Ensuring IIoT connectivity for oil and gas process control

IIoT connectivity can solve data storage or transmission issues in oil and gas systems.

By Corey Foster, Valin Corp. May 23, 2016

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a phrase that describes the connectivity between physical objects networked together using an Internet connection. These networks have a wide range of capabilities, mostly centered on collecting or exchanging data. A specialized version of the IoT, referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), enables industrial application engineers to implement new or retrofitted systems with upgraded levels of connectivity that allow more advanced process control. This is particularly beneficial in oil and gas applications that require precise communication between the various systems involved in a given process.

To achieve IIoT connectivity in a system, a basic infrastructure of hardware and software connectivity is required in addition to more advanced communication protocols and programming. Ideally, each of these components will work together to create a more connected oil and gas system and provide more efficient monitoring and control of individual processes.

IIoT connectivity

Process engineers involved in the monitoring and control of oil and gas processing applications should already be familiar with the basic benefits of IIoT connectivity. The ability for programmable logic controllers (PLCs), controllers, sensors, and other equipment to communicate with each other to share and store information can be extremely valuable in optimizing system processes and improving efficiency and production time.

The primary difference between IoT and IIoT is that commercial consumer IoT products, such as wearable technology and smart home thermostats, are manufactured in a way that predetermines the information the devices can transmit as well as when and how. Each device is intended to serve a particular function, and additional functions are normally not possible without purchasing a newer or upgraded device.

This predetermined—and therefore limited—range of connectivity is not the case with the IIoT, which is largely composed of multiuse products such as PLCs, controllers, and sensors that have the potential to be networked and used for a wide range of purposes. These components have been part of oil and gas processes for many years, but until recently have not been used to their full potential of interconnectivity. Using IIoT among these existing components can take an operation to a new level of connectivity.

It is useful to think of the IIoT as a pyramid with a hierarchy of controls ranging from the pipeline at the bottom to the highest management system or control room at the top. An IIoT-enabled system will be able to gather information from each operation and pass it upstream to other systems or users who will benefit from that information. Many pieces of information, such as data from a monitoring system measuring the rate of flow on a pipeline, are made available throughout the system.

The questions to ask in this case are: "What information needs to go where, and how often? Do the system engineers require the flow rate to be constantly monitored, or for an alert to be sent when the flow rate reaches a high or low point?" These options are possible in an endlessly-customizable IIoT-connected process control system that, if used correctly, will yield greater process control than ever. 

Technical areas to address

The technical areas that must be addressed to achieve IIoT connectivity are hardware and software. Physical devices cannot communicate with each other without the proper connections and software, and vice versa—no data can be sent or stored without the physical devices to gather and transmit it. In other words, the hardware paves the road or information highway that the information will eventually travel across, similar to cars on a road. However, no traffic can pass through the information highway without the correct traffic lights, exit ramps, and other essential components. The hardware must be in place first for the software to have information to send or receive. 

Hardware

In terms of hardware connectivity, the most basic requirement is the means for a device to connect to the Internet. This could be either hard-wired or wireless, with unique requirements for each type of connectivity. For older pieces of equipment that were manufactured or installed before the Ethernet protocol became common, extra hardware components are available to convert the now-antiquated RS-232 port to an Ethernet port.

The best analogy for updating an older piece of equipment to enable IIoT connectivity is upgrading a home computer built before the Internet era. The computer would need to be equipped with a new modem and the correct hardware to physically allow Internet access. In addition, an older computer may not have the processing power to take advantage of the new capabilities made possible by its newly-enabled Internet access. In this case, the computer would need to be upgraded with a faster processor to use the features of newer, Internet-ready computers.

Similar to an older commercial computer, oil and gas processing equipment built before widespread Internet connectivity may have issues keeping up with the rapid transmission of information common in modern devices. Older PLCs may suffer from slow processor speeds and be unable to transmit information as quickly or in as large of amounts. These limitations could be an issue depending on the application for which the PLC is used.

For example, constant updates on pipeline pressure may need to be sent every millisecond for an instantaneously-updated monitor feed. An older PLC with IIoT connectivity would only be able to handle sending an update approximately every 30 seconds, while a newer PLC specifically designed with IIoT in mind would not have a problem transmitting the data at a more rapid frequency.

Software

Software in IIoT-connected devices plays the crucial role of transmitting and interpreting the data sent between various parts of a system. To fully upgrade a system with IIoT connectivity, the aspects of software that must be addressed are communication protocols and programming. Each of these areas requires software experts to implement the correct solution that meets the needs of the individual application.

All devices connected to the Internet use a communication protocol to interpret the data that is sent or received via an Internet connection. With IIoT, these protocols enable the transmission and storage of data between the processing equipment and its destination. One way of explaining a communication protocol is to use the analogy of a phone conversation: the hardware (i.e., telephones and modems) can be in place, but each person on the telephone conversation must speak the same language to make sense of the information being transmitted.

A communication protocol serves a similar purpose for machines connected to an IIoT network in that it interprets the data being transmitted and allows it to be displayed on a monitor or used to automate another process.

A key area of software customization in the IIoT is programming. Programmers have the ability to enable machines to send or receive data within the limitations of the hardware and software available.

Programming is an essential part of setting up IIoT connectivity in any kind of industrial setting because pieces of equipment, such as PLCs and sensors, are intended to be customized for the needs of a unique application. Without specifically programming these components to achieve the goals of the process engineer, the advanced control and monitoring available through the IIoT will not become a reality. 

New versus retrofitted

Having an IIoT network has benefits for any operation, whether new or slightly outdated. The difference is that the outdated system would need to be retrofitted with the hardware and software necessary to achieve the connectivity inherent in IIoT systems. Anywhere there is a pump station, monitoring system, or control station on a pipeline, wellsite, or processing facility, the basic hardware should be able to be manipulated, modified, or combined with software in a way that enables IIoT connectivity.

With newer systems, the architecture can be designed specifically with IIoT connectivity in mind and hardware can be put in place with the intention of interconnectivity and advanced control and monitoring. Older systems can prove to be more difficult as the hardware and software may need to be upgraded to meet modern standards.

Oil and gas process engineers should evaluate the IIoT options available from a qualified systems integrator based on the specific needs of their operation. IIoT connectivity can solve almost any problem related to a lack of data storage or transmission among oil and gas systems.

Corey Foster is an application engineering manager for Valin Corp. He has more than 17 years of experience in automation, specializing in electromechanical motion control. He has been an application engineer for most of his career.

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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.