The steps to upgrading a DCS system

Nicola Brittain

How one food and biochemicals processing company embarked on a controlled, and carefully planned upgrade of its DCS infrastructure.

In the food processing industry, many well-established firms are currently facing the prospect of upgrading their aging Distributed Control Systems (DCS) as well as the underlying computer network.  Many will also be daunted by this task, given the cost and potential for disrupting operations while the new system is brought online

As a result, many engineering, operations are instead opting for a controlled, planned, multi-stage implementation, while immediately addressing any significant gaps, points of pain and cybersecurity risks.

Food and biochemicals company Corbion was one such company when opting to upgrade its computer network and automation system at its facility in Blair, Nebraska,   The Netherlands-headquartered company provides naturally derived preservation solutions, including lactic acid and its derivatives, to support food processors worldwide and the Blair facility is expected to help the company expand its lactic acid production capacity in North America by 40%

With these ambitious goals in mind the company planned a staged implementation, but it also wanted to make more use of available enhanced automated features that modern DCS systems use to streamline production, gain greater control over batch specifications, and simplify the user interface.

Corbion selects NovaTech after consultation

After an extensive evaluation involving a third-party consultant and reviews of multiple technology vendors, Corbion selected NovaTech, a leading provider of distributed control systems and solutions to upgrade its DCS system.  NovaTech had partnered with Corbion on the facility’s original installation and startup decades ago and had been providing ongoing technical support.  The automation solution provider recommended a technology upgrade and formulated a detailed plan for implementation in three phases.

“One key when implementing an automation technology upgrade is that companies like Corbion can take their base configuration and applications, and in a controlled, phased approach migrate it through the upgrade process,” says Paul Wallace, vice-president, global sales at NovaTech.  “Through a very cohesive pre-engineering effort on this project, we put together a well-thought-out plan to execute the changes gradually.”

According to Wallace, phase one of the project was a technology infrastructure upgrade of the existing network including servers, workstations, network appliances, operating system, and backups.  NovaTech also upgraded the existing D/3 Distributed Control System.  Although this phase required a short, planned shutdown, the system was quickly back online.

Phase two, which began in Q2 of 2021, was accomplished without any interruption of the process.  In this step, Corbion decided to employ enhanced features of the D/3 DCS from NovaTech, starting with the human-machine interface (HMI).  A properly designed graphical user interface helps improve situational awareness, reduces workload, and enables the operator to view the process at-a-glance so they can focus on mitigating abnormal situations.

NovaTech implements Flexbatch

In addition, NovaTech implemented FlexBatch, a batch and recipe management system designed in accordance with the ISA-88 standard for batch control. With the software, developers, engineers, and production staff can quickly formulate and modify recipes, and then immediately schedule them for production.

The final step of phase two involved the installation of PlantNotify, a platform-independent software that provides critical plant notifications and critical maintenance requirements to team members instantly via text and email when certain alarms or events are triggered.  In the past, a knowledgeable team member had to actively monitor the system, essentially “tethering” key personnel to a PC and slowing any needed response.

Phase three, was scheduled for later in 2021, and involved replacing the plant’s aging I/O drops.  Corbion also opted to migrate to a modern I/O system, the 8000 series platform, a native, remote I/O family that was highly integrated with the D/3 system.

The 8000 Series can be installed in new installations or replace existing I/O without modification to the existing field wiring. This allows D/3 installations to upgrade older I/O hardware to the latest electronics with a minimum of downtime and very low process risk.  To further minimise downtime, NovaTech pre-assembled and tested the equipment, before delivering it to Corbion well ahead of the scheduled shutdown.

According to Wallace, the advanced I/O allowed for greater automation with better diagnostics, troubleshooting, and asset management capability.  If there is ever an issue with the system, maintenance staff can remotely drill down to the I/O controller using the HMI, instead of having to do so in the field.

With the technological infrastructure in place, Corbion can now automate procedures with greater operator control and visibility.  Even in highly automated food processing environments, standard operating procedures (SOPs) for startup/shutdown, material loading/unloading, line switchovers, clean-in-place, maintenance preparation and other tasks are still completed manually, using paper-based systems.

To streamline operations, NovaTech implemented a digital solution through its augmented manual procedures (NovaTech AM) software, which means food processors can replace their paper-based SOPs with a digital format that functions on smartphones, PCs, and tablets.

When running, manual procedures are linked to the process control platform with bidirectional communication of equipment status and task completion.  The information is displayed as an operator-friendly checklist, with completed tasks self-audited and timestamped for future reference and compliance reporting.  The AMP software ensures accurate SOP execution, along with validation of manual tasks, and comprehensive information capture/sharing.

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