A new future for process control systems
Process control insights
- Distributed control systems (DCSs) are at the heart of process manufacturing operations and have evolved to focus on digitalization.
- Using pre-made and pre-tested automation software modules will allow companies to use DCSs more effectively.
Many challenges have confronted industrial companies in recent years, ranging from the pandemic and its attendant supply chain issues and rising labour shortages, as well as geopolitical disputes and the perennial need to cut the effect that industrial activities have on the environment. The combination of these events and trends is leading process industry companies to look again at how they operate and the control systems they use to manage their production.
Since their advent over 40 years ago, distributed control systems (DCSs) have changed to meet new demands, with one major development being digitalization. These new “digital DCSs” allow users to maximize productivity, find new collaboration methods and also keep operators engaged, while keeping the DCS’s core functions at the centre of operations.
Adapting for the future
DCSs will need to become more flexible as their users’ needs change. This flexibility and openness to change will allow them to add new functions easily.
Evolving gradually to meet new user needs and taking advantage of new technological developments means that the future DCS can avoid the need for a ‘big bang’ change that could be very costly and disruptive. A modular approach allows parts of the system to be changed without replacing the entire system.
The way to achieve this flexibility will be through radically changing the architecture of the DCS. This change will see the control system core functions separated from the less critical features, leading to an extended automation environment that helps better collaboration between people, systems and equipment.
One organization helping map out this evolution is NAMUR. It has created the open architecture (NOA) model which adds a layer to the DCS to allow extra functions – such as asset and device management, optimization and planning, while avoiding the disruption involved in making changes or upgrades. This is achieved through building an open and secure environment that can integrate IT components from the field up to enterprise level.
An example of this is using edge and Cloud computing technology to help companies to achieve the benefits of IIoT-enabled sensors. Companies can collect and analyse huge quantities of data, while sharing it across the organization.
Because this scheme moves non-core functions to a connected-yet-separate digital environment, users’ systems can more easily adapt as their needs change. New and more innovative offerings can be adopted more quickly, while placing existing applications in a virtualized, digitally native environment allows enhanced cybersecurity.
As markets develop and customers become more demanding, companies are under pressure to get new production units online faster. One way of doing this is to minimize the time and resources needed to deploy DCS solutions, which can be done by separating automation hardware and software engineering at the set-up stage. This method of parallel working can cut project delivery times by between 10% and 40%.
Using pre-made and pre-tested automation software modules can also give significant time savings. By cutting time-consuming tasks, future DCSs will allow companies to use their engineering teams more effectively.
Modern plants offer a lot of data, but much of it is not actually used. Companies clearly find it difficult to collect, analyze and use data effectively to optimise their plant performance.
Digital technologies help meet these challenges, one example being AI-enabled analytics. By combing AI analytics with edge computing, operational data can be analyzed where it is produced, giving more effective management of assets and informing predictive maintenance schemes.
Another challenge is the analysis of data to aid compliance with regulations. By hosting continuous emissions data analytics on the cloud, a plant’s emissions monitoring instruments can have their performance assessed in real-time against established models and ensure equipment achieves prescribed levels of availability.
New business models for DCSs
Specifying and purchasing hardware based DCS systems can become a lengthy and costly business. Separating hardware and software in the digital DCS can help avoid this process. The new digital ecosystem allows changes to be made much more quickly at far lower cost.
New business models, including software-as-a-service (SaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), have cut the time to purchase and install a DCS while self-service free trials and pay-as-you-use schemes allow companies to pick and choose applications and services. These approaches help DCS users adapt their system easily as needed when new challenges and demands make themselves felt.
Automation systems also play a role in helping operators deal with labour shortages and the knowledge gap. People are still needed for the more complex situations, but the goal is that future autonomous control systems will also be able to handle these.
Using AI is a major route to this increased autonomy. ABB, for example, has developed its own six-level taxonomy of autonomy, which considers the scope of the automated task and the role of any people involved. The taxonomy starts at Level 0, no autonomy, while Level 5 indicates the system is completely autonomous.
AI and machine learning algorithms will also bring benefits to engineers, giving them the information needed to solve process problems in the field. Mobile access to data allows them to assess process conditions in real-time, while Augmented Reality (AR) tools can overlay information on top of a real-world view and provide a link with experts.
A bright future
The flexibility of the latest generation of digital technologies, combined with initiatives such as NOA, mean that the future is looking bright for the DCS.
Set to become increasingly open in both functionality and usability, DCS solutions will offer industrial operators more functions and an increasing number of opportunities as they seek to make their operations more effective and sustainable.