They are present in most households and even my three-year old can operate one, so why are process plant software firms making such a big fuss about mobile devices and touchscreen technology?
Here in Nice today Honeywell unveiled to its European, Middle Eastern and African users what it had already revealed to Americas users in June: its Control Room of the Future.
It was introduced via a pre-recorded Star Trek-style sketch featuring Honeywell Process Solutions vice president for technology Jason Urso as the captain of the Starship Experion PKS Orion (a trekkie-pun on the name of Honeywell’s current DCS).
In reality, the DCS suppliers are simply playing catch-up with the technology that is common everywhere
In the video Urso boldy claimed he was going to bring the technology of tomorrow to today. As he then walked on stage to demonstrate the new DCS, operated via large touchscreen plasma monitors and tablet devices, the claim that this was the control room of the future seemed slightly incongruous as all around him delegates took photos of the stage using their iPads and smartphones.
Invensys made similar claims in September when launching its Foxboro Evo DCS with the tagline “this changes everything”.
In reality, the DCS suppliers are simply playing catch-up with the technology that is common everywhere. Everywhere, that is, apart from process plant control rooms.
And why is it uncommon in the process industries? One answer might be that given the (quite right) priority of safety, most owners and operators are cautious in adopting new technology.
However, I’m not sure that this claim stands up to scrutiny: as pointed out, even if they are cautious, most operators, technicians and engineers will own a smartphone and possibly a tablet device, so they are already very familiar with the technology.
I think it is far more likely to be a question of cost. Both Honeywell and Invensys have emphasised how their new DCS products can be phased in gradually to avoid expensive shutdowns for a complete overhaul of technology.
However, there is no getting round it: a new DCS is a huge investment and at a time when money is still pretty tight such an investment will have to compete with other plant investments that may be more critical (e.g. safety upgrades) or likely to generate a greater return (e.g. plant equipment that can increase output capacity).
Tomorrow (Wednesday) I will be sitting down with some Honeywell executives to see if I can find out just how expensive this new DCS is (I don’t fancy my chances); but even if they are coy on cost, I look forward to hearing them explain how DCS investment can be justified against other areas of process plant investment.