Thank Goodness for Throttled Flows

Whenever I see real control valves with digital positioners and diaphragm actuators, I get a bit giddy with excitement. If on the other hand I see on-off valves installed to perform the role of process control, I just shake my head in dismay. If flows are turned on or off, there is very little process control opportunity. Flows, whether process or utility, are the levers for the process. If we can only jerk the levers around, we will have a jerky process. The Feb-Mar 2010 InTech article “Key Design Components for Final Control Elements” details this perspective as well as the essential design features needed. If you have throttled flows not only do you have a means of affecting but also a way of optimizing the process. It would be a rare coincidence if the flows were exactly at their best value at the right time. There is almost assuredly an opportunity to increase capacity or yield or decrease energy use by changing the flow to reduce variability and/or moving a measurement closer to it optimum operating point. Sure there are options to sequence the turning of flows on and off but such pre-programmed actions lack the feedback correction needed to deal with disturbances, non-idealities, and unknowns in industrial processes. Unfortunately, graduates from chemical or biochemical engineering programs may mistakenly be thinking they can set the flows per the process flow diagram and process design simulation program. Sure they probably had a course on control theory, but maybe all they got was a mathematical view of process control isolated rather than integrated with process research, development, and design.

If the fixed flow mindset results in the use of on-off valves and missing feedback measurements, the opportunities are difficult to identify and may require years and a bunch of money not only for the field instruments and valves but also for the piping and equipment modifications. Just think if you want to install a thermowell and there is no nozzle on the vessel or column in the right location? Also, on-off flows create the step disturbances you would hope would be relegated to control theory textbooks.

Dynamic simulations can show the way but a large expensive automation project can be a hard sell without an installed example. If on the other hand there are sensitive throttling valves and process measurements, opportunities can be trialed and implemented by taking advantage of the ever increasing incredible capability being built into the modern DCS. The key characteristic is sensitivity, which is the smallest change in the controller output or process variable that the valve and sensor, respectively will consistently respond to. Once the sensitivity threshold is reached the output will change by the full amount whereas the output will only change by a quantized amount that is a resolution limit, the other major component of precision. Often the term “resolution” is mistakenly used instead of sensitivity. Resolution, which has a stair-case response, was mostly an issue with rack and pinion actuators and older A/D converters with wide signal ranges (e.g. 1980s generation DCS thermocouple input cards). The resolution today of digital I/O far exceeds the sensitivity capability. The consistent precise response to change is more important than an exact match between input and output for valves. For example, valve span or bias errors (offsets) are clearly not much of an issue because the feedback loop will correct for them provided there is a full range of control possible. Measurement span and bias errors can also be corrected by upper loops or operating procedures, but accurate besides precise measurements are important for closing material balances for process analysis, diagnostics, and optimization as discussed in the Jan-Feb 2010 InTech article “Advances in Flow and Level Measurements Enhance Process Knowledge, Control”

Wireless measurements offer the opportunity to move the transmitters to find opportunities and the optimum location if the process and equipment design engineers had the understanding to provide the connection options. Wireless pH offers the ability to develop inferential measurements and prove the best electrode technology as revealed in the Jan-Feb 2010 InTech WEB Exclusive article “Opportunities for Smart Wireless pH, Conductivity Measurements”