Safety Technology from the Process Industry Prevents the Spread of the Virus

25 March 2021
Process Technology for Fighting the Pandemic

Those who work in early risk detection are welcome guests in chemical facilities and their control rooms. When discoveries used to monitor reactors and surplus gas burners can then be transferred to the protection of thousands of people during a pandemic, then the invitations to set up pilot applications pile up quickly. This is exemplarily demonstrated by an automated body temperature check at the turnstiles used to contain the Corona pandemic.


It’s the pandemic routine: grab the everyday mask, the one that hangs from the rearview mirror in the company car. A quick trip to the trunk, and then it’s off to the factory gate at the chemical company, briefcase in hand. The technician is already running the day’s task in his head: calibrating flow meters. He hasn’t really noticed that he hasn’t felt 100% lately; he has suppressed the slight cough and sniffling. The assignment today is too important. It’s a routine job, but urgent, since the client has defined a narrow window for the work. This is no time for weakness, he thinks to himself, as he stands at the blocked turnstile, waiting to be invited in by a friendly colleague from factory security. A single measurement determines an elevated temperature that needs checking.

This fictional scenario reflects an experience shared by many, in which an employee has endangered himself and others, out of a sense of duty. No matter how human it appears to ignore the first symptoms of illness, exposing others is unacceptable within the context of a pandemic. From the point of view of managers of large companies, they need to employ suitable measures to protect everyone present at a facility from infection with the SARS-CoV-2. One efficient method for this, which is also suitable for use in the case of larger groups of people, was recently developed and brought to market by TTS Automation, in collaboration with the automation experts at WAGO Kontakttechnik.

Reasons for WAGO:

  • Early risk detection using industrial thermal cameras

  • Automated body temperature check using Prometheus

  • System only functions by combining industrial camera technology with intelligent controllers

  • Direct communication with the cameral electronics thanks to WAGO Digital Plant Gateway

» Our focus is on early risk detection using industrial thermal cameras. We detect situations before they become dangerous. «

Thomas Striegel, CEO TecTradeSolutions GmbH

Remote Monitoring

“Our focus is on early risk detection using industrial thermal cameras. We detect situations before they become dangerous.” Thomas Striegel, CEO of TTS Automation, explains where he gained his expertise in non-contact temperature measurements. The so-called emergency flare stacks in the chemical and petrochemical industry provide one example. They have to run continuously, so that in case of an accident, chemical compounds cannot simply escape; instead, they are incinerated before they reach the atmosphere. Therefore, a continuously operating pilot light in the flare stack is a legal requirement. Thermocouples are then installed to check the functionality of the pilot light; however, they occasionally fail. This leads to problems, because they can’t be exchanged during operations, nor are system downtimes possible. “Our camera technology provides a solution by monitoring the flame without interfering with ongoing operations.” Striegel explains his contribution to safety.

However, the system only functions by combining industrial camera technology with intelligent controllers, and the product only exists in this form due to chance. “In order to implement our product idea, we went to the SPS in Nuremberg a few years ago to look for partners. We almost gave up after several disappointing conversations, until we finally arrived at WAGO’s booth. The solution was not immediately obvious, even here. It was only after BASF was mentioned and Wolfgang Laufmann, Global Key Account Manager for the Chemical Industry at WAGO, joined the conversation that we began to untangle the knot,” remembers Striegel. Beyond mutual customers and similar technical challenges, they also shared the same philosophy regarding implementing Industry 4.0. “We had a digital mindset years before the term even existed. Which was also the case at WAGO.” Striegel adds other similarities: Both companies are used to combining sensors intelligently together, and then transmitting conclusions from there to a process control system (PLC).

The missing puzzle piece was WAGO’s Digital Plant Gateway. It detects measured values from the system, prepares them, and provides them to the appropriate user groups in the IT network or the cloud for further analysis and for optimizing process sequences. It is based on the WAGO I/O system, which can scalably detect the most varied of field signals using its more than 500 different I/O modules. “As a result of this collaboration, the WAGO controller put us in a position where we could directly communicate with the cameral electronics. Since the software for our camera runs on the WAGO node, we didn’t need an interpreter, so no contacts were skipped and no wiring was carried out. The gateway speaks the same language as our camera. WAGO is honestly the only company that can do this,” states Striegel.

» The WAGO controller put us in a position where we could directly communicate with the cameral electronics. The gateway speaks the same language as our camera. WAGO is honestly the only company that can do this. «

Thomas Striegel, CEO TecTradeSolutions GmbH

Handling Large Crowds

Yet how did the result of this cooperative effort end up in use during the Corona pandemic? The origin for this was a discussion in a working group of physicists, engineers, and technicians, who were also working on with process visualizations, among other things. As the Corona pandemic ran rampant, the topic of controlling access by measuring for fever also came up in this group. There was a high level of skepticism that the methods used at that time would work with large crowds. At some customers, for example, thousands of people enter and exit through a few gates every day. For example, 30,000 people enter and exist the BASF campus in Ludwigshafen every day through just seven gates. “How was that even supposed to work? Was each person to be checked using a clinical thermometer?” asks Striegel. The first reports about chaotic traffic at factory gates due to the wait times associated with these types of measurements were reported shortly thereafter.

The experts likewise discussed the fundamental validity of a few different methods. Measurements of absolute body temperature using standard thermal cameras was particularly criticized by the group. Striegel explains, “We already know that this doesn’t work. Handheld scanners for measuring fever merely add four degrees Celsius to the actual measured value based on the difference between human core and surface temperatures. While this is standard usage, the results are incorrect. It would only function if the person measured were acclimatized to standard room temperature for a longer period of time.”

Chance provided the solution, as the team from TTS Automation had brought a new monitoring system for a surplus gas burner on line a few days prior to the discussion. “The measurement errors, that we encountered here, led us to the idea of adapting our concept so that it could also detect anomalies in body temperature,” explains Striegel. Instead of doing everything possible to avoid faults, he embraced them instead. Regardless of whether the camera monitored a gas flare or a reactor, this type of measuring system produces errors. This can occur due to weather influences or flash steam from the system.

Striegel is not concerned with absolute temperature in early risk detection. “Using our technology, we want to detect whether the internal reactor insulation is still intact, whether a reaction is operating within expected parameters, or whether a safety flame is suddenly extinguished. “If the measurement is wrong, but it is wrong in the same way each time, then our stochastic algorithm can evaluate the incorrect measurement and generate a correct fault detection from it,” explains Striegel. In the turnstile case, ATT and WAGO expanded the algorithm for the thermal camera system, which has been used successfully since 2016, and adapted it to the new situation. The system, named Prometheus, now reliably detects increased skin temperatures in the interior and exterior plant areas, regardless of wind, surrounding air temperature, or other influences.

Measurement Does Not Replace Personal Contact

Based on the interaction between camera and the prefabricated Digital Plant Gateway, Prometheus detects a body temperature that is too high as an anomaly and can operate autonomously. In this case, Prometheus blocks the entry turnstile. However, the person is not left to fret alone; a clarifying explanation, including manual fever measurement, follows the alert message. According to Striegel, this has become common in the meantime across several different applications: hospitals, building site monitoring, large food processors, and chemical industrial plants are all managing things in a similar way.

Based on these joint successes, the next steps are already in process. A team made of WAGO and TTS engineers is currently working on further optimizing the original use of the camera system in manufacturing areas. This means that the communication between the camera technology and the PLC via the WAGO nodes is seeing further development, and the camera image will no longer be guided using a joystick, but instead will be guided directly in the camera via the PLC. The Prometheus turnstile is also being upgraded. “The system makes a lot of sense, both within the context of a pandemic, and also during a normal outbreak of the flu.” Striegel describes future uses of the technology: “Our idea is to evaluate anonymous measured values in the cloud, and to compare them with weather data and levels of illness. Then, operators can make predictions about illness levels and adjust their employee scheduling before the actual wave of requests for sick time.”

Example: Loading Station and Real Image Camera

The following example also demonstrates the autonomy of the combination made from a thermal camera, intelligent algorithms, and WAGO’s Digital Plant Gateway: A system like this monitors the filling process at a loading terminal, and additionally receives a signal for ‘Truck connected – monitor hose package’. If the camera now ‘sees’ anything that moves or vibrates, or if a liquid leaks, the system reports it. For example, if a gas sensor emits an additional alarm, then the camera receives commands via the WAGO controller and no long focuses solely on the screw connection of the hose package, but instead also autonomously monitors the loading station in full screen. Faults and problems can then be determined more comprehensively. In a specific case, vibrations causing defective seals could be detected. The comparison of camera data with the pump speeds led to readjustments of the pump parameters and ultimately to the elimination of leaks.

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