Controls Diagnostics: The Importance of Staying Connected
Diagnostics are not only beneficial for preventing major issues, but they can be useful in ensuring system optimization.
In this day and age, the value of communication is paramount. The world is tied together in a digital web that permits the flow of information at all times. This idea of communication exists between people, obviously, but also in the interaction of people and things. In the industrial world it seems the capability or even desire to stay connected is lagging behind the societal shift to this ever present need to be connected. It can be argued that this concept is vastly more important in the industrial world where critical processes rely on system health, and in turn a certain amount of foresight and preparation is required to ensure safe operation and system longevity. Although the mentality hasn’t fully shifted on the user side, controls manufacturers are preparing for the inevitable shift by integrating more powerful controls diagnostics into their products, to bring more attention to the value of being connected.
If we look specifically at the industrial heating world, system diagnostics allow users to receive feedback from their system on parameters such as amperage, voltage, and power metering, alarm outputs, loop alarms, heater break alarms, and more. The more you know about your system and how it is performing, the better prepared you can be to ensure the reliability and health of the system. This capability goes down even to the component level, where individual process controllers or power controllers allow feedback of certain parameters to those components being controlled. While technology is always on a path forward, we are currently in a state where the technology is beyond general understanding and appreciation. Current controller capabilities are not completely understood through the industry, such that they have become under-utilized in a majority of industries and applications. While we continue to unveil more potential technologies in the industrial segment, we can’t neglect the importance of understanding why these technologies are used, or even needed.
One culprit to this mentality is that too often cost drives the bottom line, leading to systems having the barebones approach to system communication. The focus is commonly on how low the price can get, versus what is the best price we can get for the features we need. The short sighted nature of this mindset to specifying system features all too often looks at the capital upfront costs, and neglects the installation, operation, and long term maintenance costs. The thought that comes to mind is, no one has the time to do it right the first time, but everyone has time to fix it. Unfortunately, many companies have seen these types of experiences first hand. Systems are purchased and put into service with little to no feedback or understanding of how well the system is performing on a daily basis. In these situations, failure of a component is rarely recognized immediately. Instead, issues become apparent through poor product quality, or a secondary issue derived from the initial failure. Consider what happens when no warning is given to an inevitable component failure, and the costs associated with an event like this. For one we can look at the value of lost product. This alone can cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, if not more, when a production line is down. This halt in production can also put end user customers in a tough spot which could lead to irreparable consumer relationships. We also have to look at the costs of expediting replacement parts both from manufacturers and through logistics companies. Depending on the type of component it may also require a service technician to be on site to perform the install, and without prior notice these visits commonly run a premium. We quickly begin to see that the scales drastically shift from the value of upfront capital costs to the value of security and longevity of systems specified with diagnostics. It’s not about the feature itself; it’s about what that feature is protecting and ensuring.
While we continue to unveil more potential technologies in the industrial segment, we can’t neglect the importance of understanding why these technologies are used.
With this basic understanding of cost distribution over the life of a system, the mentality can shift from cost to value. Let’s look at something as simple as a loop break alarm. This feature ensures continuity from a sensor to a controller and back to the process. Intelligent controllers understand that when the process is calling for demand and the controller is issuing a call for power that the process should respond. However, if there is no change occurring and the process value is staying the same despite the call for power from the controller, we have an issue somewhere in the chain. Users are alerted and can inspect the system before this break in the chain leads to downstream failures. Perhaps a sensor wasn’t seated properly and came loose. Maybe a relay failed or shorted. Any number of simple problems can occur in the process chain that is a straightforward fix when caught early. However, if left unattended, even simple issues can compound into greater problems. This was just one example where a simple feedback feature can protect against more significant problems.
Diagnostics are not only beneficial for preventing major issues, but they can be useful in ensuring system optimization. Many engineers in the industry design systems in one of two ways. The first is that they consider ideal conditions. Rarely do we find that systems installed run under the enigmatic ideal condition. The real world behaves as it will, often having subtle effects on process parameters. Or the more probable scenario where variances in one part of the process have a domino effect, slowly pulling the process away from the conditions they were designed for. The second approach taken by engineers, and likely the more common, is over-designing. Engineers are aware that ideal conditions never hold true, and design around this. The implications of over-designing are that systems are frequently operating inefficiently. If diagnostics were to be used, however, feedback from the process tells users exactly what is happening, so there’s no guesswork, and the faith that a system is designed optimally can be put to the test. Despite how the design was approached, controls diagnostics opens up a window into what is happening in real time, so systems can be dialed in more accurately and in the end reduces unnecessary waste.
Looking ahead, further advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) will only continue to push the industry to being connected. Integration between on board controls diagnostics and cloud based storage and analytics will weave the industry deeper into the web. The foundation to this concept resides in the capability to record and monitor on the component level, so naturally converting the raw data into intelligent analytics to drive more optimized and robust systems from the ground up is the next step. The days of simple mechanical components left to run systems blindly are slowly fading, giving way to the necessity of connectivity, and being part of the digital age inherently requires being connected.