create a comprehensive digital twin of process operations.
Create a roadmap
Many manufacturers find they need a new vision for how they must operate. For organizations with long histories, change can be very difficult, if not impossible. In these instances, change typically requires equipment, processes, and strategies that may be radically different from what’s been used in the past.
Consider a chemical manufacturer having trouble finding staff for its multi-plant global operation. The organization decided to solve the problem by adding automation so they could operate each facility safely without adding staff, as qualified personnel were hard to find. Or consider the many organizations that realized after the pandemic that they could concentrate certain staff in centralized operations centers, making it much easier to operate remote plants when experts weren’t available locally.
As teams break down the location barrier and create more advanced, connected, and remote operations, individuals operating critical processes take on additional responsibilities. Today, it is increasingly rare to see sites relying on operators who are experts in a single area. Modern operators are instead expected to have substantial knowledge across many domains and are expected to quickly learn the necessary skills.
Bring personnel up to speed
Facilities no longer have the luxury of allowing recruits to spend years shadowing or apprenticing with experienced personnel. In many cases, facilities do not have experienced personnel on board to train new recruits. When they do, those veteran personnel are often busy and the facility likely has months, not years, to bring new operators and technicians up to speed.
Even in facilities that have successfully navigated the personnel shortage and have a deep bench of expert personnel, many face an uncertain future. Today’s corporate boards are making net-zero promises that will come due in the next couple of decades. To meet those goals, facilities will need to quickly make significant technology and operational changes. If operators are not properly trained, much of the value of the technology changes will be lost and companies will fail to meet their sustainability goals.
A digital-twin solution, built on multipurpose simulation software, can help close the gap for operators at all experience levels, making it much easier for personnel to learn control and reliability systems quickly and thoroughly. The best digital-twin solutions create an exact replica of the control system and process to provide hands-on interaction with the system. In fact, because digital-twin simulation does not require physical equipment, operators can train on new systems before assets arrive on site, enabling process training in parallel with project execution.
Not only will operators learn to understand and operate different scenarios, they will also experience unusual situations such as startup, shutdown, diagnosing bottlenecks and trouble points, and navigating system aberrations. As they work through training scenarios, users interact directly with the same graphical interfaces they will use when operating the live plant and will see exactly how each action they take affects the entire process. Users can even rewind and repeat functions to see how different choices affect outcomes.
Moreover, personnel upskilling is not limited to simple control technologies. The most powerful digital-twin simulations can model advanced technologies such as predictive control and unit optimization—critical technologies for new operations such as the hydrogen plants and carbon-capture sites that are boosting the energy sector.
The correct solution
The dynamic-simulation market is a competitive space and organizations have many training options. Choosing software that will deliver maximum value across its lifecycle means selecting a system that is flexible enough to empower plant personnel to do all they need to today, while also being scalable enough to accommodate future needs.
Organizations pursuing a digital twin should look for a multipurpose simulation solution that provides steady state and dynamic modeling while supporting a wide range of fidelity. Moreover, the best solutions will have extensive property databases—all the processes, components, and unit operations they need built in— to ensure they can support a wide array of processes across many different industries. Teams implementing a digital twin should look for software that can support models and materials for their particular industry.
The best solutions will also be control-system independent, enabling teams to model entire processes, even if they have multiple control systems across their enterprise. However, teams will want to ensure that the simulation is also using software that can replicate the exact automation systems that operators will see to ensure the training translates directly to higher performance in the control room.
Teams may also seek out technologies such as fully immersive capabilities set in virtual reality environments. Using such tools, a worker halfway around the world can walk through a facility, make design changes, and virtually see how those changes resonate across the facility, without ever setting foot in the live environment. This capability makes it possible to more effectively engineer and support multi-site operations.
Prepare for the future
When executed correctly, digital twin technology implementations deliver benefits now, while preparing organizations for the future. Tomorrow’s operators will continue to be expected to do more with less, even as they use more technology to help them perform their jobs more efficiently and effectively. The right simulation tools will build a foundation to train those personnel to function at their best as quickly as possible. It is worth noting that there is a broad array of technologies on the horizon that will benefit from the same foundation.
For example, as artificial intelligence makes an impact on the way facilities are designed and operated, training tools will grow in value. A system that can train human operators can just as effectively train the next generation of artificial intelligence tools that tomorrow’s workers will use to create the next step change in efficiency and sustainability. Establishing that foundation will deliver value today, while helping companies drive competitive advantage as industry evolves. EP
Dustin Beebe serves as Vice President of Performance Software for Emerson, St. Louis (emerson.com). He is responsible for aligning Control Performance, Operator Performance, and Simulation businesses globally and the strategy synergy between Emerson and AspenTech.