Start with the Basics to Reduce Process Variability

James Beall delivered a Back to the Basics – Process Control Diagnostics Improves Refinery Performance presentation at the recent AIChE spring meeting. James, whom you may recall from earlier variability management posts, is a principal process control consultant. He’s a senior member of Emerson’s variability management consulting team.

In this presentation, James stressed what he normally stresses with process manufacturers–that some of the largest and most frequent opportunities exist in basic process control. These opportunities include eliminating variability at the source, tuning the controllers to meet the control objective, using ratio, cascade and feed forward control as well as using a process analysis system to diagnose problems and tune loops. Addressing these opportunities also builds a control foundation essential for any advanced process control (APC) initiatives.

He referenced a 1997 McKinsey study that showed 50-60% of the value realized from a process optimization project comes from addressing loop variability. The balance 40-50% comes from applying APC on top of these optimized loops. The financial results from reducing variability are being able to operate closer to constraints such as specification limits. Benefits can come from reduced energy consumption, less waste and rework, higher yields, higher quality, etc.

The variability management team keeps statistics on control loops with excessive variability from site audits. The major causes of this variability include control valve performance (30%), improper tuning (30%) and improper process design (20%).

James shared several valve-performance examples including a regenerator pressure valve. By looking at the setpoint, pressure, output, and valve position trends, he spotted the valve sticking and then jumping 3% followed by a quick spike of another 2-3%. This caused periods of oscillations before settling out. Once the sticking problem was addressed, the oscillations became tiny ripples on the trends. Similarly, poorly tuned loops can cause large oscillations impacting overall process variability.

He noted that you must have a process dynamics analysis and diagnostic tool of some type to pinpoint these sources of variability. Problem identification is the first step in corrective action. And these problems may be significantly impacting the overall efficiency of the process.

James described some of the tests that he and the variability management consultants use with the Entech Toolkit. One of the most important tests is to identify the process dynamics so that the control loops can be properly tuned. Emerson’s Entech Toolkit can identify common dynamics such as first order, second order overdamped and integrator+lag. Dynamics that are more complex can be identified by this process analysis toolkit (11 tests in total) and the associated controller can be properly tuned. Many of the more complex process dynamic responses cannot be identified by less sophisticated analysis systems.

If you have the bandwidth and inclination to learn the skills to do it yourself, James recommends three Emerson Education Center courses: Process Dynamics, Control and Tuning Fundamentals, Process Analysis and Minimizing Variability and Modern Loop Tuning.

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