How Process Design Solved Oil & Gas Valve Misalignment

Valve misalignments are a serious and costly issue in the petrochemical industry. Misalignments in tank fields and blending areas can result in financial losses from product quality and issues with environmental safety.

Here’s how a custom electronic pinboard automation integration solution developed by Matrix Technologies, Inc., helped a large oil refinery mitigate valve misalignments and improve efficiency in the alignment process design.

Why Valve Misalignments Can Be Costly

Integrated systems are a control standard for processing and pipelines in the oil and gas industry. These fully automated integration systems are the most robust approach to meeting the industry’s demands for quality and safety.

But in many oil and gas industry operations, it’s still common to use manually operated valves instead of fully automated systems because of the sheer cost of installing such systems at large sites.

This was the case at a large U.S. oil refinery. This customer is part of a large, multinational corporation and serves a major portion of United States petrochemical consumers with various products.

At the customer’s Midwest blending operations site, paper drawings, charts, redlines, and pinboards were being used to track the status of valves being open or closed. Though these types of solutions can work for a handful of instruments, handling 85 tanks and over 2,000 valves in the customer’s tank field area requires an approach much less cumbersome and prone to error.

Valve misalignments were creating serious cost and safety issues for the customer. In 2013, the customer’s tank field area experienced 15 incidents of valve misalignments resulting in over $900,000 in documented financial loss. This loss was due to product quality issues when product tanks or deliveries became contaminated and operational issues when incorrect tank alignments caused process unit upsets. In addition, these incidents presented a significant safety and environmental risk.

Eliminating these misalignment incidents required a change in procedure and a new integrated solution to facilitate the changes. The customer turned to Matrix Technologies, one of the world’s most experienced oil and gas engineering companies, to develop a new approach.

Figure 1. Tank with multiple valves and piping connected

Creating a New Oil & Gas Process Design Solution

Understanding how the tank field operators currently monitored and tracked valve statuses was the key to coming up with a usable, effective solution.

Operators had an enormously detailed site-wide CAD drawing, printed and spread out over multiple ANSI D-sized sheets. They needed to see the entire tank field, but also needed to see the intricate valve configurations that connected the tanks, like that in Figure 1. The new solution would need to make it easy to switch between a high-level overall layout of the tank field and an in-depth close-up of the valve lineups.

Working closely with the customer, Matrix recommended creating a new process design system that would monitor the current configuration of every valve and tank on the site. Operators would communicate the location of the valves that needed to be opened or closed via radio and workers in the field would radio back once the work was complete.  System data, such as a car sealed valve or problems operating the valve, would be entered into and stored in the system.

To get the level of detail required to show thousands of valves and quickly switch between different viewpoints, Matrix engineers had to move beyond standard HMI development tools. This led to the development of custom process operations technology, using AutoCAD as the Graphical User Interface (GUI) for the system. Data management was handled by a Microsoft SQL Server database.

How the Process Operations Technology Works

AutoCAD is a tried and true tool in oil and gas the engineering industry. The basic controls of interacting with a drawing are easy to learn. Autodesk offers software developers the functionality to integrate custom applications with AutoCAD to extend its features.

The process operations technology software application created by Matrix adds new toolbars, command line options, and functions to AutoCAD’s existing commands. Operators can search for a particular valve based on its identifying information. Upon selecting a valve, the operator can change the valve’s status between “Open” and “Closed.” The change is visually relayed to the operator: A red valve indicates closed and a green valve indicates open.

Figure 2. Valves configured as open (green) or closed (red) connect process piping. Layer colors (blue, pink, amber, and black) indicate different process materials.

As valves are configured between opened or closed, changes are logged into the database. A client-server relationship between the AutoCAD HMI and the database server enables the use of multiple HMI clients running the customized AutoCAD software. The database catalogs input from the different HMIs and distributes the changes among all clients. Every HMI sees the same valve configuration.

Figure 3. System Architecture for AutoCAD HMI tools communicating with SQL Server

The process design system runs on an isolated private network, not connected to enterprise or process control networks. The database, however, has been configured for feedback and control uses. The software structure is in place to integrate and show live data from the field or to transmit control signals to the equipment.

Figure 4. Connecting the AutoCAD HMI System to Process Network devices

Ensuring Proper User Access and System Security

One important issue that had to be addressed when developing the AutoCAD HMI tools was keeping the CAD drawing showing the tank field, valves, and piping segments intact. AutoCAD is by design a tool for creation and editing, but the customer needed the drawing content to be static.

Matrix implemented a security model based around user access to secure the state of the CAD objects and entities in the drawing. Different levels of users have different levels of access, which were implemented in software by disabling subsets of AutoCAD’s editing commands and functions.

Users were broken into three groups:

  • Non-operational users, who could view but not make changes to the system;
  • Operators, who could configure valves and enter metadata;
  • Process Engineers, who could make CAD-changes to the system.

Login credentials were created so individuals had only the access they needed.

Enhancing Operator Interaction with Advanced Viewing Technology

Designing a process operations technology system built around PC software created flexibility in the visual display hardware that could be used. Touchscreen monitors were one possibility, so as part of the GUI design, the AutoCAD Ribbon Toolbar was utilized to create large buttons for easy access by touch.

Figure 5. Custom buttons and tools added to the AutoCAD Ribbon Toolbar

The main system display was designed to be as large as feasible so its contents could be easily seen by all operators, even at a distance from display. This was achieved using an LCD television with a screen over seven feet in diagonal measurement, although a projector also was considered. AutoCAD’s native zooming capabilities also complemented the size of the screen.

This powerful viewing technology created huge advantages to system users. When searching for a particular valve or tank, the system zooms out to show the entire site, and then zooms back in toward the object in question, helping convey relative geographic location. Zooming and panning also are tied to a computer mouse scroll wheel, giving operators manual, granular control over what they’re viewing.

These methods of interaction proved to be very intuitive. Large areas of the site could be viewed on the television screen with moderate detail of the tanks and valves and the detailed valve configuration could be reached instantly without lag or loading time.

How these Innovations Prevent Misalignments

Once Matrix established the HMI interface and the tracking of configurations and metadata about all tanks and valves, the next step was making use of that information. Knowing the configuration of the valves, we added in the data about how the piping itself was built and connected. This enables the customer to determine at any given moment which process materials were flowing through which pipes.

By adding in the piping configuration data – over 15,000 piping segments and how they joined together –operators could see the results of their intended valve alignments.

Operators now can catch valve misalignments before they happen.

Figure 6. The current process flow path, depicted as lines and tanks colored green.

In Figure 6, TANK-1635 has been selected to identify the process flow path. It takes only a few seconds for the SQL Server database to analyze all possible routes throughout the entire site, passing through open valves and stopping at the closed valves.  Results are displayed to the operator’s screen. In the case of Figure 6’s potential valve lineup, process is flowing between TANK-1635 and TANK-1625, perhaps unintentionally.

By identifying where process materials will be flowing, operators can see when tanks are cut together and determine whether or not they should be. Valve lineups can be checked throughout the entire tank field prior to being set on the physical equipment.

The Result: Misalignment Costs Reduced to $0

In just over a year of running the new AutoCAD HMI system, the customer has achieved significant results, including a 100% drop in financial losses caused by misalignments, from over $900,000 per year to $0.

Additionally, by recording the valve changes in a database, reports and analytics yield data about which valves have been reconfigured multiple instances over a short period of time and thus may be prone to failure. These reports allow engineering to allocate funds to buy spare and replacement components ahead of time, reducing down time and the urgency of getting a much-needed part at the last minute.

Finally, one of the most notable successes is the change in procedural workflow for operators and engineers. The simplicity and ease of migrating over to the new system has led to it becoming a tool that they actively want to use.

Process Design Lessons for Industrial Manufacturers

The solution created for this oil refinery offers valuable lessons for other industrial manufacturers facing similar process design challenges:

  • There is large value in being able to run a process predictably. Aggregating the data about a process automation system provides visibility that enables manufacturing to be predictable and reliable and have a consistent, expected outcome;
  • The client recognized that they had a procedural workflow issue and that the standard tools and HMI packages they had available would not satisfy the needs for such a complex system. They knew they needed external expertise and approached Matrix Technologies, whose staff had the experience to recognize the problem, and the skill to devise the solution. This led to the custom solution integrating industry-standard tools in a new and unique way;
  • Operators and engineers are open to ways that allow them to do their job better. Usable, intuitive tools that improve their job will be quickly adopted and are more likely to succeed;
  • Once data about a process and equipment is centrally collected and properly organized such as in a database, it’s possible to analyze that data and make determinations to gain insight, reduce maintenance costs, and improve future business.

Matrix Technologies is one of the largest independent process design, industrial automation engineering, and manufacturing operations management companies in North America. To learn more about our automation integration capabilities and oil & gas engineering solutions, contact Austin Escobedo, Senior Engineer 1 in the Manufacturing Systems & Solutions Department

© Matrix Technologies, Inc.

Tags: / Automation Integration  / Process Design  / Improvement  / Upgrades 

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