Digitalisation requires process control architecture that allows production units to adapt to change.
Variety and availability are two of the customer-driven cornerstones of modern production, prompted by the demand for more choice and speedier delivery processes. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has both enabled and exacerbated this. Businesses can now gather vast amounts of data offering unprecedented degrees of granularity, says Luis Duran, global product line manager at ABB.
And analysing that data in real-time, via AI and machine learning, accrues great benefits in terms of predictive maintenance and accelerated responses.
Key to this, however, is the distributed control system (DCS) used in a plant or process; much depends though upon its ability to interface with Cloud applications or Edge-based devices, adds Duran. “Legacy DCS technologies can make it difficult for production lines and processes to engage fully with data flows across the wider IoT, especially since existing systems often rely on protocols and interfaces that are not easily accessible to external applications.
As such, engineering automation now rests with the module supplier. This, in turn, reduces the commissioning time as the modules themselves are fully programmed and ready to run
“This may be because older systems are proprietary, for example, or for security reasons. Whatever the case, the resulting data silos can leave users struggling to reap the rewards of emerging, data-based solutions.”
As ABB knows better than most, that message may not be music to the ears of process industry clients keen to avoid radical transformations that imply downtime, large expense and a training and recruitment headache. Fortunately, says Duran, emerging trends are enabling a more flexible approach to automation architecture, one that “effectively divides systems and activities between a robust, evergreen core and an extended, digitally enabled environment that facilitates faster innovation and continuous performance improvements”.
In particular, he cites the growing adoption of Open Process Automation (OPA) and modular automation. OPA promotes the principle of an industrywide, interoperable system not chained to particular hardware.
Modular approaches rely upon distributed control functions operating at local ‘module’ level to permit those units to respond to demands without impacting the rest of the business process.
To quote from ABB’s Understanding modular automation: “End-users define the ‘services’ they need and approach module vendors for an operational system that meets this service. As such, engineering automation now rests with the module supplier. This, in turn, reduces the commissioning time as the modules themselves are fully programmed and ready to run.”
So how then can these approaches be employed to enable companies to develop a responsive production environment that allows them to evolve rather than disrupt their processes? Duran outlines below the four key features of his ‘evergreen’ approach:
Decoupling of DCS hardware and software
Rather than being programmed to work with a specific piece of hardware, process controller and application software will instead exist as functional entities or modules. These modules can be deployed flexibly wherever they are needed, across purpose-built and industrial PC controllers, edge devices, on-premise servers and Cloud platforms.
Each module will be equipped with secure communication interfaces based on industry-standard OPC UA information models and communications. In the classical DCS set-up, authentication and enforcement are carried out at the perimeter of the network. The OPC UA architecture instead adopts a zero-trust stance at the core. This means that all components will be required to digitally demonstrate their identity and originality, as well as their authorisation to carry out specific tasks. A flexible but robust solution that will be able to adapt in an evolving threat landscape. At the same time, adopting an industry-standard model for communication interfaces will promote seamless compatibility.
Design first, deploy later
Decoupling can also make life easier at the design and engineering stage of projects. Virtualisation, emulation and simulation technologies implemented in the Cloud as a digital twin enable virtual application testing and commissioning and avoid interrupting production.
Innovate to accumulate
Autonomous automation means progressively handing over more and processengineering.co.uk 23 more tasks to the DCS. Evolving control technologies to integrate more easily with applications in the Cloud or on edge devices will therefore play a key role in realising this IoT-based vision. There was a time, observes Duran, when the Industrial Internet of Things was more “a buzz word than a useful set of tools”, but it is now delivering real benefits for manufacturers and process operators. The trick of course is knowing how to use the tools.