PACs evolve to meet changing needs

01 March 2016

Control Engineering Europe reports on the new breed of Ethernet-enabled Process Automation Controllers (PACs) which have evolved to help the process industry meet the need for greater plant flexibility and reliability, while also addressing new industry threats.

There is increasing pressure on industrial plant operators to find efficiencies within ever more complex plants while maintaining high levels of output. Unfortunately, many legacy control systems were implemented before remote access or management of an industrial plant was possible so are not flexible or connected enough to accommodate today’s challenges. 
“Maintenance and operations costs of these ageing systems will push up costs, while eating away at production efficiency,” warns Nipun Sibal, product marketing manager – Drives at Schneider Electric. “When you consider that over 50% of maintenance costs in the average plant are spent on asset maintenance, even a small saving in this area could result in a significant reduction in overall costs.” 

System modernisation
System modernisation is, therefore now an important consideration for many plant operators. Several years ago, ARC estimated that worldwide, around $65 billion in installed process automation systems were reaching the end of their useful life, with most being over 20 years of age. These are systems that no longer meet the requirements for today’s emerging needs and threats, such as cybersecurity. 

Recognising the need for change, plant managers are taking steps to modernise by automating more processes and introducing a number of connected devices across the plant floor. However, with many of these add-on solutions security is an after thought or sometimes is not considered at all.

The need for greater functional interoperability has resulted in automation solutions that employ a multitude of different drivers, networks, and standards. However, interoperability becomes less critical if a single product can provide a large percentage of the required functionality and it is this that has led to the growth of multi-disciplined controllers, which in 2002 ARC Advisory Group dubbed the programmable automation controller, or PAC.

Since the term was first coined, PACs have evolved to meet the changing need of today’s process plants for more rapid changeover capabilities.  ARC says that, as a hub for both real-time control and information, PACs benefit from being designed with an open Ethernet backbone to optimise connectivity and communications, increase bandwidth, and provide a high level of security. PACs also require an architecture that can maximise production flexibility, data and information transparency, and openness for diagnostics performed both locally and remotely. This has led to the next evolution of the PAC, a new concept that was defined by Schneider Electric as the ePAC.

In 2013 ARC reported on a trend for process end users to employ open networking technologies, such as EtherNet/IP, to be able to take advantage of an open integration environment, higher information bandwidth, standardisation, cost savings, the flexibility to physically move portions of their processing, and increased data visibility at all levels. The increasing need for distributed intelligence makes networking critically important and this has resulted in the increased adoption of ePACs – with built-in Ethernet backbones – for connectivity to either on-premise or cloud-based enterprise applications, such as ERP, MES, enterprise asset management (EAM), and supply chain management (SCM).

Accelerating trend
ARC has stated that these network-centric ePACs, with a built-in Ethernet, are accelerating the trend towards distributed I/O, providing process end users with significant cabling cost-savings and reductions in installation, start-up and commissioning costs. Schneider’s offering is the Modicon M580 ePAC, (Ethernet PAC) which is designed to fill the void between a universal Ethernet backbone, a DCS, and a PAC. All communications, including the controllers backplane bus, are managed on an open Ethernet backbone, from the control network. Down to the field network via remote or distributed I/O. The backbone also supports a dual I/O bus which is important if redundancy is required in process applications. 

“Modern ePAC solutions, designed with an open Ethernet backbone to optimise connectivity and communications give plant managers the flexibility and control to drive efficiency across the plant but with peace of mind that their operations are not susceptible to cyber attack,” continued Sibal. “The connected nature of ePACs, such as the M580, brings together information from across the plant so that operations managers can make informed decisions about plant operations, production efficiency and energy management.”

Schneider Electric is targeting its M580 ePAC at process end users who currently may be using larger PLC- or PAC-based systems in energy-intensive industries, such as water & wastewater, food & beverage,  upstream and midstream oil & gas, and metals & mining where the company’s integrated energy management solutions can help reduce energy costs and energy-related emissions. Schneider Electric believes that users in these and other process industries – including hydropower – are in the best position to take advantage of  its ePAC platform solution to help lower total cost of ownership. 

Addressing cybersecurity
To address cybersecurity issues, security is built into each M580 ePAC to provide an open, yet secured system. Each M580 ePAC can be secured using encrypted logins and passwords for every application. Unnecessary services can be disabled and checks can be performed to verify the integrity of the controller’s programming tool and firmware as well as the nominal behaviour of the system itself.

Sibla goes on to explain that, with an Ethernet-based PAC solution, asset management can also be overhauled. “With intelligent devices constantly sharing data plant managers are able to quickly find the root cause of issues and undertake preventative maintenance early on. The connected nature of the ePAC makes remote access and troubleshooting possible, further reducing costs as the need for onsite technicians is reduced.”
ARC recommends that plant operators follow a stepwise approach which allows them to evolve the components of their legacy systems that will have the greatest impact on their processing operations, while preserving the components that have not yet outlived their useful life. It is important to focus on utilising automated tools and a range of services which target a reduction or elimination of the downtime required to complete a migration project. It advises that, when modernising from PAC to ePAC, end users should consider the benefits of selecting an ePAC that embeds all legacy technology in its microprocessor to help ensure compliance with older ranges.

The case for an ePAC which brings with it flexibility, control and increased efficiency, is clear. Indeed, Control Engineering 2015 Engineers’ Choice awards, recognised the Schneider Electric M580 ePAC as ‘PAC of the year 2015’. These awards are voted for by industry professionals who considered the M580 the most exceptional based on the technological advancement, service to the industry and market impact.

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