The first generation of SCADA systems were closed IT solutions that had to be programmed by experts trained on the particular manufacturer’s programming language and tools.
A plant operator made the decision during setup to go with one manufacturer of choice; from then on they were more or less obliged to stick with that partner in good times and bad.
“In time, more and more end users have pushed manufacturers to create industry standards that allow them to switch, at least for secondary equipment, to other brands or solutions,” explains Kai Feller, product manager for process automation at Festo.
“Even on the PLC software side, an IEC standard has been established to program PLCs in a standardised language, allowing the swap out of controllers to other manufacturers without completely reprogramming the user code.”
In time, more and more end users have pushed manufacturers to create industry standards that allow them to switch, at least for secondary equipment, to other brands or solutions
Kai Feller, product manager for process automation, Festo
These developments have altered the relationship between users and manufacturers, reducing the dependency on single brands of PLCs or SCADA systems and enabling a greater degree of automation across a growing range of products and components.
“Typically, manufacturing sites continue to use Programmable Automation Controllers (PACs) and supervisory computer systems (or Distribute Control Systems – DCS) just as they have had for many years,” says Richard Sturt, business development manager, process industries at Rockwell Automation.
“While new technology is being used to enhance these systems rather than replace them.”
“One trend that stands out from the current hype around cloud computing or Big Data is the decentralisation of control functions, including modularisation. The drivers for this are obvious,” says Feller.
“In the past PLCs weighed several dozen kilos, cost tens of thousands of pounds, and had to be hard-wired.” Today, for a few pounds, a tiny device connects via one of the many standardised Fieldbus protocols.
“This enables end users and machine builders to respond to the demand for flexible production lines, reducing downtime.
“It also enables OEMs to build a plant from existing standardised modules rather than investing in the engineering effort of developing bespoke solutions, saving time and money,” says Feller.
Jason Andersen, vice president of business line management at Stratus Technologies explains: “Whilst cloud-based SCADA is a trend it’s somewhat limited due to the fact that all of the connectivity is not completely sorted out.
“Additionally, the control portion of SCADA is really better suited for local, on-premises deployment, especially in high volume areas like pipelines.”
Connectivity and accessibility are the two of the biggest drivers according to Paul Hurst, director at Products 4 Automation, UK distributor of Progea SCADA products: “The concept of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has influenced the agenda, but from a user point of view the demand is being driven mostly by practical requirements.”
Users require a SCADA monitoring system that can be viewed from anywhere, whether from a portable HMI or a smartphone device.
“This increased agility of response ensures improved efficiency in processes,” adds Hurst. By combining this with cloud access to reports and analysis, users can assess every aspect of their facility even when not on-site.
Hurst believes that for future SCADA systems, this trend will only grow, as increased accessibility is a relatively straightforward route to more streamlined operations.
“We see there being a lot of upside to the increased use of analytics for any customer,” says Andersen, “and while there are many solutions out there, a number of cloud-based solutions nicely layer on top of existing on-premises implementations.”
Stratus Technologies has customers who started with a major on-premise SCADA upgrade and then added cloud-based analytics solutions.
“This gave the benefit of business insights with a secure reliable footprint at the point of production.
“Analytics have proved to be the cornerstone of making long-term process efficiency decisions for SCADA users,” adds Andersen.
The ability to produce customised reports that offer insight into efficiency parameters, productivity or energy consumption is acknowledged as a vital asset for cutting operating costs.
Analytics have proved to be the cornerstone of making long-term process efficiency decisions for SCADA users
Jason Andersen, VP of business line management, Stratus Technologies
“Customised reports are undoubtedly the future, which can be originated if a SCADA system is modular in its construction,” explains Hurst.
Differing monitoring areas [modules] can then combine aspects of analytical data to offer specific insight, whether tailored for the entire facility or one individual process.
“Intuitive graphics which enable easy control of scales, templates or data display greatly aid this approach.
“Via this method, versatility is increased, enabling SCADA users to generate a list of process priorities to tackle accordingly on-site. As a result, data can directly inform plant strategy,” adds Hurst.
The growing use of Programmable Automation Controllers (PACs) also appears to be a key aspect for the future.
“It solves issues in terms of enabling PLCs to be used across different vendors as well as enabling the PLC functionality to be decomposed,” says Andersen.
This is a trend Stratus Technologies is already seeing in other technology architectures such as hyper-convergence or software defined networking – leading to both an increased customer choice and a company’s ability to adapt to business and technical changes over time.
“PACs offer increased modularity and versatility when compared to a traditional slave PLC, and can be used to actively monitor areas of a facility as singular entities, due to the embedded operating system within.
“Furthermore, they offer increased redundancy, as they can operate even if the umbilical cord to the rest of the monitoring system is cut,” says Hurst.
As processes have become more complex, utilisation of these standalone devices has increased accordingly.
“PACs offer greater data handling capability and increased interoperability compared to a PLC, which means they are far more suited to the monitoring and process demands of the future, as their open architecture offers increased options for operators,” adds Hurst.
The future will inevitably bring change, “notably how the functionality will be delivered and used”, says Andersen.
We continue to develop software applications to help our customers turn data into actionable information to improve efficiency, reduce costs and share information
Richard Sturt, business development, process industries, Rockwell Automation
“For instance, some new SCADA systems operate well in hybrid clouds. In other scenarios we may see vendors elect to change what features end up in which offerings they sell.
“Longer term, you can also see the need for new architectures such as fog computing. These new approaches will influence how software is designed and implemented.”
Sturt believes control and supervisory systems will be enhanced rather than replaced with the increasing use of mobile devices like tablets, cameras and video.
“We continue to develop software applications to help our customers turn data into actionable information to improve efficiency, reduce costs and share information,” he concludes.
Companies at the leading edge of developing technologies support connected enterprise, designed from the outset to manage the increased amount of data that automation is now seeing.