The utility of having this type of tool in place quickly became apparent. In the first week following the implementation, the plant experienced a process problem with a phase separator. Initially the plant's staff believed that the separator was functioning properly, forming the separation layer, but that the instrumentation on the unit simply was not recording the process properly. "Well, it was my instrument, and I wanted to prove that it was right," Stoffel says now. "But not being around 24 hours a day, I couldn't catch it at times when it showed that it was working." After working with PI, within a week Stoffel proved that, in fact, the instrument was functioning properly, prompting the plant's staff to look into replacing the separator itself with a larger unit, a $250,000 proposition. However, a process engineer subsequently used the solution to prove that the fault lay elsewhere, requiring a much less expensive fix and a significant cost-avoidance. "So probably starting off in the first week, we paid for the PI System," says Stoffel.
In another instance, one of the plant's production units was chewing through pumps, resulting in an annual bill for repair parts in excess of $500,000. A mechanical engineer at the plant used the PI System to determine that the pump currents in the unit, normally fairly flat, would periodically start "getting nervous," indicating that the pump was cavitating for one reason or another and resulting, in short order, in damage to the pump.
With that knowledge in hand, the engineer put together an application using a PI add-in to Excel that pulls data every six minutes from the monitoring solution into the spreadsheet application to show the status of some 100 pump currents. He combined this bit of handiwork with a dynamic link library (DLL) file that he found on the Internet to create a system that pages him whenever one of the pump currents starts getting "noisy." The engineer is able to access the PI System from work or his home computer to check on the troublesome pump. In addition, he used IP pop-up software he found on the Web to create hot links to troubleshooting sheets specific to whichever pump is causing the problem.
With that information in hand, the engineer can respond quickly to any anomaly by contacting an operator at the plant to take action before the pump dies. Moreover, over time, the engineer was able to use the collected information to identify designed-in problems in the equipment that now have been corrected. The result: a $363,000 year-over-year reduction in pump repair parts for the unit in question.
From "Trust Me" to Hard Savings
Elsewhere, users in the plant's purchasing department are able to assess some of the major raw material inventories from their desktop for use in scheduling orders. The environmental and safety departments use PI to monitor aspects of compliance and for incident investigations, and the plant has plans to interface the solution with an environmental management system and online release modeling software.
In discussing the return on investment (ROI) on ATOFINA's investment in the PI System at the Calvert City plant, Stoffel says that when the initiative began, "It started off as one of those 'trust me' projects. But before I got it put in, they were doing the five-year plan, and somebody decided that in five years and I was kind of concerned about this that this thing would be saving $500,000 a year." In fact, Stoffel says that he can probably claim more than $1.8 million in one-time savings and recurring annual savings of $590,000.
In addition, the solution actually has provided a platform for measuring ROI on other investments, too. "When I first started trying to get distributed control systems put in," Stoffel recalls, "they said, 'Justify it. Prove to me that it's going to make a difference.' Well, I didn't have any information, any good data to show what we were doing then and what we could do in the future. So besides returning investment itself, PI also provides a way to prove return on investment in other projects."
Too Much Information?
Do PI and similar solutions carry the risk of overwhelming end users with all the data that this type of system can churn out? "Yes, that's possible," admits Stoffel. But the engineer who lives by the axiom that "data is not useful to anyone, information is useful to some, and knowledge is useful to all" says that the key is to learn what data is important to which person and to help that person turn the data into useful knowledge. At the same time, Stoffel believes in archiving more rather than less data. Currently the Calvert City's system is archiving 16,000 individual data points, or tags, in the PI solution. "Maybe some of them you really don't need, but you never know," he says. "The key is to throw it all in there, and then someday, if you have a safety incident that you have to investigate, you can use all the available data to try to get back to a root cause and solve that situation."