December 2008


Forecasting the future

Technologies shine, but energy, economy remain in forefront

Fast Forward

  • EXPO come back to Houston next year from 6-8 October in the Reliant Center.
  • Energy and economy never too far from anybody's mind.
  • For a new automation generation, it is ready, set, go.
  • ISA provides some hurricane relief for Houston.
By Gregory Hale

Yes, there was the usual assortment of product and technology launches, and wireless, security, and safety took center stage, but there was also an air of concern. Worries about energy and the economy were always a part of the conversation.

But in the end, that shows one of the true strengths behind ISA EXPO; it is an event where the industry can go and figure out the next move.

Energy and how to get the most out of it has been puzzling industry leaders for a while now, and that was the topic of discussion throughout the Houston event. Solar-power exhibitors said the oil and gas industry are using wind and solar power for a number of remote and other applications.

"We provide solar power for a lot of remote instrumentation-such as gas flowmeters and pipeline corrosion monitoring devices, which are far from the power grid," said Jeff Roberts, account executive with Ameresco Solar, Tomball, Tex. Solar energy also can power SCADA for process control and for controlling equipment and conditions in power plants, as well as in oil and gas refining, transportation, and water and waste control, Roberts said.

One Ameresco customer, for example, is Pemex Refinancion in Mexico. As part of a modernization project, Pemex wanted autonomous solar power systems to supply power to new and refurbished refinery storage tank telemetering and level gauging equipment. The area was classified as Class 1 Division 2 hazardous.

Ameresco Solar designed 21 systems to withstand hurricane force winds and tropical rain events. The structures now operate autonomously even under the most severe weather conditions, Roberts said.

ExxonMobil and Marathon Oil Corp., among others, are customers, he said. Applications include flow metering, valve actuation, seismic and air quality monitoring, tank gauging, cathodic (corrosion) protection, and chemical injection, he said.

Another exhibitor, Alpha Energy, Mead, Colo., has been in the solar business since 1971 and now does $300 million in revenue a year from customers on six continents, said Steve Strobel, Alpha's Midwestern regional sales manager.

Alpha's solar panels range from 10 Watts (W) to 224W, he said. The company is featuring a 267 kilowatt (kW) municipal complex in Loma Linda, Calif. Where Alpha's solar panels "make the (grid electric) meter run backwards," Strobel said.

Just one week before the show, Alpha completed a 14kW solar power system on a 9,600-foot-high mountain near Durango, Colo., for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Its purpose is to help assure there is power for communications if the national electric grid was knocked out by terrorists or a natural disaster.

Strobel said the economic bailout package passed by Congress included an "earmark" that renewed a 30% tax credit for renewable energy investments. For example, a $30,000 investment in solar or wind energy would enable the purchasing company or individual to receive a $10,000 tax credit.

"It's good for the next eight years and should help kick-start our industry," which now has "an extreme shortage of panels because of high demand," the Alpha Energy executive said.

But it is not all about solar power; other companies are looking to learn how to conserve fuel costs.

"Making a refinery run more efficiently enhances the ability to produce a more efficient plant operation," said George Balogh, chief executive of SpectraSensors. Balogh's company is also working on a sensor that will be able to measure the moisture in the air for airplanes. That sensor will enable real-time reporting on moisture and allow for precision routing for airlines.

"That one sensor could help save the airline industry $18 billion in fuel cost a year globally," Balogh said

"People today are looking to conserve energy anyway they can," said Dale Langham, vice president of sales and marketing at SpectraSensors. "Any energy savings just funds itself very easily."

National Instruments has been talking about green engineering for a while now, and energy issues are top of mind.

"A solar wind turbine company wants to find a way to pull more energy from the wind. They get ideas, and they need a platform they can easily embed," said Todd Walter of National Instruments.

Technology first

When it comes to technology advances, wireless and safe and secure technologies top quite a few wish lists. Whatever technology an end user is demanding to improve business and become more competitive, security should always be part of the equation.

"Whether it's a legacy system or a new system being designed, we're trying to get the best possible security built-in," said Fred C. Cowart, DHS program manager, control systems, at Idaho National Laboratory's (INL) Security & Test Center, Idaho Falls, Idaho. INL assists the DHS as a managing contractor testing control systems, including wireless systems, for security vulnerabilities.

While they are talking about securing wireless and security, safety is also coming into play. "We are seeing a convergence of the physical and cyber security worlds, and safety is a component of that," said Todd Nicholson, chief marketing officer at Industrial Defender.

Without a doubt, "wireless" was the buzzword heard everywhere throughout ISA EXPO 2008-in conferences, on the exhibit floor, in panel discussions, in the hallways, and at social events. "Security" was not far behind.

Cowart said INL is currently testing about 20 vendor systems, including large legacy and newly designed vendor systems. It now also is testing wireless systems for potential security issues.

DHS is promoting its National Cyber Security Division, whose goal "is to guide a cohesive effort between government and industry to reduce the risk to critical infrastructure control systems."

When it comes to wireless, there were plenty of solutions to go around. GE talked about its wireless condition monitoring. "We are excited about condition monitoring and wireless is helping along those lines," said John Burns, general manager North America Region Optimization and Control. "This technology is enabling us to get a system established to get information from instruments out in the field."

Burns and Sean Coyle, product manager Bently Nevada Asset Conditioning Monitoring Optimization and Control, said battery life for these wireless products is assisted by its energy harvester, which generates power from the vibration from motors.

Business partnerships inked

When developing standards and products, partnerships among different manufacturers have become almost an "automatic" in the wireless world.

And that trend continued at EXPO as two more partnership agreements were forged-one between Honeywell and Cypress Envirosystems and another between Freescale and Nivis.

Cypress Envirosystems, a subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor Corp., said it partnered with Honeywell to create a OneWireless version of Cypress Envirosystems' Wireless Gauge Reader. Based on technology from Cypress Semiconductor Corp., the patent-pending technology will be manufactured by Cypress Envirosystems to Honeywell's specifications.

Harry Sim, chief executive of Cypress Envirosystems, noted all process industry plants have hundreds or thousands of dial gauges measuring pressure, temperature, flow, or other parameters that must be manually read by operators or technicians.

Cypress's Wireless Gauge Reader clips on to the front face of an existing gauge and, in minutes, enables the data to integrate with the plant distributed control system for equipment health monitoring, inventory management, and other applications, he said. It does not require removing old gauges, breaking pressure seals, performing leak checks, running wires, or interrupting the underlying process.

Meanwhile, Freescale Semiconductor and Nivis LLC, a developer and integrator of wireless network technologies, disclosed plans to combine their respective technologies to provide a wired-to-wireless platform for commercial and industrial sensor mesh networks.

Marius Chilom, chief executive of Nivis, said the combined hardware/software platform solution includes sensor interface, radio module, router/gateway, security manager, and advanced network manager capabilities for emerging wireless standards in the industrial and commercial sector.

The Freescale and Nivis development platform can provide developers with a rapid, cost-effective way to evaluate ISA100.11a, WirelessHART, and 6LoWPAN stacks on Freescale microcontrollers (MCUs) and embedded processors.

With business deals focused on wireless, the technology is becoming more of a reality on the plant floor, and with that in mind, attendees got a chance to get up close and personal with real life demonstrations.

Cliff Whitehead, manager of strategic application at Rockwell Automation, lead the tour sponsored by the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA), which featured presentations by WINA Vice President David Kaufman, director of business development at Honeywell, and WINA President Ian McPherson, vice president of solutions architecture at Apprion. They explained the basics of the ISA100 industrial wireless standard as well as several other wireless applications at various booths.

"Were using techniques like frequency hopping to make sure radios can coexist," Kaufman said. "The radio goes to sleep, either time-based (100 milliseconds) or event-based to preserve the battery life."

Quan Wang, a lecturer at Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in Nan'an, Chongqing. P.R. China, gave a rundown during the tour of how instruments from different vendors actually use the standard using a demo he constructed as part of a research project.

Wireless exchange

During a Wireless and Networking Technology Exchange morning session, David Lafferty, a technology specialist at BP, said if you want to use wireless, start small, but make sure you start. "If you're now initiating wireless in your plant, I recommend you start small, start on the ground, and stay away from critical applications. But get busy and get started," he said.

Lafferty and Greg LaFramboise, technology lead at Chevron Energy, said the state of wireless and networking in the process industries now is at the point where one can buy a wireless instrument or device from a reputable vendor, and it will be able to transmit a mile, and the battery will last five years.

"If you head out onto the event floor and walk among the exhibitions, I'd say that every other one will be offering a wireless device or solution of some kind," LaFramboise said.

BP sees "digitation" as a key to being competitive, and wireless drives down that cost. Wireless makes the process of taking measurements less costly. As well, it is a valuable component of BP's physical plant security via the use of wireless transmission of camera images, say for example, from the fence line of refinery.

Wireless is also valuable in the collection of real-time data that one would not normally collect were it a hardwired application. This includes remote monitoring of data and employee locations.

Lafferty sees many key challenges to instituting wireless. Leading off, is the high cost of entry into the technology at a plant. The first application is typically the most expensive because it has to pay for the backbone, which of course later applications can piggyback on, but recall that is not how budgets in plants work.

Applications can happen on case-by-case or departmental basis, and that is how budgets shake out as well. This also leads to silos as department and apps build just enough of an infrastructure for their own needs.

Another challenge, in turn, is often there is no uniform implementation and the inability to leverage the scale of the overall operation and company size. It is difficult to replicate success.

The business side of the company sees the installation of wireless as an infrastructure addition neglecting that wireless is a business improvement too. So one must sell the technology to one's own people; this can be distracting, and for sure it is more work.

Chevron's LaFramboise sees the wireless surge quite simply, "Radios have changed, and batteries are better. Standards have arrived too … or they're close enough."

Other challenges are "the systems need to be plug-and-play." Nobody-no technician, no plant person-wants to diddle around with a device that takes extensive installation practice or expertise. "We've been playing around with wireless instruments for a long time, and our graveyard is huge. It's got to work right away and with ease," LaFramboise said.

And then there are the standards. They are a boon to the advancement and acceptance of wireless. "WirelessHART 7.1 is one important standard," said LaFramboise, "and products are going out the door now that use that standard. The other important standard is ISA100-11a, which I have been helping work on for some years now. It's almost ready and should be out this year or early next.

"We're trying to make these standards work as one but there may end up being two standards, I'm just not sure."

Meanwhile, the Fieldbus Foundation and ISA unveiled an agreement to facilitate the implementation of wireless backhaul transport networks. This technology initiative sits on shared interests in serving the needs of end users and suppliers of wireless systems in industrial automation.

Even keynoters got involved in the wireless discussion at EXPO.

Dr. Kris Pister, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California Berkeley, had a wild academic idea that turned into a commercially relevant technology. Pister moved from academics to chief executive and now chief technical officer of his own company, Dust Networks.

"I've had a passion for the past 20 years to make micro-robots," he said. "The MEMS in micro-robots led to a workshop on the future of size, power, and costs going down, following an exponential curve." Step one was trying to get it to work.

"In 1999, we built sensor platforms. We were also working on a miniaturization path. In 2001, we built the smallest wireless sensor node to date," he said. "We put a lot of effort from graduate students into system integration and miniaturization."

What Pister learned was his technological innovation had no commercial relevance, "but it also forced us to start thinking of issues surrounding doing ultra-low power of system integration," he said. "At the same time of miniaturization, we continued with the off-the-shelf approach. We used radios-cheap, easy, off-the-shelf radio frequency (RF) systems. There was a big interest in cheap, easy, RF with research centers and industry."

With low-costs sensors, the application space can cover everything from home electronics and healthcare to industrial process control. When Pister coined the phrase smart dust, "I had no idea industrial process was where it would see its first commercial success.

"Companies were saying, 'If you build, it we will buy it.' Unfortunately, the marketing side took over more than the engineering side. Standards are coming out," he said, "and yet for some reason, it wasn't taking off. So I claimed with proof that wireless could actually change everything." So why didn't it happen?

"Sensors and computations are riding these Moore' Law curves to zero power cost, reducing the cost over time," he said. The problem today is conduit, copper, and labor are going up every year, he said.

On the plus side though, people were excited, and with good reason. It was happening; it was just happening slower. Academics were building on a tiny system. We called them Berkeley motes. And this got industry people interested.

Protocols in command

Wireless was not the only thing attendees wanted to talk about. A couple of protocols were also part of the discussion.

Electronic device description language (EDDL) technology tells device management software what command to send to the device, how to interpret the response, and how to display the information to the technician. It gives the technician the screen from which to calibrate. They can configure the device, commission the device, and do diagnostics.

"This works with all kinds of process control devices," said Jonas Berge, director of PlantWeb consulting at Emerson in Singapore. "Here in the booth [Booth 1132], we're showing simple transmitters like temperature and pressure, but also sophisticated transmitters such as radar level transmitters."

EDDL is the technology embedded in HART, Foundation Fieldbus, and Profibus.

Meanwhile, the field device tool (FDT) forces were also on display.

"FDT regulates the language that exists between the device and distributed control system," said Ahmad Zahedi, chair of the ISA103 standards committee and project director at Flowserve. "It's an interface standard. It embraces all the major protocols like HART, Foundation Fieldbus, Modbus, and Profibus."

Indeed, FDT technology does standardize the communication interface between field devices and systems. The key feature is its independence from the communication protocol and the software environment of either the device or the host system.

FDT allows any device to be accessible from any host through any protocol.

Education process

Business and technology definitely took center stage, but some fun learning also occurred as the ISA Certification Quiz & Conquer held its second contest. And the winner was Ouch, it Megahertz in a close match of wits and automation knowledge.

Ouch, it Megahertz defeated The Over-Analyzers by the score of 80 to 60 in a spirited display of technical, plant-automation knowledge, and a speedy thumb on the buzzer.

The competition's master of ceremonies was Greg Lehmann, Certified Automation Professional (CAP), of Washington Group International in Denver.

Vernon Trevathan, CAP, vice president of the ISA Professional Development Department, was on hand judging the questions and the accuracy of the answers.

The two teams were comprised of one certificate holder from each of ISA's certification programs, CAP and the Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST).

Ouch, it Megahertz team members were Rahul Bhojani, CAP, Bayer Technical Services, and George Lister, CCST III, Texas State Technical College.

The Over-Analyzers were Hank Christiansen of CDI in Beaumont and Andrew Johnsen of SSSI. Christiansen is a CAP, and Johnsen filled the role of CCST, though he holds a CAP also.

Questions for the competition were multiple choice and came from various sources. They were similar to but not identical to questions that appear on the CAP and CCST exams.

Ellen Fussell Policastro, Nicholas Sheble and Jim Strothman contributed to this report.

Opportunities for YAPers

To paraphrase an old real estate axiom, when you first start out in the automation industry, it is all about networking, networking, networking.

That is what 100 young automation professionals (YAPs) were able to do at the end of a highly educational day at this year's third annual YAPFEST.

"YAPFEST and everything ISA does for us young professionals is great," said Thomas Collins, president of ISA's Student Section in Waco, Tex. "It gives you insight into today's industry-what's really going on. The people in ISA make you feel welcome, opening doors and opportunities."

Just prior to YAPFEST, several students came away from a panel discussion more confident than ever that many job opportunities were within their reach.

Concerned students in the audience expressed worry that manufacturing moving out of the U.S.-to China, for example-lessened their job opportunities.

Disagreeing, panelists Bob Vavra, editor of Plant Engineering magazine; Gregory Hale, editor of ISA's InTech magazine; and Chip McDaniel, director of technical marketing for Automation Direct all underscored that skilled professionals were in huge demand by manufacturers.

"We can't find enough young qualified people," was what Vavra said he was hearing from manufacturing executives. Hale said executives he talks to regularly say their biggest challenge is, "How can I find qualified engineers and technicians." McDaniel, whose company sponsors elementary and high school robotic competitions, agreed.

YAP opportunities "are pretty cool-a good opportunity for networking," said Michael Prater, a student at Lamar Institute of Technology, Beaumont, Tex. "All this is new to me."

"It's great to find out what I'm going to school for," said Michael Crump, who is in his first semester at Lamar Tech. "Hurricane Ike stopped classes for two weeks, and this helps me try to see what I'm getting myself into."

"I'm really enjoying YAPFEST," agreed Roger Taylor, who expects to graduate in this month from Texas State Technical College. "It's nice to be able to network."

"I just joined my company six months ago," said Meghana Rao Modali, of Dynergy Generators, O'Fallon, Ill. "I'm meeting people here (at ISA EXPO) who are very experienced, and I'm learning what's likely to happen in the future. I've gained a lot of knowledge. I'm very interested in the job market, and it's also nice just to learn a little about a lot of (technologies)."

-Jim Strothman


Student games garner new experiences

Lyle Becotte of Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) was looking forward to seeing new technology from different areas of the world as well as everyone from different countries as he waited to go back in to the International Student Games on the ISA EXPO floor after a short break.

"It's neat seeing all these people coming to one place," he said. "We're just trying not to get our nerves wracked."

The most important thing though is to prepare, Becotte said. "A little bit of studying ISA handbooks," was key to becoming "mentally capable." Becotte mostly studied Béla Liptak's instrumentation books, "trying to get my head straight for the games," he said.

Since Becotte comes from an oil plant, he works on a lot of transmitters. "I work on Foxboro equipment now, so the hardest part will be trying to get used to the different technology and getting used to different ways people do things," he said.

The big difference is setting up transmitters and getting used to handhelds in one competition. "Searching around and navigating through is difficult at first," Becotte said. "But it's not too bad. We're not so much hoping for the Gold, we're just here to have fun. But if we get a medal, that's good too."

The point of the competition is to give students from around the world real-world process control and instrumentation problems. The games give students a chance to compete and demonstrate their skills, while having an opportunity to network and meet other students interested in the fields of automation and engineering. Each team of four has a set time period to solve each problem. Problem providers evaluate each team's performance. Then, evaluators combine scores and identify the order of performance.

Although working with new equipment is challenging for Javier Miroz Lozano of Mexico's IPN Zacatenco, it is also a great experience.  In school, he was used to working with Rosemount wireless equipment. However, "today, we worked with Phoenix Contact systems," Lozano said. "We programmed two radio stations to communicate with level sensor inputs and on/off sensors." Lozano sees the whole experience as special because he loves the U.S. and "learning how to do wireless on new types of equipment. We never get to practice with radios," he said. "In our university, we don't have radio stations. This was a special experience. I love this area of wireless technology."

The winners of the student games were:

Gold: British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), Burnaby, BC, Canada; Ian Ross Advisor

Silver: Lambton College, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada; Mike Grey, Advisor

Bronze: ITI Technical College, Baton Rouge, La.; Mark Hughes, Advisor

-Ellen Fussell Policastro


PLC at 40: Staying ahead of controller pack

"I don't own anything as old as a PLC, much less a piece of technology," ribbed one automation "youngster" at the PLC's birthday event on the show floor.

The programmable logic controller (PLC) turned 40 this year, and the official celebration took place at the Schneider booth with the device's inventor, Dick Morley, cutting a celebratory cake in front of several hundred friends and technology fans.

Introduced in 1968, the PLC went on to replace traditional "hard-wired" controls, it and has since become the predominant choice for industrial controls.

Before PLCs, machine control relied on primarily on contacts and relays providing hard-wired "logic" for machine controls. Changes to the logic were labor intensive and costly.

In 1968, GM's Hydramatic division specified the design criteria for what would become the first programmable logic controller. They requested a solid-state system that would survive the industrial environment, be easily programmed by plant engineers and technicians, and be easily reprogrammed and re-used.

The winning proposal came from Bedford Associate, which introduced the MOdular DIgital CONtroller (MODICON).

-Nicholas Sheble