Optimized Upgrade

FROM THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE: The ethanol industry is evolving, equipment is aging and integrators are polishing their processes for complete distributed control system replacements.
By Lisa Gibson | August 23, 2017

Kenny Wirts says the distributed control system (DCS) replacement at Commonwealth Agri-Energy LLC in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, will result in a return on investment. The new system has vastly more capabilities, more automation and operates at a higher speed. Wirts, plant manager, says he has heard no negative feedback from his staff on the new DCS. “Not one time have I heard someone say, ‘Man, I wish we had that old system back.’”

Commonwealth Agri-Energy’s DCS was completely replaced during a routine shutdown that began June 13. Trident Automation handled the replacement, following through on its promise to have the new equipment installed and ready to function within 36 hours. The company had completed its part in the task in only 24, Wirts says. “Comfortably within their 36-hour allotted period, we were up and running.”

As recently as just a few years ago, an entire DCS replacement would shut an ethanol plant down for up to 10 days, Wirts says. Now, most integrators such as Trident have polished the process so thoroughly that they can get it done during normal plant shutdowns, he adds. Jason Hurst, co-owner of Trident, agrees.

The company started doing DCS upgrades in ethanol plants in 2010 and has completed about 45 since, Hurst says. It averages about 10 per year. Sometimes the entire system is replaced, sometimes just certain parts. Most of the time, Trident sells the software and hardware to its customers, but sometimes is hired simply to install and make sure all the components communicate well with each other for an efficient and optimized production process. “We’re an integrator. We’re very good at making one system talk to another,” Hurst says.

A DCS should have a lifespan of about 20 years, he says. “The system will show you signs of what needs to be upgraded. You’ll start to see failures.”

Why, When and How
The popular APACS+ DCS installed in a large number of plants about 20 years ago is reaching its obsolescence date, prompting a wave of upgrades and replacements across the industry, Hurst says. But that doesn’t mean the parts won’t be available. “I’m not too worried about the wall,” he says. “It’s a motivational force (for DCS replacements), but it doesn’t have to be.” The APACS+ equipment is “rock solid,” he says, and doesn’t fail. “The market is saturated. … It’ll just be more expensive.”

Or many plants might decide on a DCS upgrade because they hit a horsepower wall, says Carson Merkwan, business development manager for Direct Automation. They can’t expand or add capacity with their current horsepower and investing in an old system doesn’t always make sense, he says. “Sometimes it gets so cost prohibitive to expand your current platform that that might be something that might trigger DCS replacement,” Hurst says. “They can get a whole new system for the same price to expand.”

Trident uses a phased approach to total DCS replacement. “We’ll get their most critical systems going and then we schedule around the rest,” Hurst says.

Merkwan says Direct Automation has a “rip and replace” option, as well as two phased approaches: the first starts with replacement of the servers and uses those servers to run the hardware underneath; and the second runs two systems, replacing different parts individually. “We recommend rip and replace because then you know you’re not getting a Frankenstein system,” Merkwan says.

Like Trident, the company boasts a two-day replacement time. Direct Automation brings about 30 people to a site for the main switchover, lessening staff as the plant becomes familiar with its new system. Both companies offer training and support for as long as the plant needs it. While Direct Automation might make certain suggestions for its customers, based on individual needs and current regulations or standards, the decisions are left to the producers. “Ultimately, it comes down to what the customer wants,” Merkwan says. “As long as it’s safe and we don’t see an ethical reason with programming something the way they ask for it, we give it to them.”

Advice From the Experts
When an entire control system is replaced and a whole staff of people needs to learn the new one, mishaps and miscommunication can happen. Merkwan, Hurst and Wirts have a few pointers for ethanol producers to help avoid any major setbacks:

• Be engaged: Plant staff need to be actively involved in the upgrade, asking questions, getting input and talking to the integrator handling the transition, Hurst says. “They need to take ownership of the upgrade. I think that’s the biggest thing I see—they’re too busy with what they’re doing. Ethanol, in general, is usually pretty understaffed around the controls area.” Sometimes nobody mans the controls, he says, but someone needs to be there during the replacement. “It’s really important that you be engaged in the upgrade. Listen. Have a dialogue.”

Merkwan says it’s crucial to get a schedule from the integrator. “And make sure you’re getting a clear list of expectations to him.” Talk about how the trending works, how much automation the new system includes, which parts are being completely replaced, etc.

• Choose a champion: A plant should choose one employee to engage with the transition and handle decision-making. “There are a lot of decisions to make,” Merkwan says, adding the entire plant staff might not agree on each one. The champion can make the important calls and actively work with the integrator. He or she can be a manager, operator, etc., but the role is crucial, Merkwan says.

• Shop around: Be sure to select the right integrator and the right equipment. A plant is not obligated to use the incumbent integrator, Merkwan says. Get multiple quotes on services and equipment, and compare those quotes. “They might be leaving money on the table. They might be installing a system that’s already got 10 years lifespan on it, setting themselves up for another migration in 10 years, when it shouldn’t be less than 20.” Wirts says, “The best advice is find somebody you’re absolutely confident has the ability, the knowledge and the experience to install them.”

• Get feedback: Both Wirts and Merkwan recommend that plant managers talk to other plant managers who have been through the transition with the same brand, integrator, etc. Research and read the reviews.

• Keep internal communication open: Don’t neglect regular meetings with all stakeholders after the upgrade, Merkwan says. Communication lines should remain open as the plant familiarizes itself with its new capabilities. 

• Use the new features: New DCSs come with a vast array of capabilities and options. Use them. “Don’t force the integrator or manufacturer into copying what your old system did,” Hurst says. “Your old system probably didn’t do as much. You’re kind of hamstringing your new system right out of the gate.”

Obvious Improvements
With a new DCS in place of a 20-year-old one, plants will see a number of changes. Likely the most significant are the automation capabilities and real-time reports. In fact, Merkwan says the biggest complaint he hears about the upgrades is that the operators don’t know their systems as well because they don’t have to initiate each action in the process. “The operator had to click to make something happen on the screen, whereas, nowadays, they can be as automated as they want,” he says. “And that does make some plant managers nervous.” Merkwan suggests detailed training for operators, to ensure they still understand a process that doesn’t require constant action from them to maintain itself.

Sequencing and data integration are simpler now, too, Merkwan says. And there’s always the improved speed.

“Our old system was much, much slower than the new system,” Wirts says. “So the way that the valves were responding on the old system is not the way they do with the new system. The new system has a lot faster refresh rate.” The new system also has more functionality and is far more user-friendly, he adds.

Wirts is happy with the new DCS and the service provided by Trident. “They knew what our issues would be, they knew what their issues were going to be, and they delivered a finished product to me in 36 hours. But just because we’ve got it on a computer screen doesn’t mean we know how to use it.”

Commonwealth Agri-Energy still had someone on site in mid-July, checking valves and ensuring optimal efficiency and control over the entire ethanol-production process. “I think we’ll have them come back every year to make sure we’re running as efficiently as possible,” Wirts says. “I think there will be a return on investment.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine