Handhelds help refineries spot problems

Handheld devices, RFID tags and workflow applications are being used to help ensure smooth and continuous operation of refineries' systems

Refineries, otherworldly-looking places when seen from a distance, are actually marvels of engineering complexity, with miles of interconnected pipes and thousands of pieces of equipment processing chemicals and petroleum products. But historically, an essential tool for keeping a refinery's systems from breaking down has been the lowly clipboard.

However, paper documentation of refinery processes is giving way to a technology developed by Houston-based SAT that marries handheld devices, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and workflow applications. Workers are using the technology to help ensure smooth and continuous operation of refineries' systems.

Much of what goes on in a refinery can be controlled and monitored automatically, but "there are still things that you want someone to physically walk by and touch and feel and make sure a piece of equipment is running well," says Bill Johnson, reliability manager at Houston-based Lyondell-Citgo Refining, which is using SAT's IntelaTrac product.

Instead of relying on a checklist, IntelaTrac reads an RFID tag that a worker scans on a piece of equipment and then provides device-specific data about what to check for, how often to check for it and what steps to take in the event of an abnormal reading.

"This thing will prompt some action," says Johnson. The handheld may advise anything from adjusting a valve to alerting a supervisor. "It allows us to identify problems earlier and do better troubleshooting when we identify those problems," Johnson says.

Because the data is uploaded into the refinery's computer systems, workers can now look for trends over longer periods of time, he explains. And in a 24-hour operation like a refinery, where slow changes in pressure, temperature or vibration can signal the onset of a problem in a piece of equipment, a single worker might not be able to detect a trend in the course of an eight-hour shift.

Harry Forbes, an analyst at ARC Advisory Group, says people often think of mobile units as replacements for devices already in the control room. But, he says, IntelaTrac "is really a workflow solution to try to capture information that's in the field and make it usable electronically very quickly."

Forbes says SAT's technology is the leader in the processing industry. "I don't think there is a close second right now," he says.

The return on investment for IntelaTrac is hard to measure, says Johnson, because it involves cost avoidance -- an estimate based on problems avoided as a result of early detection. "We feel like it's paid for itself," he says.

Don Frieden, SAT's CEO and founder, says he tells customers that reducing costly secondary equipment failures can result in payback in three to six months. He uses the example of an automobile water pump: If a leak is detected quickly, the cost of repair is minimal. But once the water is gone, the engine may go as well -- the secondary failure. Secondary failures typically cost eight to 10 times more than primary equipment failures, Frieden says.

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