In the driving seat — how users are shaping the future of the DCS
By Luis Duran, Global Product Line Manager Safety Systems , Industrial Automation Process Control Platform, ABB
Thursday, 31 August, 2023
Amid the pursuit of digital transformation, the spotlight is firmly fixed on the transformation of the DCS into the automation system of the future.
Originally built upon purpose-built operational technology (OT), the distributed control system (DCS) has undergone a significant evolution, embracing commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS). This transformation has unlocked enhanced flexibility and a broader range of options for users, while also enabling information technology (IT) to bridge previously isolated control domains. The shift to COTS has propelled the DCS into a realm of greater adaptability and connectivity, offering users an array of possibilities for optimising their control processes.
Over the past four decades, distributed control systems have undergone a profound evolution, witnessing the addition of numerous functions and an array of benefits. However, in the present day, users are demanding even further advancements. They want the DCS to be increasingly open, expandable and flexible, aiming to leverage the full potential of these systems in addressing their evolving industrial needs. The pursuit of greater openness and adaptability is driven by the desire to stay at the forefront of technological innovation and meet the demands of an ever-changing industrial landscape.
In the past, the traditional DCS market heavily relied on hardware with fixed functionalities embedded in its design. However, the contemporary DCS has undergone a paradigm shift, leaning heavily towards all-software solutions. This transition from hardware to software-driven systems enhances the agility of the DCS, enabling greater adaptability and responsiveness to changing demands.
By leveraging software-centric architectures, the DCS can now embrace plug-and-play components, allowing for the seamless integration of new functionalities and technologies. Furthermore, this shift towards software-based systems liberates users from being tied to a single manufacturer’s proprietary solutions, fostering a more diverse and competitive landscape. As a result, the industry is now empowered to explore a myriad of possibilities and adopt cutting-edge innovations without being limited by hardware constraints. The newfound flexibility and openness in DCS design herald a future of increased collaboration and technological advancement in process automation.
Developments in the services available via the internet and improved connectivity have exposed vulnerabilities in distributed control systems, however, with cybersecurity concerns being one of the most prominent issues. Over the past decade, various industries have recognised the gravity of this challenge, leading to a growing awareness of the need for robust cybersecurity measures. Consequently, there has been a shift in how a DCS should manage and process information, as well as an increased focus on enhancing overall security protocols. The drive to fortify distributed control systems against cyber threats has become a pivotal force, propelling the industry towards more secure and resilient systems that can withstand the complexities of the digital age.
Another factor is the way that some major industries use distributed control systems, which can differ greatly. An example could be a pharmaceutical company experimenting with ways of producing a new drug: it knows it will need to scale up to mass produce the new product and will need different ways to reconfigure equipment to achieve this scale-up. For maximum flexibility, elements will require a high degree of modularity. This modular approach to production, which allows reconfiguration at will, requires a DCS that can control changing processes without affecting core functions such as control, safety, history logs and alarms.
Modularity also offers the chance to achieve a more cost-effective deployment. Although a company may have planned a DCS as a large capital investment project, it may nevertheless want to begin with a lower level of production to keep initial costs to a minimum. Copying infrastructure and using it for other applications would allow a more cost-effective scale-up of production. It also allows the user to manage capital costs and optimise investment strategies.
Unlocking the potential of data
As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has advanced, companies recognise the imperative of extracting more value from their data. To harness this valuable information effectively, it needs to be processed and made accessible to specific users, including the latest generation of engineers familiar with immersive digital technologies. These engineers expect to interact with professional tools, such as a DCS, in ways similar to their interactions with tablets and smartphones in their daily lives.
In response to this growing demand, industries are exploring innovative solutions to liberate and leverage the wealth of data captured by distributed control systems. By facilitating seamless integration with modern digital tools, businesses can unlock valuable insights, optimise processes and drive unprecedented levels of efficiency and productivity. Embracing the potential of data holds the key to maximising the benefits offered by the IIoT and drives industries towards a more data-driven and technologically empowered future.
Likewise, certain information may not need to reside within the DCS and can be made accessible through alternative means. The changing demands on the DCS necessitate a different approach, with a more digitalised and open infrastructure, driven by cutting-edge technologies like wireless, 5G and smart digital devices such as sensors and instrumentation in the field. This transformation involves restructuring the DCS, empowering users to seamlessly incorporate new technologies into their existing systems without disrupting the current set-up.
Central to this evolution is the establishment of standardised communication protocols across various devices within a production plant. By adopting open communications, industries can achieve greater interoperability, resulting in more cost-effective integration of system components. Moreover, this open approach enables the decoupling of software from hardware, enabling users to adopt hardware solutions from multiple vendors, fostering a more diverse and dynamic ecosystem of technological offerings.
Embracing these open and digitalised principles revolutionises the way industries interact with distributed control systems, paving the way for enhanced efficiency, agility and adaptability in the face of technological advancements.
Historically, DCS providers faced the challenge of striking a balance between adopting cutting-edge IT and communication technology while ensuring a stable and reliable DCS solution for users. However, the paradigm has shifted, with the user community acting as the driving force for fundamental changes in DCS.
One of the prominent user groups is the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF). Comprising oil and gas and chemical companies, as well as automation providers like ABB, Schneider Electric, Honeywell Rockwell Automation, OPAF aims to establish a new standards-based, interoperable architecture that fosters openness and security. With this architecture, DCS users will gain easy access to leading-edge capabilities, enabling seamless integration of best-in-class components without the need for costly replacements. The standard promotes innovation and value creation, and caters to the diverse needs of multiple industries. Furthermore, it encourages commercial viability and fosters collaboration among DCS users and suppliers.
Another influential user group is NAMUR, a global consortium of process industry organisations. NAMUR has introduced the NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA), an open architecture model that segregates core control and automation functions from non-time-critical monitoring and optimisation. This approach empowers companies to optimise their facilities by accessing critical information currently trapped within the DCS, creating a new layer for maintenance and optimisation.
Although OPAF and NAMUR pursue their objectives through different strategies, both share the goal of defining a common communications interface and information model. While OPAF aims to enhance interoperability and simplify DCS upgrades, NAMUR seeks to complement the DCS with a structure that efficiently accesses necessary information without fundamentally altering its core operations.
Addressing modularity, the modular automation initiative aims to move away from monolithic automation systems and embrace more flexible modules. By enabling the seamless combination of modules, this approach allows for rapid process implementation, easier capacity scaling and swift changeovers of products, ultimately promoting efficiency and adaptability in diverse industries.
Embracing open standards
The demand for open standards is gaining momentum across major industries, encompassing not only traditional sectors like chemicals, pharmaceuticals, oil, and gas refining but also extending to data centres. This trend reflects a growing inclination towards advanced technologies that enable industries to optimise their capital investments and achieve rapid production capabilities. Moreover, industries seek long-term stability and reduced total expenditure (TOTEX) through the adoption of open standards.
As the momentum towards open standards continues to build, industries stand to gain enhanced connectivity, greater interoperability and improved data accessibility. By enabling greater collaboration and innovation, the adoption of open standards enables industries to fully harness the potential of their automation systems and unlock new opportunities for growth and success.
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