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Real-time process and logic control have been effectively applied across industrial operations to improve operational efficiency for decades. In fact, the application of real-time process and logic control for efficiency improvement is so mature that the focus on the science of real-time control has diminished over the past thirty years. As I observe industrial operations, I cannot help believing that the loss of focus on real-time control across the industry is a huge mistake.
When looking at the manner in which the operations of industrial plants compares to the maintenance functions, stark differences surface. Automation technologies have been applied to a significant extent to underpin operations through the application of real-time process control, while, to a large extent the maintenance function is still largely based on manual functionality. This is not to say that there have not been significant advancements in maintenance and asset management – there have. But with the major changes accompanying the IIoT technology transformation, new and significant opportunities are emerging to totally rethink our approach to all functions in industrial operations – including maintenance and asset management.
Rethinking the maintenance function from the perspective of real-time controls may provide the next major leap forward. The primary objective of the maintenance function is keeping equipment operating and operating effectively in order to support the operations of the plant. This can be accomplished by maximizing the availability and maintained state of the equipment and minimizing the probability of failure. The maintained state and probability of failure variables tend to change as equipment is operated.
Currently, either predictive, preventive of reactive maintenance approaches are utilized to meet these goals, but more can be done. By measuring maintained state and probability of failure of each asset in real-time – as the equipment is operating – real-time control actions can be enabled. For example, as the probability of failure of the equipment increases, the system may be able to make an automatic decision to reduce utilization to reduce the immediate probability of failure and extend the equipment operating time in order to complete a run. Or perhaps the system could automatically switch from the failing asset to a backup piece of equipment if one is available. These, and other similar real-time actions, are automatic control decisions that could significantly improve asset performance of industrial plants.
The automation industry was born out of the need to effectively measure and control. The focus of measurement and control on improving operational efficiency has provided significant performance improvements for industrial operations. As IIoT technologies continue to advance, perhaps it is time to look for other domains of real-time control in industrial businesses. Maintenance is one domain which can seriously benefit from the application of real-time control.