Pulp and Paper Canada

Features Innovation Technology
Working Remotely

A growing trend has been for people to work remotely. The proliferation of e-mail, fast Internet connections and portable electronics has encouraged this, but there are other uses being made of such remote capabilities. Some are extensions of o...


July 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Topics

A growing trend has been for people to work remotely. The proliferation of e-mail, fast Internet connections and portable electronics has encouraged this, but there are other uses being made of such remote capabilities. Some are extensions of older methods; others are things that would have been unheard of even a few years ago.

I have often seen or heard of people using a computer at home or in a remote hotel to call up production data from their mill. I was meeting with a mill’s technical manager in a hotel very distant from his mill. He plugged his computer into a nearby phone line and had immediate access to real-time operating data from his mill. This in itself was not that amazing, but the speed with which it updated over the slow and dirty phone lines at our location was astounding. This is the result of better data compression and intelligent software design that requires only the essential information to be transmitted. This sort of access is a tremendous boon to technical and operations personnel who are being increasingly called out of the mill. Thanks to Murphy’s Law, things are much more likely to go wrong when the most experienced and knowledgeable person is out of the mill. Previously that person would be sitting in his hotel room, 10,000 kilometers away, trying to troubleshoot with nothing to go on but a brief description and a few numbers given over the phone. Now, after being alerted to a problem, he can view real-time data, allowing him to make a much more cogent analysis. Coming up with a solution is much easier when you have the necessary information.

There are companies utilizing remote control for the operation of entire production plants. Several chemical producers operate one plant remotely from a similar facility. This is not that unusual for a “remote” plant on the same site as the controlling plant or perhaps across the road. However, at least one company controls one production facility from another 460 kilometers away. Eka Chemicals uses the Bohus H2O2 plant in Sweden to control the Rjukan plant in Norway. During the day, the Rjukan plant is occupied by maintenance and laboratory workers and administrative staff. However, all production operations, day and night, are controlled from Bohus. This decreases staffing tremendously and does not impact the efficiency of production. The production personnel in Bohus use remote monitoring and mobile cameras to control the Rjukan operation.

Modern transportation, better roads and decreasing transport costs made it easy to establish mills in far locations. Downsizing has decreased the amount of expertise any one mill can keep in-house. However, the same downsizing has affected the mill’s suppliers, increasing the typical distance between a mill and its outside experts. These outside experts are also servicing larger numbers of mills — fewer people spread over greater areas, both technically and geographically. One solution has been to allow these experts to solve problems without ever leaving their offices, thus eliminating travel.

There are more suppliers going to remote monitoring or control of various types for their particular aspect of mill support. This can range from tank level monitoring, allowing a chemical supplier to dispatch fresh product without mill intervention, to having a world-class expert troubleshoot the new process his employer has introduced to your mill. This has gone beyond analyzing a static set of historical data to having the expert as good as on site with just a phone call. If something goes wrong with a new process or piece of equipment — and when doesn’t something new need tuning to operate properly — a simple phone call alerts the supplier’s expert. He can sign on remotely to his equipment, look at real-time data, make recommendations and see the effects of his changes immediately. Modifications can be made to controlling software, or whole new programs uploaded to correct operational problems.

Some companies are taking this to a new level. With more mills using powerful computer platforms to host control software, significant control upgrades can be made with software only. It is possible to design new control schemes for various parts of the process that will operate on existing hardware. These control schemes include tools such as model predictive control, software sensors and neural networks. It is now possible to implement new control schemes without ever setting foot on site.

Many of these activities would not be possible without the easy access afforded by high speed Internet connections. Home offices, remote monitoring of processes, implementation of new or updated software and remote control of production facilities are just a few of these activities. There are new concepts and functions being developed continuously — using ideas that would have been impossible to actualize a few years ago. And the super-high-speed “Internet2” is just around the corner, affording speeds thousands of times faster than a typical home broadband connection (cable or ADSL).

Who knows what changes and applications this will allow…

Dan Davies is the application manager at Degussa Canada in bleaching and water chemicals. He can be reached at dan.davies@degussa.com