Ask process plant managers where modern technology can make a difference to their output and they might not immediately think of pipes. But if economic pressures and the speed of the digital revolution are causing you to look again for improvements, you could do worse than investigate the potential to improve the effectiveness of the seemingly mundane tubes your material flows through.
“Pipes and connectors play an absolutely vital role in process industries,” says Erika Hedblom, manager for intelligent tube systems at Stockholm-headquartered engineering giant Sandvik.
“Having accurate ongoing insight into their state is vital for the efficient and smooth running of any system. Damage can lead to problems including reduced productivity and eventual system failure.”
Although pipes and connectors are often exposed to temperature changes, vibrations and other stresses, it has traditionally been difficult to monitor their condition, Hedblom says.
“Conventional external sensors give no insight into internal workings,” she explains. “The challenge is especially acute in harsh or inaccessible environments such as boiler systems or petrochemical applications, where most sensors would soon fail due to the tough conditions.”
Sandvik has developed an intelligent-tube product for in-process monitoring. The Sentusys system sees sensors embedded into a protected position within the wall of a pipe or connector tube to collect data, which becomes available to technicians through the Cloud. Tubes can be made from most alloys in a variety of sizes for different process applications.
“The benefits of generating real-time data from inside the process are increased control, optimisation of yield, longer service life for equipment and a reduction in downtime,” says Hedblom [pictured left]. “Abnormalities can be picked up and rectified before they become an issue, maintaining optimal conditions for longer.”
Smart pipes also allow retrospective assessment of pipes and connectors to inform decisions for the future, rather than relying on guesswork and intuition.
Swedish power firm Bomhus Energi AB replaced one metre of piping with a Sentusys intelligent tube within their 150MW bubbling fluid bed boiler in a bid to avoid dew, which is easily created in these conditions and can lead to corrosion.
Innovation business Emerson Automation Solutions has recently launched its own pipeline-condition tracking product.
The Roxar FSM Log 48 area corrosion monitor uses remote, continuous monitoring to detect and pinpoint localised corrosion, reducing the need for costly inspection methods.
“Localised corrosion, when undetected, can cause pipeline failures that lead to reduced transportation availability and fines or penalties – not to mention repair costs,” says director of global midstream Chuck Miller.
Armed with comprehensive, real-time pipeline health information, operators can make better decisions about when and where to use pipeline inspection gauges – large pieces of machinery that detect defects – and other intensive interventions.
The Emerson system is designed to work for both uncovered and buried pipelines and can be retrofitted to existing tubes. An electric current is fed through the monitored length of pipeline to generate an electric field and enable measurement of the voltage drop between pairs of sensing pins installed on the external pipe wall. A uniform increase in voltage drops between all pin pairs indicates generalised corrosion, while an isolated increase suggests a localised problem.
As well as monitoring, technology is being used in various other ways to enhance the effectiveness and usability of pipes and connectors.
Manufacturer Durapipe UK has developed building information modelling shadows for its PVC-U pipework range to meet demand. This means plant designers can see exactly how and where the pipes will fit in to the overall factory using advanced 3D modelling techniques.
“With Durapipe PVC-U extensively used within process industries, the company was increasingly being asked for BIM models for this system, so this latest development means customers within this sector now have the tools they need to effectively design new pipework systems within process applications,” says industrial product manager Fraser Higgins.
With pressure to drive efficiency and lower costs within manufacturing facilities, there is an increasing demand for flow and control through pipe networks to be operated remotely
Fraser Higgins, industrual product manager, Durapipe UK
Getting the right pipework for the application is a critical step in getting the most from your kit.
Certification is required for certain applications from the Food and Drug Administration. Elsewhere, ensuring a system that can safely convey chemical substances is vital.
“Providing excellent chemical resistance, PVC-U is an ideal material to transport a wide variety of process chemicals and industrial fluids at ambient temperatures, including sulphuric acid, sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide,” says Higgins.
Meanwhile, C-PVC is purpose-designed to convey hot, corrosive chemicals, and has the ability to transfer acids and alkalis under pressure and at elevated temperatures.
“Specially developed to convey the most hazardous of chemicals at elevated temperatures, polypropylene is often utilised within pharmaceutical, chemical processing and chemical dosing applications, offering resistance to acetone and cyclohexanol as well as being suitable for hydrofluoric acid.”
Corrosion to pipes from carrying unsuitable chemicals can not only damage plant equipment and cause costly downtime and repairs, it can lead to leaks posing a threat to the health of the workforce and the environment.
Ahead of using modern monitoring systems to look out for such corrosion, process plant managers can also seek to take advantage of available preventative measures. Durapipe UK has a company chemist who can assess the chemical resistance requirements of an application and recommend the most suitable pipe material.
Flow of ideas
As well as technology, regulation and innovation, pipe and connector developments are often driven by the market itself. Durapipie UK has created a static mixer in response to customer demand.
With no moving parts, using the energy generated from the flow stream within, the static mixer is particularly aimed at chemical dosing applications where it is vital that chemicals are thoroughly mixed with the fluid being conveyed through the pipe system.
Meanwhile, Durapipe’s clear PVC-U pipe provides the ability to conduct a visual check to confirm the correct substance is flowing through a system or the right chemical is being dosed into a process, which can reduce the need for costly monitoring equipment.
“A clear pipe also offers the added benefit of ensuring that a continuous flow can be easily observed so that any blockages or break in flow can be quickly identified and addressed with minimal disruption,” says Higgins.
Having accurate ongoing insight into their state is vital for the efficient and smooth running of any system. Damage can lead to problems including reduced productivity and eventual system failure
Erika Hedblom, manager for intelligent tube systems, Sandvik
Different ways of using pipe and connectors to increase flow rates are also being explored. Durapipe says its Dialock Diaphragm valve offers significantly increased flow rates.
“The new technology and innovations that are being developed within process applications are around automation, complete connectivity and online management of systems,” says Higgins. “With pressure to drive efficiency and lower costs within manufacturing facilities, there is an increasing demand for flow and control through pipe networks to be operated remotely.
“Valves are integral to the successful operation of any pipework system to isolate processes, dose chemicals or change flow direction or speed.”
Technology looks set to drive improvements in pipe and connector efficiency and effectiveness into the future.
“The uptake of Bluetooth technology is steadily increasing to enable actuated valves to be operated remotely, without personnel needing to be positioned in a control room,” says Higgins. “Bluetooth-enabled actuators also eliminate the need to run cables from the actuator to a central PLC system, saving significant time and costs during the installation.”
Data collection and analysis is being driven by technological advance and a desire from plant operators to pursue marginal gains. You can no longer afford to ignore the pipework in your factory.