EE - Forum Styles

Monitoring Plant Utilities for Operational Excellence

There is no shortage of articles related to the specialized processes of manufacturing pharmaceuticals, but sometimes people forget the plant utilities, which make the manufacturing possible. Unless there’s a problem, many tend to forget how much equipment it takes to feed the air, water, steam or whatever comes out of the pipe or duct to support the actual manufacturing process.


Michalle AdkinsEmerson’s Michalle Adkins and Wally Baker make some critical points in their article, Monitoring Plant Utilities for Operational Excellence, which appears in the June issue of Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. Beyond simply keeping these utilities operating, a plant can optimize them to improve overall performance.


Most of the time, these utilities are taken for granted until there is a problem, but effective management can improve reliable performance and reduce costs. Utilities must perform consistently and reliably to avoid the possibility of contamination, deviations and even quarantined inventory or lost batches. Outright failure can stop a manufacturing campaign. Even a minor disruption of flow or a temperature moving out of specification can sabotage a batch or result in approved additional processing.


Michalle and Wally combine their experiences and talents with pharmaceutical plants and instrumentation as they look at three main areas: steam, HVAC systems and water. These are all systems able to make a major difference for manufacturing, and they are large enough cost components of a facility to move the bottom line.


Utilities can also be expensive to operate, yet again, effective monitoring and control can be used effectively to reduce costs. Let’s examine common monitoring instrumentation for these three utilities in greater detail, keeping in mind that in each case the instruments send data to the appropriate plant personnel via the plant automation and/or asset management systems. Responsible personnel can then take the right actions to minimize or prevent losses.


Steam systems need steam traps. They’re a fact of life where there is any kind of distribution, but they are mechanical devices and therefore subject to mechanical problems. Either they don’t release water or they waste steam, neither of which is good for the good for the system. So how do users cope?


Wally BakerMost plants check steam trap performance by sending maintenance technicians on rounds to verify water is being expelled at normal rates and there is no plume of live steam. There is a better solution: automated, continuous monitoring and wireless technologies make permanently mounted acoustic monitors practical and affordable. These devices have internal signal processing able to recognize the sounds produced by a properly functioning unit, and by common failure modes. They can send an alarm to the automation system if there is a failure.


Acoustic monitors help with steam, but what about HVAC systems? Again, these are mechanical systems dependent on motor-driven blowers and compressors, among other things.


If bearings fail on any of these pieces, some section of the process will go down. While people may be able to tolerate discomfort for a period of time, some products degrade in these circumstances. Like steam traps, rotating equipment is also monitored by technicians on rounds, and some may have portable devices to measure bearing noise, bearing temperature and vibration. Equipment mounted in out-of-the-way and inaccessible areas, as it often is, may not receive the attention it should. Fortunately, permanently installed sensors communicating by a WirelessHART network can monitor all the critical rotating equipment parameters. Changes in bearing condition and equipment vibration can warn of impending failures early enough to allow maintenance technicians to perform repairs before a full failure.


There are also ways to improve water processing and distribution systems, which you can read about in the article. The common denominator to all this is the notion of gathering information throughout the plant using a strategy called pervasive sensing. Many plants lack the information necessary to improve performance because they do not have enough instrumentation and they lack the ability to analyze the information that is available, often due to excessive costs for traditional approaches.


Using traditional wired methods, costs can be high for adding a sensor or instrument and connecting it to an automation system via cables. This is particularly true when the sensor must be placed in a remote area, as is often the case with steam traps and HVAC equipment.


WirelessHART networks can also be used with wireless devices on production equipment. In fact, facilities looking at deploying steam trap monitors may discover they already have wireless networks supporting other manufacturing areas. Data from field instruments can provide the information needed to support decision making by plant operators, engineers and technicians. For pharmaceutical manufacturers, the ability to improve production while reducing operating costs provides a compelling reason to explore wireless instrumentation.


The article goes into greater detail on all these points, so it’s one you’ll want to read and add to your files. Another way to pick up pointers on these questions is right here in our Emerson Exchange365 community. Here you can meet others like yourself who are looking for answers and willing to share experiences. There are special areas such as Pressure or Temperature, but also quite a bit looking at specific industries and applications, such as pharmaceuticals. Come join the discussion with your peers and experts.