Q&A: Improving quality from paper machine to cloud
Automating quality control system diagnostics can bring big gains on the production floor for mills facing worker shortages, says Peter DeNicola, pulp and paper expert at Honeywell
By Kristina Urquhart
Pulp & Paper Canada recently spoke with Peter DeNicola, senior engineering manager, pulp and paper, Honeywell Process Solutions, about the latest developments in on-premise control, and how they connect to QCS 4.0, Honeywell’s IoT-enabled software-as-a-service platform.
Pulp & Paper Canada: What’s new in on-premise control for mills?
Peter DeNicola: There are several new developments in on-premise control: overall modernization of the sensor electronics and diagnostics in the sensors, using more and more Internet-based communications to the sensors so that the scanning platforms themselves are becoming easier to maintain, lower cost of ownership with more intelligent diagnostics in them.
In the sensor area, one of the things that’s really important, especially in tissue manufacturing, is what we call our MXIR infrared measurement, which is doing a combination of basis weight and moisture in one sensor for virgin fibre tissue.
The key there is the ability to use that sensor to replace what’s historically been two sensors – a separate basis weight and a separate moisture sensor – and the use of the nuclear isotopes in the basis weight sensor.
Being able to go with a single sensor to replace both sensors and use the infrared technology to do both basis weight and moisture allows our customers to simplify their operations. Going non-nuclear eliminates a bunch of regulatory challenges and tracking they’d otherwise have to do.
With that MXIR platform, we’re also able to develop new sensing ranges through some simple changes to the sensors. [Operators] are able to extend range through some software instead of the more traditional mechanical pieces. Or they’re able to improve calibration through software and reduce the number of maintenance steps or set-up steps, and there’s a lot of power in that.
PPC: What about on the software side?
PDN: The thing that’s perhaps the most important on the quality control system on our software development side is in the machine direction controls. The control engine that we are using for those – we call it the Alpha MPC controller – is a multi-variable control.
We’ve got some great results in the field from customers that are using the Alpha MPC, and by combining that with our automated grade change package, they’ve been able to have significant savings and reduction of transition paper.
They can also reduce the cycle time of the grade change and extend the automation of grade changes, which comes back to the skills of the operators.
Some of the operators don’t know how to make more challenging grades, but being able to use the Alpha MPC controls with the automatic grade change is a way to enable those operators to still make high-quality product even though they have less training and experience.
PPC: How does the on-premise control work with your off-premise cloud solution, QCS 4.0?
PDN: QCS 4.0 is separate from, but complementary to, the on-premise QCS that’s actually doing the measurement and control of the machine.
The on-premise QCS is configured with the sensors, measurements and the control strategy that the customer has purchased. The cloud – the QCS 4.0 – is, architecturally, two separate or parallel paths.
One is for the system health and reliability, system performance. And the other side is dealing with the customer’s process and control performance.
So we’re monitoring the on-premise QCS for its health, to make sure that the sensors are accurate, and that the measurements are providing the right kind of functionality.
Looking at the end result as the paper is being manufactured, we’re looking at the quality of that sheet, and the machine direction, cross-direction, and all the other properties. The variances and where they are in their spec, where they are in things like the overall efficiency or the number of sheet breaks, the downtime and those kinds of things.
PPC: How is this information handled by QCS 4.0?
PDN: The first is perhaps the most important – automatically, 24/7, the analytics of the QCS 4.0 are doing these routine monitoring and performance calculations. What the product does is give a call to action if there’s something either wrong or trending toward being wrong, and then [activates] the auto control if you don’t address it.
In system health, for example, something simple like the cooling system for the measurement platform is operating in a high temperature area of the machine. And if the cooling has a malfunction, that could cause a loss of measurement or damage.
So the call to action would be when we see a high temperature, the maintenance personnel would get a text message from QCS 4.0 that says you’ve got a rising head temperature and that means you need to go look at the cooling system.
The analogy I like to use is online banking, and when I get a text message that someone just used my credit card. I have a pretty good idea whether I did that, or my wife did it. And if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I have to investigate it.
That call to action really sets us up for the investigation phase, which is where we can go into either from an operational or maintenance standpoint. Or, for our optimization experts, we can go into the dashboard and we can use the QCS 4.0 functionality to look at the trends.
We can look at the information that’s gathered there – like the performance of the machine, the performance of the controls, the process and control variation, and whether there’s tuning or repairs or some other thing that’s needed.
QCS 4.0 then gives you all kinds of information online to query the performance of the QCS system and how it’s controlling the papermaking.
PPC: What is the biggest mistake you see when mills are implementing or upgrading a quality control system?
PDN: Looking at complexity – we’ve historically done a lot of custom work for a customer. And in the short-term, that seems ideal. I get something just the way I want it today.
More and more, our customers, especially with the skills challenges in their operations and maintenance teams, and even with their control engineers, the high cost of ownership of a custom platform becomes more and more [difficult].
As we look at the path forward, over-customizing is maybe the biggest implementation mistake. It also drives the cost of implementation up; it drives the cost of maintenance up over the years. I’m not trying to imply that everything can be cookie cutter. The machines are different, the operations are different, and there has to be some configuration and customization to fit the purpose.
But over-customizing – for instance to have the new system look like the old system so the operator doesn’t have to learn something new – that can get you into trouble.
I think in the future we’ll see that, especially with new operators coming in with no training, they’re more willing to expect a YouTube-like video on how to run things [rather] than a 100-page manual.
So the less you customize, the more you can pack features into the standard and provide that kind of ready-to-run philosophy to the customers. If we bring a customer forward today to our latest platform, we’re making the commitment.
If they keep it as standard as possible, then we’re also committing to keep it current, and to maintain that total cost of ownership and have operational continuity across machines and across sites.
PPC: What measurements or performance metrics are the most sought after from your pulp and paper clients?
PDN: There are some surprising ones, and I think this speaks to the great and very rapid transformations that are happening in our industry.
We’ve had several instances of talking to customers at their mills about the rapid retirement of the skilled workforce – the papermakers with many years of experience either running the machines or maintaining the machines.
As those skilled resources retire, the people that are taking their place have very, very little training.
We recently discussed with a customer the fundamentals of control utilization and the operations manager was telling us that some of his operators don’t even know that there is an automated control function – because they may have received little or no training in the transition from the retiring employee. Or, if the retiring person ran the controls in manual, that’s what they trained the new person to do.
So something as fundamental as control utilization to improve the product performance or the efficiency of the production to use less energy, or to maximize the profitability, those things aren’t even known by the new operators.
PPC: That loss of knowledge transfer is critical in a highly technical industry like pulp and paper.
PDN: [It’s] one of the great challenges we have in terms of competency management.
But one of the reasons it’s happening more quickly in the paper industry is because if you look at any kind of chemical or refining process, distributed process control has been around for a very long time. There are still lots of engineers who don’t have to set up controls or control loops. There are a lot of tools for them.
But the paper machine – it’s kind of a moving, breathing, steam-locomotive kind of machine. It’s a three-dimensional tuning problem that’s happening at a very high speed.
And you’re trying to optimize the performance of the machine and the width – the cross-direction and machine direction – and the thickness properties or the basic properties of the sheet. So it’s really a much more complex tuning problem.
The aging workforce and the skills departure is challenging customers, or our paper producers, to actually keep their machines running and running at efficiency.
PPC: How do Honeywell’s solutions help to mitigate that challenge?
PDN: We are working to leverage the control process performance information from QCS 4.0, and combining that with my own team of tuning experts to do what I call remote expert-guided tuning and optimization. Our objective is to be able to achieve the performance on the machine without the barrier of low skills at the site.
So if we’ve got a junior operator or a junior maintenance person – maybe somebody who doesn’t know how to do tuning and optimization on site – the objective is to still be able to provide that tuning and optimization.
The technology is really helping us, because QCS 4.0 does all of the calculations automatically and gives us that call to action in seconds. What in the past could have been days or weeks or even months where [a machine is sitting] at poor performance, now we’re getting that text message saying our bank account is overdrawn right away. And it allows us to jump in and take action and to provide those remote expert-guided services.
PPC: What other improvements are coming down the pipe for pulp and paper manufacturers?
PDN: We’re always trying to invest and anticipate some of the future needs, [like] more and more seamless operation of the machine and improved visibility. Beyond the process control team or the maintenance team, [providing] more visibility to management of the customer side, where they have more of a profit calculator to see how they’re running.
If I baseline the machine, finding out what the design capacity is if I know what it’s supposed to make. That can give mill management visibility into whether it’s [producing] up to that potential or not. That gives a whole different frame of reference for people.
That ties back to the comment about the control utilization and the new people running the machine not even knowing there were controls on it. Being able to bring that visibility with a financial statement, “This is what that costs you not to have the controls on” – that’s a much more powerful call to action from a leadership standpoint.
And then they can go fix something that otherwise might just be perceived to be old and worn out and that doesn’t always run. Now, we can put some sensors on it and improve the visibility, which can also ensure that the repairs and upgrades get done.
This interview has been condensed and edited.