February 2014, Vol. 241 No. 2


Human-Machine Interfaces Can Benefit Oil & Gas Industry

Corey Foster, Automation Sales Manager, Valin Corporation

Standard practices today simply use human machine interfaces (HMI) as windows into a system by allowing some information to be passed back and forth through those windows. This method anticipates the user having the knowledge to use that information both in and out of the system, such as coming up with solutions to problems or passing the information along to the correct individuals.

Specifically applied to the oil and gas pipeline industry, this could mean an operator receives a warning message from a remote location along a pipeline that simply says “error” or “malfunction,” rather than a more accurate description of the problem. This is a difficulty for many pipelines without updated monitoring capabilities, which can be solved using HMI.

In the example of the pipeline operator receiving the nondescript error message, there are a few things that could happen differently to save time and money in the pipeline repair process. The interface in the example sends out a simple error message, so in order for someone to respond to that alarm, an operator would need to physically get in a car or plane and go investigate the problem further.

If the malfunction is at a remote part of the pipeline, it could be a long time before more details of the problem are discovered. Another problem with this scenario is that the alarm does not include information on fixing the problem at hand, and there could be a more qualified or experienced individual who should have received the warning message before anyone else in order to address the problem correctly.

The solution is for the reach of the HMI system to extend beyond that individual user and out to the supervisor, manager and executives, regardless of where they are in the world. The recipients of the message would differ, depending on the type and severity of the problem, and further information could be accessed by opening an app on a smartphone, or a page on a web browser. Multiple users could access this information all at once. This is especially powerful with pipelines where the information points are spread out over many miles in remote locations.

Background Information On HMI
HMI used to be specified as more cost-effective and more functional alternatives to simple pushbuttons and light indicators on electrical panels. If a system was complicated enough to have a lot of buttons and indicators, then it became more cost-effective to put a touch screen on the panel instead of all those buttons, both in installation and programming time. The more buttons and indicators required in a system, the larger an HMI replacement would be.

As systems became more sophisticated and information became more important, HMI panels became more attractive primarily due to functionality. The panels could show analog values such as temperature and pressure while also displaying those values on trend-graphs, something not easily done before. As HMI improved, their database and logic capabilities allowed new functionality with information that was already available, but wasn’t being capture before.

The information could be stored in a larger database, processed in increasingly complicated ways, and called back up in any form desired. However, the data has remained mostly local to the initial location. Even if the information could be pushed around, it was on a closed network designed solely for its original purpose.

HMI Technology Advancements

With advancing information networks and more methods to move that information around, individuals are used to having any data at their fingertips wherever and whenever they want it. This is especially true in people’s personal lives and increasingly true in the business and industrial world.

Modern HMI are changing from being conduits in and out of a system locally to conduits to and from anywhere in the world. Alarms can now be left to the HMI to monitor and actively push notifications out to the users when required. Production and quality information can be pushed out to any desired location in the world if users give the access. This increases the visibility, thereby improving reaction time to changes and problems as they arise.

The limit on this capability was network bandwidths, or just how much information could be sent over a network. Hard-wired Ethernet networks were required to meet bandwidth limitations which was not practical in many environments such as remote pipeline and water-well monitoring stations in which satellite and cellular data servers are commonly used, but have limited or costly data plans.

Some new technologies reduce the bandwidth requirements while others are improving the bandwidth capabilities of networks. This combination is making wireless networks more viable for these applications, whether by wireless Ethernet or cellphone signal. Now, in many cases, the solution is implementing a relatively simple wireless infrastructure as opposed to laying out miles of cable. This is significant in remote applications such as oil pipeline monitoring stations.

Other advances in HMI make them smarter and easier to use in more powerful ways. Previous architectures left the brains to the controllers of the systems so that any logic and information was taken care of by them. If logic was performed and information managed outside of the controller, it required a more advanced HMI like a SCADA system. The jump from the simple HMI to the advanced SCADA system was often cost-prohibitive and too complex for many applications.

Most pipeline applications require multiple control points over a large distance. Current standard HMI methodology ignores the need for multiple control points and simply treats them as separate applications. Others implement a complex and error-prone control scheme that means multiple HMI communicating with one controller, or multiple controllers handshaking with each other; none of those systems offer real solutions. Recent advances allow options such as having one HMI talk to the controller on the pipeline while having multiple touch-screens around the application displaying different instances of that primary HMI’s application.

Dynamic Context-Sensitive Information

Improved functionality in the lower-level HMI allows dynamic context-sensitive information. A common application is a copier machine that provides information to fix a paper jam. It tells the user exactly where the problem is and what steps need to be taken. A further advancement is for this information to be dynamically updated as common problems are found and solutions are uploaded to a database.

A common example of this technology in action is the “help” function of computer software that reaches out to the Internet to find new and updated solutions. This type of functionality can now be easily introduced into the industrial world using HMI that can access the Internet to retrieve web pages, or pdf files that are updated as common problems are found and diagnosed. Applied to the oil and gas pipeline industry, this can be a powerful tool for responding to alarms and implementing fixes for problems.

Traceability, Authorization And Escalation
Other advancements come in the ease by which HMI can trace users’ actions, authorize changes and escalate alarm messages. Many times problems are caused by operators performing incorrect functions and then perhaps covering up their actions. Being able to record their steps would give accountability to the operators, traceability to their actions and troubleshooting information to the engineers. While this is an FDA requirement (21 CFR, Part 11) for the pharmaceutical industry, it has great applications in the pipeline and gas industry as well, since the same problems exist, though not necessarily with the same FDA concerns.

Authorizing changes has become simpler and more streamlined compared to previous systems that had limited functionality, or were extremely complex to implement. Now, with simple options, any input on an HMI can be chosen to require authorization from someone with higher security clearance to perform crucial pipeline functions.

The escalation of alarms is now even being left to HMI. While it is common to have HMI report alarms and require acknowledgement from the users, having the HMI escalate that alarm to a different person if it is not being acknowledged is a new functionality. The HMI can email or text an operator and receive a response back. If that response is not received within an allotted time, it will send a message to the next person, then a third person, if required. This is important for many urgent situations where alarms may be indicative of safety risks to personnel or equipment, financial impact to the company or environmental issues, such as contamination.

While recent innovations have allowed HMI to become increasingly useful to oil and gas pipeline applications, many industry leaders remain apathetic toward the numerous benefits that advanced HMI solutions can afford them. The issues with standard HMI have been solved with smart HMI solutions that allow condensed data packages, multiple users, dynamic context-sensitive information and a plethora of other benefits that could save oil and gas companies large amounts in terms of operational and repair costs.

With a large integrated network of dynamically updated information resulting from real-time communication with thousands of sensors along a pipeline, companies become equipped with the tools to handle malfunctions in the most efficient, timely manner, particularly when the right people are alerted of those malfunctions moments after they occur. This is the largest benefit that updated smart HMI technology holds for the oil and gas pipeline industry.

Author: Corey Foster serves as Northern California automation sales manager for Valin Corporation. He has 15 years of experience in automation, specializing in electromechanical motion control. For the majority of his career he has been an application engineer, both at a major manufacturer and in distribution.

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