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Enhancing Plant Safety Via Virtual ‘On-Site’ Visits

By Stacey Phillips |

New developments in augmented reality can help plant operators fix critical issues while limiting the number of outside visitors entering the facility

Reducing risk is an important goal for any plant or petroleum refinery to maintain the health and safety of its workforce. But today, reducing risk carries an additional meaning — protecting all plant workers from potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Over the course of 2020 and now well into 2021, doing so has required limiting face-to-face interactions and maintaining social distancing among plant personnel and site visitors. Plants may additionally have hard limits on the number of people who are allowed inside at a given time. For these reasons, any measure that can help limit human-to-human contact while enabling an operation to maintain consistent, quality production is a beneficial development.

In the world of the chemical process industries (CPI), implementing these measures is not always easy. On-site visits from contractors, teams of engineers, or other advisors are often an essential part of a plant’s operations, whether the visits are associated with fixing broken equipment, troubleshooting malfunctioning fluid or sampling systems, or generally enhancing procedures for better outcomes (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Field engineers commonly coordinate with facility engineers on-site when inspecting, servicing, and troubleshooting fluid and sampling systems

Consider a typical site visit for evaluating fluid systems and analytical equipment at a natural gas processing facility. A team of four or more engineers from an external partner would typically attend this evaluation, walking through the plant together to conduct a thorough evaluation of analytical instruments and areas of concern throughout the facility. Multiple engineers are typically required for this sort of visit to ensure all areas of expertise are covered, as well as to expand the base of field knowledge when determining potential solutions. Due to the breadth of expertise involved, this team approach to site visits can help to improve outcomes.

However, given new necessary restrictions to maintain social distancing, many plants have become reticent to allowing large groups to visit the facility for inspections. Outside engineering teams do have the option to send fewer technicians for on-site visits. However, one engineer cannot be an expert in everything. To accommodate the need for reduced on-site personnel, while overcoming the resulting expertise limitations, some field service providers have begun deploying the use of augmented reality (AR) technology to remotely bring engineers into the facility (Figure 2).

plant safety

Figure 2. The use of augmented reality (AR) technology to remotely bring additional engineers into a facility helps to reduce the number of on-site personnel, while enabling a full team to provide support

The use of this technology can have benefits beyond the scope of the pandemic. Based on our field engineering team’s experience, conducting virtual and semi-virtual system evaluations in chemical plants and petroleum refineries, this article describes how AR technology can be deployed in CPI facilities to deliver the same value and benefit operators expect from on-site visits — with fewer visiting engineers. It also explores specific examples of how a lead engineer on the ground at the facility can help solve process and fluid-system challenges with the help of his or her remote, virtual team.


The AR experience

While AR remains a somewhat new technology, it has matured to the point where it can provide a highly realistic experience — one that can meet the needs associated with diagnosing issues in critical process systems, such as process gas chromatographs, analyzers, sampling systems, steam systems, rotating equipment and more.

Figure 3. A field engineer wearing an AR headset clipped to her safety helmet inspects critical fluid system equipment at a chemical plant with the help of an engineering team watching a livestream video of her actions and providing remote troubleshooting input

On a typical semi-virtual visit, a single on-site engineer will arrive at the facility wearing an AR headset clipped to his or her safety helmet (Figure 3). As the engineer goes about inspection duties — for example, performing gap inspections on fittings to ensure proper tightening for leak-tight performance (Figure 4) — he or she can hear the voices of colleagues in an earpiece. That team of remote engineers, which may include experts from around the globe, is able to view a livestream video of everything the on-site engineer sees and does. This enables the chemical plant or refinery to limit field visitors to just one engineer, while supplementing that person’s skill with the combined experience of the full team.

Figure 4. A field engineer performs a gap inspection of fittings to ensure proper tightening. This is one of the regular activities performed by external service engineers that can be enhanced with virtual technology


Evaluation examples

With the full team at his or her disposal, the sole on-site engineer can get to work. The engineer can zoom the live camera in on various fluid or sampling system components, focusing the attention of the team on certain parts of the system using voice controls (Figure 5). The on-site engineer and remote team can speak directly about present issues and develop solutions in real time.

Figure 5. Using an AR headset, an on-site field engineer can zoom the live camera in on various systems and components using voice controls

In most scenarios, it is ideal to have at least one field engineer present on-site to conduct an assessment while supported by a remote, digitally connected team. However, another option is to have someone from the plant don an AR headset and walk through systems with remote field engineers providing realtime troubleshooting. Vendors offering these types of services may be able to ship a virtual headset to a user who can then record video while talking with remote field engineers who provide realtime troubleshooting. Doing so further limits outside plant visitors while still enabling a larger team to participate.

Some specific scenarios our field-engineering team has evaluated include the following:

Virtual commissioning of fluid systems and advising on the construction and testing of analytical equipment. The virtual headsets allow technicians to be “present” to provide oversight during key stages in the fluid system implementation process, helping users avoid errors and integrate longer-lasting assemblies into their operations. Executives at select user companies have even joined virtually to experience processes they would not usually be able to witness.

Virtual evaluation and advisory services. When issues with an analytical fluid system come up, the deployment of an on-site engineer backed by his or her virtual team of specialists can help identify and solve a range of challenges throughout a chemical plant via realtime problem solving and troubleshooting (Figure 6).

Figure 6. With a virtual team of specialists providing remote, real-time problem solving and troubleshooting, on-site engineers can readily solve a range of challenges

Environmental leak testing. Engineers commonly perform extensive leak testing on fittings to check for leaks that may present safety and environmental hazards. Realtime collaboration between the on-site engineer and the virtual colleagues can streamline the process throughout a plant. Safety and cost savings can be achieved by thoroughly addressing leaks (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Field engineers can perform comprehensive leak testing on critical equipment, helping to eliminate environmental hazards and improve plant safety

Virtual witnessing of key procurement processes. Compliance teams can offer plant operators the opportunity to virtually witness manufacturing and shipping practices that may ordinarily require an on-site visit to vendor facilities.

Virtual user visits to manufacturing and fulfillment centers. On-site visits can go both ways, as plant operators or managers may want to visit and evaluate the processes and operations of their vendors. Virtual technology makes this possible, too.


Additional benefits

Whether inviting a single engineer to perform a virtual site visit or managing such visits with existing plant personnel, virtual visits can help to minimize the amount of time a plant’s fluid system issues may go undiagnosed or unaddressed — while also limiting personnel to help accommodate pandemic protocols. At the same time, the plant can additionally save on travel-related costs, accommodations, and coordination time associated with larger site visits. In addition, the user may be able to share data and experiences from a documented site visit at one location with other similar enterprise locations to help enhance those operations.

There can be unexpected benefits, as well. For example, AR visits can prove effective when several people watching remotely are all evaluating the exact same thing, at the same time. This enables several engineers to ask questions in real time and collect data more efficiently, compared to simply having one person on-site, or several people on-site all collecting their own data (Figure 8). This streamlined process can enhance the efficiency of making evaluations and diagnoses, as well as gathering supporting data. This can help eliminate the potential need to go back on-site to get data that were forgotten or missed when looking at notes after the initial site visit.

Figure 8. During a virtual evaluation, the on-site engineer can share photos and videos with remote colleagues in real time so everyone can brainstorm solutions as a connected team

This ability to gain insight into a system and process the information in parallel to diagnoses and recommendations with the entire team at once can be more effective than typical on-site visits that require multiple touchpoints with the user and system after gathering information across the facility. An engineer who has several other colleagues in his or her “ear” to provide reminders about examining certain system parameters, or to ask the operators certain questions, can result in some significant new efficiencies to the inspection and evaluation process.

A virtual team composed of a global network of specialists who can provide insight in real time, take data, and conduct preliminary calculations, can result in a more comprehensive analysis than when one engineer does this on his or her own. This approach combines decades of experience evaluating a system, collaborating in real time, and sharing insight, all virtually.

Maintaining operational efficiency is a top goal for any chemical plant or refinery. While safety measures related to COVID-19 may have created some challenges in this regard, the technology is available to overcome some of those challenges in unique ways — and the benefits can extend well into the future.



All images courtesy of Swagelok.


Stacey Phillips is field engineering manager, Americas for Swagelok Company (29500 Solon Road, Solon, Ohio 44139; phone: +1-440-248-4600; Email; stacey.phillips@swagelok.com; Website: www.swagelok.com. She has been with the company for 13 years and has extensive experience in the field helping chemical plants and petroleum refining operations optimize critical fluid and sampling systems. Phillips hold a B.Sc. degree in biomechanics from the University of Alberta, Canada, and a M.Eng. degree from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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