The Users Future Proofing the DCS
Published on : Friday 02-12-2022
Luis Duran looks at three initiatives that are helping to pave the way for systems offering new levels of openness, security and interoperability.
Attention is increasingly being focused on the evolution of Distributed Control Systems (DCS) into the automation systems of tomorrow as plant owners accelerate the Industry 4.0 digital transformation.
Distributed Control Systems (DCS) have come a long way since their first introduction 40 years ago. Originally evolving from the hybrid conception of pneumatic controls and Centralised Computer Control Systems, which at the time were too complex, rigid and costly for the plant environment, transform on what is today known as purpose built Operational Technology (OT), they have since adopted commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS) to offer more flexibility and options to users and returned to Information Technology (IT) to link up previously isolated islands of control.
Yet the evolution of the DCS has not stopped there and current users are demanding that their DCSs become ever more open, expandable, and flexible. The traditional DCS market was largely based on proprietary technologies, hardware with hard coded functionality, whereas today DCSs are largely software-based. Shifting knowledge from hardware to software, changes the whole dynamics of the DCS, making it much more agile. This offers the opportunity to introduce plug and play components and shifts the industry away from proprietary solutions that tie users to a single manufacturer.
In the age of the Internet and enhanced connectivity, it is becoming clear that current DCS solutions have a number of shortcomings, most notably their lack of robust cybersecurity. This has become a critical issue in many industries over the last decade and has driven changes in the way the DCS handles information and indeed how it works.
Some major industries that employ DCSs also use them in different ways. For example, a pharmaceutical company experimenting on producing a new drug will need to scale up to get to mass production of the new product. It will need to look for different ways to reconfigure equipment to achieve this scale up, with elements requiring a high degree of modularity. Modular production that allows reconfiguration on the fly will require a DCS able to control changing processes without affecting core DCS applications such as control, safety, history logs and alarms.
Modularity can also allow a more cost-effective deployment. A company may conceive a DCS as a large capital investment project but may want to start at a lower level of production to bring costs down. The ability to copy and paste infrastructure between applications would allow a more cost-effective scale up of production and allow the user to manage capital costs and improve its investment strategies.
More value from data
The development of the Industrial Internet of Things or IIoT has also highlighted the need to get value from information, such as sensor readings and production data that is today largely trapped within the DCS.
To extract this value, we need to process this information and make it available to users, many of whom will not be regular users of the DCS.
The latest generation of engineers are accustomed to today’s immersive digital technologies and expect more modern tools that allow them to interact with industrial technology in the same way they interact with consumer devices in their personal lives. Similarly, some information doesn’t need to be in the DCS and could instead be made available in different ways.
With the rise of new technologies such as wireless and 5G and smart digital devices such as sensors and motors, the DCS requires a different, more digitalised, more open infrastructure. The aim is to be able to insert technology seamlessly through having a standard way of communicating across multiple devices across a manufacturing facility.
The interoperability enabled by open communications allows a more cost-effective integration of system components, allowing software to be uncoupled from hardware and enabling a move towards hardware agnosticism.
User groups drive change
In both the EU and US markets, initiatives are emerging to tackle the issue of accessing information and making more efficient use of technology, in the process transforming the nature of the DCS.
DCS providers have been conflicted by the need to adopt the latest developments in IT and communications technology and continuing to provide the stable, reliable performance that DCS users demand. However, fundamental change in the DCS is being driven by these very users, who have formed dedicated groups to drive towards openness, security, and interoperability.
These user-initiated groups include the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). Made up of a 110- end-user, automation suppliers and system integrators companies from a broad range of fields including oil and gas, chemical, pharmaceuticals, and mining, as well as the IT and telecommunications sector, the group is aiming to define a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture that will set the pattern for tomorrow’s Process Automation Systems.
The organisation aims to give readier access to leading-edge capabilities for DCS users. This will allow best-in-class components to be integrated into a DCS, while preserving asset owners’ application software and thus saving the cost of replacement. The standard is designed as a framework for an open systems architecture that promotes innovation and value creation. It also meets the needs of multiple industries, is commercially viable, and allows for collaboration among DCS users and suppliers.
NAMUR is a global consortium of process industry end-user organisations that has grown from Germany’s chemical industry. The group has defined an open architecture model known as NOA, for NAMUR Open Architecture. This architecture segregates core control and automation functionality from non-time-critical monitoring and optimisation.
It effectively separates out information that is less critical and that can be used for optimising the company’s facilities, creating a new maintenance and optimisation layer that has separate access to information currently trapped in the DCS.
By participating in standardisation bodies, NAMUR seeks to help its member companies avoid wrong investments, become involved dearly with promising technology and influence technology standards to take account of user interests.
Both bodies are trying to define a common communications interface and a common information model, though they are approaching this goal from different directions. OPAF is attempting to define a standard with guiding principles, with the idea of rethinking the DCS – can it be designed to be more interoperable and simpler to upgrade?
NAMUR is taking a more hands off approach when it comes to the DCS. It seeks to create a structure to work alongside the DCS to obtain the information needed without having to alter the way the DCS operates.
Another initiative is Modular Automation, an industry-wide effort that aims to move away from engineering monolithic automation systems for a complete production plant to a methodology based on more flexible modules that can be more easily combined to build a rapidly deployable system. The aim of the initiative is to allow faster process implementation, easier scaling of capacity and more rapid changeovers of product.
Towards open standards
Open standards essentially define how we can communicate with the different equipment within the plant. As standards become more digital and there is more flexibility, industries will want to choose a standard for the control system, either OPAF or NAMUR, each of which allows different paths for users to get access to their information.
Some of the major industries pushing for more open standards include chemicals and pharmaceuticals, oil and gas refining and petrochemicals, pulp and paper, mining and metals and even areas such as data centres. The trend is towards more advanced technologies to make best use of their capital investment and get the production they need as fast as they can. Other factors include the desire for long term stability and lower TOTEX.
Early adopters are companies of all sizes, with smaller companies benefitting from the modularity and the scalability it provides. Although change can often be resisted, many companies are now realising that open DCS standards provide the data they need to be more efficient and compete more effectively in the face of a challenging and highly changeable business environment.
Luis Duran is Global Product Line Manager, Safety Systems, Industrial Automation Process Control Platform at ABB. He has a BSEE and MBA from Universidad Simon Bolívar in Caracas Venezuela with over 30 years of experience in numerous areas of Automation. This includes process automation, process control systems, process simulation, manufacturing execution systems and safety instrumented systems/critical control in a variety of roles and responsibilities from application engineer, project and commissioning engineer to product manager, product marketing manager, brand director, and product line manager. Luis is currently responsible for ABB Safety System Product offering and actively involved in the Open Process Automation Forum where he is currently co-chair of the Business Working Group.