The chemistry of networking

IP networks at chemical manufacturing companies are helping to push sales information to employees in the field, centralize plant and back-office data stores, and even adjusting the heat or mixture of complex processes

Chemical manufacturers must operate a serious network of plumbing: pipes, ducts and valves to process, produce and transport millions of gallons -- and billions of dollars -- of valuable product.

These companies also are expanding their plumbing when it comes to network transport, and the various types of applications they deliver over Ethernet, WANs and wireless networks. IP networks at companies such as Dow Corning and Nova Chemical are helping to push sales information to employees in the field, centralize plant and back-office data stores, and even adjusting the heat or mixture of complex processes.

Nova Chemicals is applying intelligence from its IP network and data center to how it manages the physical control of the chemicals and pipelines that produce its products.

The Pittsburgh manufacturer of plastics and chemicals employs a mix of technologies to control the chemical production processes throughout its factories in North and South America; software from Pavilion Technologies is used in concert with process control hardware and software from Honeywell, and a centralized SAP ERP system platform.

The Pavilion8 software runs on a central server in Nova's Pittsburgh data center, and taps into the ERP and process control systems also running there and in the factories across the Western hemisphere via the corporate WAN (a mix of Frame Relay and IP VPN links). Pavilion provides predictive process control management by analyzing an array of factors, such as what products were scheduled to be made in certain locations; what resources were used to produce the products; how these resources were used; and what the outcome was in terms of production quality and quantity (and potential revenue).

"Based on all the data it has available, Pavilion knows what you're trying to make," says John Wheeler, CIO for Nova Chemicals, who recently announced his retirement from the company. "It can predict the capacity of the reactor and monitor the process as it happens."

In addition to monitoring all these factors, the Pavilion software can take action to control these various processes in order to reach the planned production outcome. If too much heat is detected during a production process, or an irregular mixture of chemicals occurs, the software can notify plant engineers or even perform automatic actions, such as lowering temperature or valve controls in the factories, Wheeler says.

This tight integration of physical and software controls makes factories more efficient and profitable, Wheeler adds. In plastics production, product that is made on specification can be sold at a higher price than "off-spec" material, which might be sold to a garbage bag manufacturer instead of a medical supply maker.

The plant/software integration "allows us to make more on-spec products and lets us be more productive," Wheeler says. "If I can take a plant that is a multimillion asset and produce more on-spec product, it can mean millions of dollars to the bottom line." (For competitive reasons, Wheeler says, he cannot state how much the company is saving or the revenue generated at its plants because of the Pavilion software.)

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