Condition monitoring technology saw a lot of traction in recent years. A technology that was once seen affordable only by customers in heavy industries is now found in theme parks, wind farms, food and beverages, and similar industries. These new customers are usually more careful with their spending, which gave birth to a new breed of specialized system integrators or solution providers. This new breed of integrators is by all means very different from the common automation system integrator we know.
So, what do we know about common automation systems integrators?
Automation system integrators are a traditional value adding link between automation components vendors and their customers. They are usually companies established by people with solid and long experience in the automation business, who decided to sell their expertise in engineering and commissioning full solutions. They often add the hardware supply portion in the loop as well, sometimes advising end-users on which components to buy.
Automation integrators possess strong knowledge of how to make components talk to each other. However, when one of these components is a specialty system, automation integrators often don’t understand what these components are talking together about, or in other words, how to make this specialty system talk the right thing.
The special thing about specialty systems!
A specialty system performs functions that are usually very sophisticated, to the extent that designers had to separate them away from the main control system processing, often making them into standalone systems. For example, anti-surge systems of critical compressors, machinery condition monitoring systems, or special process analyzer systems to name a few.
To be fair, automation integrators actually don’t need to understand how these systems work, they only need to make them talk to the PLC. Successful and experienced automation integrators understand this fact, and cooperate with specialists in the domain of these specialty systems to configure them properly, and ensure the overall solution will function as desired.
In this article I decided to focus on machinery condition monitoring systems, our area of expertise.
What’s so special in a condition monitoring system integrator?
To start with, the condition monitoring systems integrator should develop the same set of knowledge-base that a standard automation integrator has. This includes:
- Application engineering
- Panel building
- Network design
- Electrical design
- Process familiarity
- Mastery of software.
Then comes the fun part! The condition monitoring specialist team must contain a mix of mechanical, instrumentation, and control engineers. All of them have to be experienced in:
- Maintenance of rotating and reciprocating machines.
- Assets operations, criticality, and maintenance procedures.
- Machine failure modes, and the MTBF impact on process and production.
- Advanced vibration analysis.
- Thermodynamics performance analysis.
- Selecting and installing vibration instrumentation.
- Plant operation procedures, and operator priorities.
This experience is usually evaluated by the years spent in the field, the type of equipment and plants dealt with, the types and makes of systems commissioned, and finally the training and certification level obtained by the engineers. These traits are not easy to develop in-house when your main focus is automation systems integration. It takes a lot of effort, money, and time which most probably won’t pay off unless your main business is condition monitoring.
What is the ultimate objective of a condition monitoring system integrator, and what do they do?
The ultimate objective is to deliver a solution that effectively measures the condition of the monitored asset, and if required, protects it against destructive mechanical failures. The objective goes far beyond making the condition monitoring system talk to a PLC or an ESD!
To achieve this the condition monitoring system integrator has to do numerous studies. They have to understand what types of vibration sensors to be used (accelerometers, velometers, or proximity) and where and how to install them in the machine to achieve the best results. Whenever and wherever applicable, the same applies to:
- Radial shaft vibration
- Bearing and machine casings vibrations
- Thrust position, thermal growth, and axial displacement
- Bearings and winding temperature measurement
- Reverse rotation, phase measurement, and shaft acceleration
- Rod position
- Crosshead impacts
- Cylinder dynamic pressure
In many cases, the original equipment manufacturer performs this sensor selection and placement task; however, our experience is that in many cases -also- they may make mistakes, or take shortcuts to operate within a budget and win an order. Thus, it comes back to an experienced condition monitoring systems integrator to evaluate the overall solution.
The correct wiring of these sensors is also of paramount importance, a single mistake can result in electromagnetic interference or ground loop noise issues, which may take years to be discovered and resolved. The same applies for wireless systems and the correct placement of their radio components.
Next comes the configuration and commissioning of the condition monitoring system itself, which may be mistakenly considered by some as the simplest step in the process, until a problem happens, then you find yourself discussing a resolution with the customer’s operations, mechanical, instrumentation, and control engineers, in the same time, often with disagreements between themselves as well! This is not an uncommon scenario by the way.
Here is where technical machinery diagnostics knowledge really counts.
With advancements in condition monitoring systems technology, integrators (by now we trust that you understand that they have to be specialized condition monitoring system integrators) have to integrate more than just systems, sensors, and software. They have to integrate the HW used in the solution with their own mind, in a transfer of machinery diagnostics knowledge.
This is often done in the form of rulesets written by the condition monitoring system integrator. Coupled with powerful HW, these rulesets can help in first line analysis and prediction of machinery failures; with alarms set to warn against symptoms like rotor unbalance, bearing rub, or foundation looseness, rather than the traditional alarms like vibration Alert or Danger alarms; thus bringing machinery failures detection one level closer to plant operators.
We highly recommend that any organization planning to install a condition monitoring system must work only with experienced and certified condition monitoring integrators to ensure the success of such critical functionality. The organization in this case can be an end-user, EPC contractor, or an automation system integrator, depending on the scope of the overall project. The earlier the engagement, the better. This a business of expertise and knowledge, not size and scale.
For Proact Engineering Services LLC, November 2017.