Looking into the future of control systems

10 September 2018

Bob Halgren, DeltaV product director at Emerson, comments on process control systems of the future in an Industry 4.0 era.

Over the past 10-20 years control systems have moved from being purpose-built computer hardware and proprietary networks to being Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) PCs that are running on Ethernet networks. In the last five years, these PCs have been virtualised, so the footprint is a lot smaller, while physical hardware remains at the core of the control system, software and how users interact and engineer within the software, is now more critical. Software must be easy  to use and intuitive to make it possible for the data to be turned into analytics and process insight to enable better decision making.

Significant expansion in mobile worker solutions – making the control system accessible from anywhere via smart devices. Mobile displays, operator interfaces, and user experience tools that enhance how people interact and see the plant have the potential to significantly improve the efficiency of plant operations.

Mobile solutions allow process plant managers to access the data they are interested in – KPIs, high-level alerts, etc. – when they want it, as opposed to having to make a phone call or go into a control room. Managers can understand and respond to situations faster to mitigate risks of incidents and improve total plant production. 

Engineering shortage
With shortages of qualified engineers being a global issue, it is incumbent upon automation and control system providers to offer solutions that enable end users to do more with less. This can be achieved by embedding expertise into the software, and offering operator training and simulation solutions to help prepare operators to make good decisions.  

Process customers are often operating facilities where a failure could have a negative impact on the environment, surrounding community, or employees. As such, there is often a reluctance to be the first to try out new technologies, which must be proven safe before being widely adopted by process customers. This means it is vital for automation vendors to go through a very rigorous testing program to ensure that the control system and related products are ready for use in a process manufacturing environment without increasing operating risk.

Today the control system exists in a physical plant, but in the near future it will move to the cloud in the form of a digital twin. As a digital twin, the control system can be used to train operators and optimise processes offline to create better, safer, and more reliable production at the actual plant site.

With the arrival of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) there is a rapid move to integrate data and analytics. The push is always to innovate, but we must always make sure that systems can easily integrate at multiple levels to break down silos between plant level, business systems, and cloud analytics capabilities.

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