Coal, Emissions, O&M

Toys as Tools

Issue 11 and Volume 103.

In the 1988 Movie “Big,” Tom Hanks Plays a Little Boy Whose Wish to be Big Comes True. When he wakes up in the body of a grown man, his charming, juvenile actions eventually lead to a job as a children’s toy tester. A dream job for everyone as a kid, and still a dream job for many as adults-particularly engineers, most of whom have never grown up anyway.

What does this have to do with the power generation industry? Quite a lot, actually. From “smart valves” to “fuzzy logic controllers” to “virtual reality simulators,” the world of toys is meeting the world of tools. Many innovative, high-tech power industry “toys” are available and under development that offer tangible plant benefits, although testing in a plant environment is necessary to establish some of the more exotic toys as accepted tools.

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about a few of these toys. The Turbinator wireless human/machine interface, a space-age toy from Turbine Technology Services Corp., has intriguing potential to aid power plant operations and maintenance personnel. Consisting of a body-worn processor, a light-weight battery pack and a VGA-mounted display unit, this tool enables users to freely roam around the plant, monitoring signals previously seen only in the control room. With hands free to record information or manipulate equipment, operators can inspect equipment, troubleshoot problems, acknowledge alarms and calibrate equipment. The processor provides on-line access to equipment specifications, wiring diagrams, calibration histories and photographic images. (PalmPilot, eat your heart out.) Though not yet applied commercially, it seems like only a matter of time before cost pressures compel plant owners to employ such technology and validate the unmanned control room philosophy.

Another fascinating technology is the automated storeroom. Resembling a snack vending machine, these systems automate the purchasing, dispensing and controlling of many consumable stockroom items with complete inventory/user reporting and tracking. One system from Industrial Vending Solutions features microprocessor controlled smart-card access, which enables data to be captured and sorted by employee, time of day, date and location. Inventory management capabilities are enhanced, off-hour access is provided, productivity is increased and an accountability mechanism is established.

These two products point out two critical success factors in today’s competitive environment: cost reduction and cost accounting. The unrelenting drive to reduce costs is forcing plant owners and operators to evaluate novel products and techniques. Reducing costs, however, requires a more detailed awareness of how and where those costs are incurred.

In today’s hectic working world, allocating costs and identifying cost reduction opportunities can seem overwhelming. To combat such feelings, a proven, rewarding technique is to engage professional colleagues in fruitful discussion, listen to solutions others are trying at their plants, and examine the range of products and services the industry has to offer. This can add much-needed perspective to what can become an insular outlook on your own plant’s technology, infrastructure and way of doing business.

POWER-GEN International, sponsored by PennWell’s Power Engineering and Electric Light & Power magazines, provides an optimum forum for gaining this perspective. With more than 14,000 attendees and 800 exhibitors expected at this year’s event in New Orleans on Nov. 30-Dec. 2, the opportunities for making contacts and gathering industry intelligence are endless. Veterans of power trade shows and conferences around the world have told me that if they pick up one or two “competitive edge” pieces of information-a sales lead, an innovative operating strategy, a novel maintenance tool-their attendance has been justified. Meeting that goal should be no problem at POWER-GEN.

I look forward to seeing you in New Orleans. I’ll be the one playing with the toys.