Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Startup and Abnormal Conditions

Startups, grade transitions, and abnormal conditions are the most difficult, operator intensive, hazardous, and inefficient periods of plant operation. Operators often believe these conditions require operator evaluation and action. The conditions are thought to be too special and the response too situation dependent to automate. The operators are right in saying these periods of operation require the best in operator expertise. However, case histories show that the power of the PID can be used to automate the best operator responses and build on them to provide faster, safer, and more efficient plant operation during these difficult process conditions. For some specific examples dealing with compressors and reactors check out the two chapters “Wally and the Beave Automate Reactor Startups” and “Wally and the Beave Return to Automate Another Reactor Startup” in my E-book on this website A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Control Room. For impressive examples for chemical, mining, and pulp and paper operations, check out the Control Talk columns “Show Me the Money – Part 1” (November 2009) and “Show Me the Money – Part 2” (December 2009) in Control magazine.

An extensive interview of the operators and process engineers is necessary to capture the best responses for a preliminary functional description of the control system. There are often a lot of surprises hidden by the diversity of actions that are inevitable from human responses. Free will implies these decisions are basically unpredictable. The operator actions consistent with first principles and process knowledge offer a good starting point but not the final strategy. During the commissioning of the control system, the plant response must be carefully observed and the best operator actions verified and improved by the use of the many options built into a PID loop to deal with rampant problems as the plant goes from zero to full rate, or vice versa. For example, output tracking, dynamic reset limiting, set point ramping, PID structure, gain scheduling, adaptive control, and override control can be used to deal with the problems at low rates such as noisy or inaccurate flow signals, excessive valve stick-slip near the closed position, larger transportation delays, and unrepresentative measurements. One of the common solutions is to head start (initialize) the controller output via output tracking to the best valve position for startup, transition, or abnormal situation. The initial position can be a “Full Throttle” position for fastest set point response. When the set point approaches the set point, the controller output can be momentarily set to a resting value based on experience or average position captured from a representative operating point from the last run. For fast loops such as flow and pressure, the resting value can be used as the “head start”. One of the common mistakes is for process engineers to get carried away with trying to sequence the PID controller output too much or hold the controller output in the track mode for too long. For shutdown, the output must normally be held but otherwise the PID controller should be returned to automatic as soon as possible to deal with disturbances, unknown process effects, raw material variability, and nonlinearities. The process is not known or measured well enough to sequence flows without feedback control. It is particularly important to return pressure loops to automatic as fast as possible. Smart techniques for startup, transitions, and abnormal situations that take full advantage of the flexibility of the PID controller have been the source of the most impressive benefits in process control improvement. In general, these were also “quick hits” in that they were implemented in a matter of a couple of weeks by just configuration changes and controller tuning.