By Craig Nicholson
Scan input – process logic – scan output – housekeeping – repeat.
Now you know what every single power plant turbine controller does in about the time it takes you to blink. A 40 ton steel rotor requires utmost control while spinning one revolution in a fraction of that time.
This is a unique field of expertise, it is complicated, requires specific engineering know how and, if not done right, the results can be catastrophic.
You can think of a power plant control system as the brains of the plant. However, control systems rely on electronics, software and devices that have a finite life typically ⅓ of that of the rotating equipment. Therefore, plant control systems require periodic upgrades and replacements. As discussed in our prior blog Why You Are Not Maintaining Your Control System, it is very easy for the asset owner to push the retrofit into the next budget year, provided the system is operating reliably. Eventually, the control system must be upgraded.
Years of brain drain and structural change for equipment manufacturers
Here’s the rub, the services business for controls is a low revenue business, it’s complicated and it’s hard to sell.
Originally, turbine controls were part of a vertically integrated turbine/generator package with control divisions heavily subsidized and embedded with the turbine group. Over the decades, equipment manufacturer’s focus has shifted more and more to increasing shareholder value. As such, service businesses were moved off their balance sheets or to stand alone divisions more aligned to automation rather than a dedicated, prime mover, controls business. This has put in house turbine controls divisions in the cross hairs of corporate financial engineering for years.
The result? Erosion of resources and capabilities replaced with outsourcing strategies or loss of market share.
“OEM turbine controls divisions have been in the cross hairs of corporate financial engineering for years”
Tough choices at a critical time
An asset owner, who already gets cold sweats at the thought of an upgrade, must make difficult choices as there is no clear and obvious path to a quality retrofit outcome. The safe haven of the original equipment manufacturer providing an integrated retrofit has been eroded with the shift in company structure; they have literally lost control.
One clear and obvious symptom is in commercial offers for retrofits, when presented with separate sales teams, terms and conditions and warranties than the core power generation equipment.
If not addressed during the commercial phase, owners risk the outcome of operators being inundated with spurious alarms due to poorly engineered upgrades. Such systems overload operations lowering overall plant reliability.
Foundation to digital transformation
The necessity of asset owners to deploy digital technologies to compete in today’s cyclic market is ever more pressing. One must learn to walk before you run and such strategies start with the right control system. The plant controls system ultimately is the foundation for any digital transformation.
Those who attempt to develop a digital strategy on the back of an obsolete or poorly integrated plant control systems are sub-optimizing a critical element of future profitability.