Today’s industrial organizations face a host of operational challenges. Ensuring the safety of personnel, equipment, and the environment are priorities for every facility. At the same time, plants must find ways to increase process efficiency, availability, and throughput—helping to improve their overall business performance.
Over the past couple of decades, the industrial automation sector has witnessed converging process control technologies contributing towards an integrated control system that can unify people with process, business needs and asset management. While the distributed control system (DCS) is no more just an instrument for controlling batch and continuous process, modern PLCs have also challenged the traditional boundaries by incorporating new capabilities. Integration enhancements by use of open technologies now allow the DCS to collect intelligence from various plant assets that were until now operating in isolation or were not considered relevant to integrate until recently.
The evolution and commoditization of DCS technology has produced a modern, graphical, highly interactive integration platform, which provides process control functionality as well as real-time data connectivity between the plant floor and the enterprise. Development has also led from a proprietary, system-centric architecture, to one that is more focused on supporting collaborative business processes.
Modern DCS systems bring “integration with simplicity.” Here are some examples:
- Integrated engineering, maintenance and operations by integrating safety-related information to DCS while still maintaining a separate and compliant safety system architecture
- Integrated power substation automation systems to DCS over IEC 61850 that can realize the benefits including increased energy efficiency, improved operator effectiveness and plant availability
- Integrating people with processes through tools like procedural operations that ensure procedures are fully available to provide the right information at the right time, while not distracting the operator from monitoring alarms, process conditions, and responsibilities for other equipment
- Improved cybersecurity protection by integrating DCS with next generation controllers using industry standard framework such as ISASecure
- Improved SCADA controllers in terms of faster startup, engineering using cutting edge interfaces like OPC UA and their integration capabilities with DCS
- Complete suite of mobility solution including use of handheld devices, mobile station, remote engineering node, casual access to business users and alert messaging that enables the widest range of visualization, collaboration and browser based solutions for improved operations, troubleshooting and decision-making.
The journey from DCS to integrated control system (ICS) has greatly benefited by industry associations such as ISA that help define the integration framework and operating principles. Some examples of how industry insight and research has collaborated for industry-wide adoption:
- ISA-99, which has now become IEC 62443, the global industrial standard for cybersecurity
- ISA-18.2, alarm management guidelines
- ISA-101 and ISA-106, for display design and procedural operations respectively
Interestingly, some adjacent IT technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and virtualization are unlocking a new array of potential in the control systems. A new OEM business model is a reality now using IIoT-ready controllers which can provide data securely over OEM analytics cloud to achieve improved equipment serviceability time and performance monitoring and lower total cost of ownership. Likewise, virtualization technology helps customers with greater new system and lifecycle benefits including design independence, virtual FAT and staging, improved system agility, flexibility and scalability, facility and utility savings, simplified system management and many more.
The potent mix of newer technologies is helping the new age DCS to be more “open yet secure,” “compact yet scalable,” “integrated yet separate,” “OT using IT” type solution with a great future promise.