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Schneider Electric user conference strikes a chord

The Schneider Electric PlantStruxure NOW! 2012 Users Conference took place on the Gold Coast in October 2012.

The event featured more than 45 case studies, business and technical sessions presented by industry experts.

The user conference also included a "marketplace" featuring a demonstration wall dedicated to the PlantStruxure architecture, solution booths for the water, mining and food and beverage industries, tech demonstrations, and Schneider Electric partners ready to discuss their offerings with attendees.

According one of these partners, Scott Henson from Niobara R&D, his company has been associated with Schneider Electric for almost 20 years, and is a platinum member of the Collaborative Automation Partner Program.

His stand displayed the company's latest Quantum communication modules, modules for the Momentum platform, and older legacy migration tools.

"Most of our products deal exclusively with Schneider Electric backplanes and protocols," Henson told PACE. "Many of our solutions deal with tying in legacy Schneider Electric equipment into new hardware, so we are working on making that more seamlessly integrated into PlantStruxure PES."

Henson said the response from the event was very good. "The customers who come by to visit are very knowledgeable and are well targeted for our products. I am very happy with the response so far," he said.
Another company at the marketplace was Pepperl+Fuchs, a hazardous area provider company which does the interfacing work for Schneider Electric.

David Prasser was at the stand to introduce the company's Profibus PA devices for hazardous and general purpose use, as well as a range of remote I/O, and a food-grade IP66 HMI. "There is a lot of activity here, and a lot of people are calling by and have a look at what we have here, and what we are doing with Schneider Electric," Prasser told PACE.

The user conference featured a demonstration wall dedicated to the PlantStruxure architecture.The conference opened with an overview of the business by Christopher Crowe, Schneider Electric's senior vice president for sales international industry business.

Speaking about the rise of the newer economies, Crowe emphasised the Paris-headquartered company's history of diversifying away from its traditional European roots to become a global entity, and said this is a continuing process which insulates the business as a whole against regional fluctuations.

"Regions like East Asia, central Africa and southern Africa are becoming a hunting ground for a lot of large mining companies trying to get a sense of the opportunities in the new economies," Crowe said. "Our job is to anticipate that and ensure we have people going to those regions and supporting the growth there."

While Schneider Electric is focused on growing its areas of expertise through the acquisition of innovative companies, it also invests around a billion dollars a year in pure research and development, evolving its technologies and products to keep up with a continuously changing competitive landscape and industry.

Where the company was focused on electrical distribution and industrial automation prior to 2000, it has since made strategic acquisitions and entered into other areas, as the dynamics of customer demands changed.

Notable recent acquisitions by Schneider Electric aim to fill specific gaps in the business. For example, Telvent, for grid, oil, gas and water management, SolveIT for logistics, planning, decision making and scheduling, and 7T for water distribution network management, monitoring and optimisation.

A core part of the event was the introduction of the PlantStruxure offering from Schneider Electric, with the afternoon of the first day dedicated to detailed sessions and demonstrations around the offering.

Scott Wooldridge, vice president of Schneider Electric's industry business, noted that the acquisitive strategy, while yielding many strengths for the business, also resulted in overlaps in solutions and technologies.

Additionally, the company recognised the challenges facing today's process industries, including the need to continuously reduce downtime, decreasing time to market, reducing waste, and coping with a dwindling talent pool.

To simplify the offerings and integrate the various process automation solutions, the company launched PlantStruxure, which allows process control customers to connect field, process, plant and enterprise levels within their businesses.

The technology connects hardware, software and Ethernet-based architecture, and is based on tested and proven architectures for process and energy management. A more specific solution, PlantStruxure PES (Process Expert System) brings together the best of PLC/SCADA and DCS, along with a single database and direct cross referencing of process objects.

Active energy management is embedded into every layer of PlantStruxure PES. The central database, along with a centralised library structure, means operators can now directly look up any objects related to a particular process or object, as well as documentation and manuals relating to any piece of equipment.

According to Wooldridge, while PlantStruxure will provide integration and consolidated control over all of Schneider Electric's process environments, the technology is also focused on optimising energy use, one of the key themes running through the user conference.

Taking up the theme was keynote presenter Dr Jonathon Ralston, research leader in CSIRO's Mining Technology Group, who addressed the question of how technology can meet the new demands of industry.

According to Dr Ralston, science and technology have a big role to play as industry and governments realign themselves to focus on key issues like energy and resource use efficiency, IT, environmental challenges and new economies on the rise.

To ensure sciences developed by research bodies like CSIRO actually make it into the industry to have a positive impact on processes, Dr Ralston stressed the need for like-minded industry players to take on new technologies and close the gap between research and industry.

By way of illustrating how CSIRO applies science and technology to enhance processes within the industry, Dr Ralston looked at how the organisation improved longwall coal mining.

Longwall coal mining is traditionally a dusty process, with operators standing next to the shearer to direct it along the seam. CSIRO took components from an earlier military project and introduced it into the mining operation, allowing it to determine the location, orientation and motion of the shearer.

This then enabled visualisations of the machine, which were integrated into a model, accurately representing the process.

This took operators away from the dusty front lines of longwall coal mining, allowing informed decision making and guidance from relative safety. Productivity was boosted by 10 to 25 percent, and since its introduction in 2007, nearly 50 percent of Australian long wall operations now use the technology.

Dr Ralston said the next wave of opportunities for improving processes lay in the use of interconnected information, intelligence management, improving reliability, situational awareness, remote centralised operations and improved human-systems interaction.

The marketplace allowed attendees to explore a range of Schneider Electric partner technologies.PACE magazine was also present on the second day of the conference, when the program was split into the three streams dedicated to Water & Wastewater; Mining, Minerals & Metals; and Food & Beverage Manufacturing.

The common thread was the intelligent use of technology to deal with the challenges of scarcity and the drive for ever greater efficiency in terms of process speeds and also resource usage.

In the case of water, for example, presenters like Dominique Gayraud, Schneider Electric's solutions vice president for Water & Wastewater, pointed out the disparity between the rapid rise in energy costs and the relatively low cost of water as one of the key challenges facing the industry.

"Energy is the first significant cost component for water plant operators. It represents a third of the total operating cost of water management (and 56 percent of the operating cost for reverse osmosis desalination)," said Gayraud.

"This will not decrease because the processes will be more complex, requiring more energy for more complex filtration. We also have time constraints associated with reuse of water, so speeding this up will also require more energy. Expanding networks will also increase energy consumption.

"In an environment of rising costs but steady water prices, energy savings become a must. Energy savings provide a real cost saving opportunity," he noted.

According to Gayraud, Schneider Electric is working together with partners and continuing development of its technologies to reduce capital expenditure and operational expenditure. It is also working on solutions to detect and reduce leakage, optimise infrastructure management, and adapt to weather conditions.

Other steps which could be taken in conjunction with the deployment of new technologies include fixing the basics by making the infrastructure energy-aware. 

Programs like Schneider Electric's EnergySTEP involve building accurate models of what the plant is doing, from the low SCADA level up through to the enterprise level, then optimising the obvious targets, before embarking on continuous tracking and optimisation, using a variety of measures such as automation.

In the mining stream, a major concern was remaining cost-competitive in the global marketplace, especially with the emergence of new economies as power players in the low-cost resources space.

Ian Poole, CIO of Sedgman, said that while the Australian resources sector previously gained market share through low-cost volume growth, costs are increasing. Countries like Mongolia and Brazil, with very low operating costs, are offering alternate supplies. Additionally, Australian producers are no longer insulated by foreign exchange fluctuations, due to the consistently strong Australian dollar.

At the end of the day, Poole says commodity prices will fall as supply catches up with demand, and lower costs will be the key to survival.

To ensure the competitiveness of the Australian industry, Poole suggested streamlining approval processes for new projects, attracting skilled labour via policy changes – including skilled immigrations, and reforming common user infrastructures.

In terms of technologies, process improvements and improved automation and operator useability as introduced by PlantStruxure PES will continue to help counter skills loss, lower costs and improve efficiency and safety.

Other technologies, such as the SolveIT software solution which was acquired by Schneider in August, will ease decision making by leveraging non-linear algorithms to ensure optimal use of resources, be it workers, machinery, or transport infrastructure.

The Sconference featured a packed schedule, with a range of technical sessions, case studies and technology presentations. Case studies included presentations from the Adelaide Desalination Project, Yarra Valley Water, Tetra Pak, and Xstrata, some of which will be covered in detail by PACE in upcoming issues.

The information presented within the conference was rounded off by the marketplace which allowed attendees to explore partner technologies in their own time.

[PACE Deputy Editor Isaac Leung attended the Schneider Electric PlantStruxure NOW! 2012 Users Conference on the Gold Coast.]

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