Automation Aids Plant Support
Automation can provide assistance with overall plant maintenance, but make sure these items receive proper attention for their own maintenance.
by Garrett Forkner and Andy Rieland
It’s safe to say that some of the greatest advances in aggregates processing equipment in recent years have been made in the automation arena. And while the ability for producers to automate such functions as ticketing and billing has been around for at least 30 years, the past 10 years have seen tremendous progress in technology that allows for better equipment performance and more proactive equipment maintenance. Automation technology has improved plants’ abilities to produce material with more consistency, better quality, and greater productivity. At the same time, real-time automated equipment monitoring helps reduce downtime by tracking maintenance needs. In fact, there are automated systems available that can even remotely and automatically make some repairs.
In short — automation has made our lives and our jobs easier.
A high-tech watchdog
It used to be that producers only added automation capabilities to their plants as part of a new equipment acquisition. But today, existing equipment can often accept automated controllers as a retrofit. And this automation typically provides anything from basic machine control to a high level of process control to maintenance and service control.
Most companies, when they seek information about automation, are actually looking for assistance in maintaining the plant. And at the most basic level, an individual automated plant will monitor operational hours to better track scheduled maintenance.
But depending on the automation package the producer selects, a cone crusher package, for example, will enable the system to also oversee such things as differential pressure, checking the amount of coolant and the filter condition in the coolant system, and monitoring temperature and flow differentials in the supply and return lines. By monitoring the level of lubricant in the system, the automation software can help to maintain required temperature parameters. Cone crusher automation can track total motor hours, hydraulic pumps, lube pumps, main drives, and bearing temperatures for longer bearing life. If the cone crusher is a bushing-type model, the automation system often can measure for bushing wear to prevent catastrophic failure.
As for providing the crusher maintenance itself, there are currently automation packages for gyratory crushers on the market that can include such functions as automated greasing systems, which will grease the bushings as a system subcontrol. And because a primary gyratory crusher is sometimes located hundreds of yards or even miles from the rest of the plant, it can be configured to run independently or tied in to the rest of the plant, based on the producer’s needs. Its protective functions and alarms can still be set to provide alerts in the main control room.
For operational controls, an automation system can manage the feed to the processing equipment, and it can protect crushers from overload situations. It usually will handle the latter by sounding an alarm, correcting the loading, or shutting down the equipment. The automation system can track pressure for clamping and the tramp release system. Most systems will automatically adjust crusher settings for production needs or to compensate for liner changes, and they will alert maintenance personnel when it is time to change liners. And if the automated sensors detect problems, they can be configured to shut the equipment down, or they can work to eliminate the problem without shutting down the equipment by sensing variables and making adjustments.
With all of these capabilities, it might seem that an automation package would render human operators obsolete. But today’s automation packages really can’t replace the operator or field service personnel. They are, however, a big assistance in pinpointing and narrowing down the causes of problems. Additionally, automation systems provide safety benefits because remote sensing typically allows for measurement without contact. Even a basic automation package helps with troubleshooting because the data that’s collected can (and should) be checked regularly for trending, which can be interpreted to pinpoint an issue. So, for example, if the operator notes the system re-pressurizes over and over again, he or she should realize it’s not working properly and schedule a shutdown for service.
Improving performance and the bottom line
Automated packages can also help to improve overall plant performance. By logging production, the system allows the plant operator to track productive and unproductive time, so that he or she can analyze the data and compare it to the material produced. Any data can be trended, interfacing off the process equipment to provide operators and supervisors with such information as maintenance needs, schedules, and downtime hours. The operator can then adjust the plant for better performance. Historical data can be tracked remotely or onboard for higher-level management of overall site performance. All of this also helps when tracking the bottom line for the cost of operation.
In a nutshell, real-time monitoring maximizes productivity and reduces downtime by helping to identify bottlenecks, tracking equipment performance, scheduling maintenance, and troubleshooting problems. From a proactive maintenance standpoint, an automated system helps schedule and plan preventive maintenance. From a service standpoint, trending helps operators to troubleshoot, and then plan a plant shutdown and order parts before a failure occurs.
IT issues and technology advances
Advances in technology have created the ability for automation manufacturers to visit a plant’s automation system remotely to help maintain the software portion of the system. While remote service capabilities are not meant to replace a plant visit, remote software maintenance allows the manufacturer to provide system surveys, software product updates, software extensions, and troubleshooting.
Just as with home computers, developments in information technology (IT) can create issues, rendering older software and hardware obsolete. Changes in software seem to come at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, plant owners no longer need to only worry about upgrading a control system during a new equipment acquisition. Because of this, it’s important to keep PC and Windows-based controllers up to date with software and, less frequently, hardware updates.
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