Data, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, can be defined as “information collected to be examined and considered and used to help decision making”.
The final part of that sentence is particularly pertinent for process plant owners. They suggest data is only really data if it is considered and used to help decision making. Otherwise, presumably, it’s just noise.
“In many plants, while process data is technically being captured or recorded for short-term monitoring purposes, it is not being used in longer term analytic scenarios in order to optimise process performance,” says Jason Chester, global strategic account manager at statistics software and services supplier InfinityQS.
If manufacturers simply go on a crusade to find new ways in which they can acquire new data without an equal or greater emphasis on how they will use that data to their advantage, that would be sheer folly
Jason Chester, global strategic account manager, InfinityQS
He says that information about raw materials and finished products is also often captured but not used to the manufacturers’ fullest advantage.
Chester believes that for all the advances made by the industry in recent years, and all the sensors now installed in factories, there is still a great way to go to maximise the benefit of the available data.
Progressive and competitive
“The contrast between organisations can be quite stark,” he says. “Some will capture critical data points digitally and use that data in statistical process control charts. This is in order to provide the operators and quality personnel with much more insight into the historical performance and a statistical extrapolation of the future performance of the process or product characteristics. Many still capture very limited data using pen and paper.”
Progressive use of data can create competitive advantage for process manufacturers and Chester believes the marketplace will force more firms to work in this way.
He cites rapidly changing consumer trends, driven by social media, thrifty buyers, and online shopping and comparison sites as downward drivers of price.
“Manufacturers are also finding that the cost of raw materials is increasing, the cost of labour is increasing, and the cost of energy is significantly higher than it ever was.”
With all these pressures, alongside increased regulation in areas such as waste, carbon and ethics, manufacturers need to become more efficient to survive in the changing world, according to Chester.
Manufacturers are also finding that the cost of raw materials is increasing, the cost of labour is increasing, and the cost of energy is significantly higher than it ever was
He calls for an “optimisation mindset” to tackle the challenge. “Optimisation is the act of making the most effective use of all available assets and resources continuously in real-time,” he says. “This is simply not possible with manual or human-centric oversight. In the quest for optimisation, data is perhaps the most valuable resource an organisation has.”
A number of technologies are available in the market to help process firms achieve efficiencies through data. These include sensors, storage solutions, advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“This is now providing manufacturers with the foundations on which to truly leverage ubiquitous data capture and turn that data in to valuable operational transformation, week-by-week, day-by-day and hour-by-hour,” says Chester.
“However, if manufacturers simply go on a crusade to find new ways in which they can acquire new data without an equal or greater emphasis on how they will use that data to their advantage, that would be sheer folly.”
Seeing the potential
He urges manufacturers to build a strategic data system that outlines all potential data points, their relationships, and their impact on process or product performance.
“Once they understand that they can begin to formulate a strategy for how to acquire the data, how to process the data, and how to act on the data.”
Omer Mir, applications engineer at measurement specialists HBM, says most manufacturing customers are interested in the efficiencies that can be gained by use of data.
“In process plants, the key things being measured are temperature, pressure, load and displacement,” he says. “Manufacturers are looking to increase efficiency; if they can do some predictive maintenance and know when things are about to fail they can prevent downtime.”
Mir says the first thing he is asked about data acquisition hardware and software is its accuracy.
“Then it’s diversity in terms of how many different parameters something can acquire from. Then it’s about integration with existing control systems.”
Motor optimisation is a key area where clever capture and use of data can increase the value manufacturers get from their kit, Mir says.
“If they can optimise their motors to operate in more efficient bands they can keep energy cost and carbon footprint down.”
In this instance, analysis is required of losses of energy throughout the processing system.
“People will look at input power and output to see where the loss has occurred. They feed electrical energy into a motor and they want to see the maximum amount of mechanical energy coming out the other side.”
Measuring heat is one way of working towards this goal. “Temperature can really affect the life of a motor so by keeping an eye on that and knowing where not to operate the motor – or if you can manage the currents that are driving up the temperature – you can extend the life of the motor.”
This is just one of many areas where manufacturers can capture data to fine tune their processes and make sure they get the most bang for their buck in order to remain competitive.
“In a plant you have lots of moving parts and ultimately you need to keep an eye on all of them and build a picture of what each part is doing. They can tell you about each other as well as themselves.”
HBM has seen a rise in demand for data acquisition tools and services and has developed new ways of getting the most accurate results for customers. The company says its QuantumX data acquisition system can pick up signals from any analogue sensor and is immune to the electrical noise created by magnets and motors.
“The Quantum X series transmits frequencies rather than voltages, as frequencies are immune to electrical noise so you get a clear signal,” says Mir.
Many data acquisition units can be integrated into a control system to give a picture of different data points around a factory. They are used in many industries, including food and drink, automotive and chemicals, and Mir expects their use to become more sophisticated over time.
“I don’t expect the ways of acquiring data to change dramatically in the near future,” he says. “What may evolve is more dedicated solutions so software may look at each block of a factory. You will get automated calculations, quicker results and more trending.”
Of course any technology is only as good as the people using it. This is another area where manufacturers can stand themselves apart from their competitors.
What may evolve is more dedicated solutions so software may look at each block of a factory. You will get automated calculations, quicker results and more trending
Omer Mir, applications engineer, HBM
HBM has a training academy in Germany. “There is a lot of equipment set up there and you can play out different scenarios, acquire data and get your measurement techniques and sensor applications right,” says Mir.
“That’s where the difference comes in – anyone can get tonnes of data, but it’s about getting it reliable, which comes from how good the application of the sensors is, how balanced the specification is, how accurate the measurement chain is calibrated, and so on. You need to know how to manage the system and read the results.”
Meanwhile HBM nCode produces engineering data analysis solutions to help firms understand what their data is telling them.
“The principles of data acquisition have been out there a while but it is getting more complex and techniques are evolving,” says Mir. “There is a lot of good expertise out there but there are still people who don’t get the most out of it.”
Chester says it is important for digital transformation to be a key focus throughout an organisation if it wants to make the most of data. He adds that medium and large firms should consider appointing champions for this initiative.
“In those organisations, it is perhaps a serious consideration now to appoint a digital transformation tzar to co-ordinate and lead those efforts,” he says.