Good for today, ready for tomorrow: how the DCS is adapting to meet changing needs

ABB Australia Pty Ltd

Monday, 01 July, 2024

Good for today, ready for tomorrow: how the DCS is adapting to meet changing needs

Distributed control systems (DCSs) have been at the heart of many industrial processes for decades, providing safe, reliable control for industries including, water, energy, metals, minerals and chemicals. While highly capable and offering numerous benefits, DCSs cannot remain static — instead, they must evolve to meet the growing needs and ever-changing challenges facing users.

In an increasingly unpredictable world, a DCS must play a role in helping users adapt to a range of challenges, including fluctuating energy prices, disrupted supply chains and higher compliance costs. Digital solutions tightly connected to the DCS can help resolve issues through greater and more effective data analysis, which is vital today.

Sustainability is also a major driver across society and industry, and users will want the DCS to help integrate process control and energy to ensure they can make reliable use of renewable energy sources.

Customisation of products is another major market demand and the future DCS will need to be more adaptable and scalable to allow its use in smaller plants designed to be more responsive to tightening customers’ needs as well as large facilities in critical infrastructure operating around the clock.

A changing workforce also throws up its own challenges, with retirees taking valuable knowledge and skills developed over time and hard experiences out of the company. A new, more digitally aware group of engineers is expecting to make increased use of AI and augmented reality to monitor and assess plant performance and resolve issues remotely.

Users will also want to take advantage of new business models such as ‘automation as a service’ and new technical innovations, all without disrupting the key DCS attributes of quality, security, resiliency and reliability they have become accustomed to.

Changing demands require a changing DCS

Although DCS operators want an adaptable and very capable system, they are reluctant to make big investments in the technology, with all the implications this has for total cost of ownership. This means that the DCS must enable ease of connectivity to allow new technologies to be accessible.

Many leading vendors see the future DCS based on a new process automation architecture. This will separate an evergreen robust core — one that prioritises reliable, deterministic responses — and an extended, digitally enabled environment that performs fewer time-critical tasks, while also allowing faster innovation and continuous performance improvements.

Moving non-core control system functions to a separate but connected digital environment will allow systems to adapt more easily as needs change now and in the future.

The future DCS core and extended system environments will be virtual, modular domains with cybersecure interfaces and offering integration of OT/IT data so that users can decide where they want their data to reside.

Process controller and application software will exist as containerised entities with a specific function. Independent of system hardware, these modules will offer highly flexible deployment and will be used with purpose-built and industrial PC controllers, edge devices, on-premise servers and cloud platforms.

A more agile, modular environment will also enable faster adoption of new and innovative offerings.

This type of extended, more open automation environment will allow secure connectivity with other Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives, while ensuring greater collaboration among people, systems and equipment.

One such initiative driving this trend towards openness is the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). Made up of users from a broad range of industries and disciplines, system integrators as well as leading automation system manufacturers, OPAF has defined a standards-based, open, secure and interoperable architecture for modern process automation.

This architecture gives DCS users easy access to leading-edge best of breed capabilities, allowing components to be integrated into the DCS. Another goal is to preserve asset owners’ application software and avoid the cost of replacing it. While promoting innovation and value creation and meeting the needs of numerous industries, it is also commercially viable and allows collaboration among both DCS users and suppliers.

The aim is to ensure everything can work seamlessly in an open ecosystem, avoiding the risk of being locked into proprietary systems.

Automating orchestration and deployment

These modular, containerised control engines and applications will require orchestration and management. This represents a major challenge for users of the future DCS — although IT departments might be accustomed to such tasks, operation engineers are focused on running their processes, not managing the systems that control them.

Automation of these system management tasks is therefore vital, preserving the integration that today’s users have come to expect. A control orchestrator manages many of these complexities, while still assuring full control.

Another aspect is project execution — to ensure that DCS users get a rapid return on their investment, future systems will further simplify, accelerate and error-proof automation engineering and project execution.

The decoupling of automation hardware and software engineering allows project tasks to be performed in parallel with different teams. These can work in different locations and even in virtualised cloud engineering environments to speed up deployment of new systems — using virtualisation, emulation and simulation technologies, all implemented in the cloud as a digital twin, engineers can perform virtual application testing and commissioning.

Data supercharges optimisation

Data is at the heart of powering optimisation at a process, plant or enterprise level. Yet an average plant uses less than 20% of the data it generates. Successful companies will transform more of this data into actionable insights to achieve smarter and more sustainable operations. The transformed, more modular, more flexible DCS will be key to this success.

The challenge for plant owners is to collect and combine the data from different sources, contextualise it, transform it into knowledgeable insights and then ensure that the right people can access it to make the right decisions in a timely manner.

Key elements of this new digital experience will be AI-enabled analytics and edge software to analyse operational data at the point of production. This flexible, edge-oriented solution will help to predict issues and prescribe actions for better asset operations and to tune production processes.

AI and humans — a powerful combination

The main role of today’s automation systems is to execute classical control loops of sensing (‘motor runs too fast’), analysing (‘need to reduce speed’) and acting (‘reduce drive frequency’). They enable low-level processes to run without human intervention under normal conditions. When exceptional or unusual situations occur, human operators can step in to make the decisions needed and carry out any complicated task that these decisions might require.

The future DCS will use autonomous operations and industrial AI, adding another level of intelligence with an outer loop that considers potential conditions and outcomes.

This will first be applied to support remote or hard-to-reach locations, such as off­shore wind turbines, oil rigs or mining operations, and will be overseen by teams of remote operators. These can be assisted by subject matter experts located anywhere around the world.

These types of AI augmented systems will help human operators make better decisions, allowing them to use their cognitive abilities to make better decisions in a timelier manner. This will free expert personnel from mundane, repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on higher-value activities. In the near term, people and autonomous systems will thus partner, with humans making the final decision.

In the longer term, automation systems will become more autonomous as ever more tasks are handed over to the system.

The future DCS will also help those responsible for the day-to-day management of all aspects of the control system infrastructure. Features and abilities such as self-configuring networks and plug-and-produce insertion of new equipment modules will remove the complexity of managing today’s integrated plant systems.

Overall, tomorrow’s DCS users can look forward to reduced cost of ownership, more secure and reliable systems, and improved profitability.

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