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Monitoring the wheels of industry

WHEN the subject of computer software arises most people probably think of web browsers and common programs such as Windows, and Word.

A more advanced discussion of the subject might cover industry specific software, but it’s unlikely that anyone other than trained professionals would leap directly into a debate on the virtues of different SCADA (pronounced skay-da) applications.

Believe it or not, though, behind virtually every industrial plant, distribution system and mine site in the Western world there will be a SCADA program to constantly monitor countless pieces of data.

SCADA – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition – applications gather ‘real time’ data from remote locations to control equipment and conditions.

In effect, SCADA removes the need or desire for humans to supervise machinery.

And, while the above examples accurately suggest SCADA is primarily used in large operations, it can also function on a smaller scale, for instance, in monitoring freezer rooms or computer data centres. It is not surprising, then, that SCADA ‘solutions’ can now be bought off the shelf, or at least ordered over the Internet.

Typically, SCADA systems com-prise both hardware (sensors, computers and other instruments) and software components. The software analyses data retrieved from the hardware sources and stores both the data and the analyses. In the event of hazards, alarms are activated.

According to Lou Schillaci, CEO of software firm SigPoint Pty Ltd, it is crucial for companies to ensure plant equipment is running as efficiently as possible, and that costly shutdowns can be avoided, or at least have their timing con-

trolled.

“In a plant the issue of plant safety is number one in their mind, but so is the dollar,” Mr Schillaci said.

“It’s becoming a situation where they need to spend more and more effort to ensure their plant runs at optimum capacity and is at the operating level where maintenance schedules are well-timed and within budget.”

To achieve such objectives there is an increasing tendency for companies that operate SCADA systems to integrate these with the regular corporate IT network.

This has been one of the major challenges facing WA’s Water Corporation, which for a number of years has been working on bringing together its own SCADA and IT networks. Until recently, when information technology reached a stage of maturity that allowed it to properly interact with the electrical engineering aspect of SCADA, the two technologies have been quite distant. But according to the WaterCorp’s SCADA planner Ian Wiese, now that the two systems can be combined, there are numerous benefits to be had.

Mr Wiese said the integration of SCADA and IT allowed companies to integrate data from the process world with financial and customer service data. This allows a business to be truly managed on the basis of direct and accurate information.

The whole organisation can benefit from the upgrade, and the cost savings can be dramatic,

though the best results in this respect occur where Wide-Area Networks (WANs) are in place.

“You can integrate on a number of levels,” Mr Wiese said.

“One is to integrate the hardware – the networks and communications systems. It’s a difficult job, but obviously it’s far cheaper to put one network State-wide than two, because we’ve got an IT network around the State, we can’t afford to duplicate that network.”

There are pitfalls to such attempts, however. Mr Wiese cautioned that SCADA, by its nature, is difficult and complex, and it is necessary to ensure that corporate IT networks and SCADA systems can actually be integrated without a need for substantial upgrades to either.

One operation that has successfully integrated its separate systems is Alcoa’s Worsley alumina refinery.

In what Virtual Control Systems (VCS), a subsidiary of Amadeus Energy, and its partner Honeywell have described as a world first, a contract was signed in August 2001 for those companies to provide Worsley Alumina Pty Ltd with specialised remote energy monitoring services.

In essence, the deal means the Worsley project now uses the Internet and a virtual private network (VPN) to control its power generation operations from Perth.

Steve Hannah, an IT professor at Murdoch University and member of VCS’s management committee, said operators were now able to control turbines – to crank them up and down – over the Internet, based on the load profiles received from the project’s electricity customers, such as small mining operations. Moreover, the integrated system also performs all the necessary calculations for both Western Power’s access charges to its distribution network and what the Worsley project’s customers are to be charged for their access.

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