Keeping pace with the digital transformation

25 February 2019

Suzanne Gill finds out more about the changing role of SCADA systems and asks what features are needed to ensure that this technology keeps pace with the demands of the digital factory of tomorrow.

Today’s SCADA does not really have very much in common with the SCADA  systems of ten years ago. On top of the traditional SCADA functionality based on fixed brand PLC communication, a modern SCADA system is able to interact with many other software and hardware components. “Not only does it need to have a large library of built-in connectivity options for third-party drivers, it can also provide easy connectivity to databases and upper-level systems like MES or ERP systems as well,” said Christian Nomine, solutions consulting and product marketing, Factory Automation EMEA at Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V.
It should also support web services, IIoT and cloud-based connectivity such as OPC UA or MQTT and IT connectivity like SNMP or ICMP to monitor IT assets. “Even in the field of machine learning and data analytics, SCADA still makes a lot of sense,” continued Nomine. “For example, using it as a simple way to contextualise – by adding meaning to pure numbers like engineering units, comments, correct dimension, structures – and to visualise and understand logged machine data before it is put into a deep neural network to learn a predictive maintenance algorithm.”

Nomine advises that, for maximum flexibility, a modern SCADA should be based on the latest programming environments and should support accepted programming language standards such as C#, or Java. These open programming interfaces will allow adaptation of the SCADA software to fit expectations. “Last but not least, a state-of-the-art SCADA system should be capable of running the operator interface in a platform-independent manner, whether than be on a Windows PC or on a smart device. 

“The role of a modern SCADA system has significantly expanded, providing features and functions which support the needs of digital transformation and changing business models for infrastructure and processes. However, one thing remains unchanged. SCADA systems will continue to focus on the real-time environment of industrial automation,” said Nomine.

Security considerations
According to a Yokogawa spokesperson, less than 20% of SCADA systems and applications in operation today can be seamlessly upgraded to a new version, or can benefit from the latest OT/IT technology. This can make upgrades as expensive as a total system replacement. As a result, new investments in SCADA systems are often postponed beyond the point that security of legacy systems is not able to keep pace with today’s cyber intrusion risks. 

Every production plant operator should regularly evaluate their OT lifecycle and objectives to keep critical SCADA systems and applications continuously up to date. Potential security risks, reliability and efficiency of aging SCADA systems should be regularly assessed. 

While the trend towards the IT domain converging with the OT domain brings new opportunities to optimise operations, it also presents challenges in protecting critical plant automation domain and associated operation tasks from a cyber-security point of view.

Chad McGaw, hosted solutions marketing manager at Honeywell Process Solutions, also commented on the need to ensure that SCADA software includes robust security features. He said: “Today almost everything is exposed to the Internet – a flash drive, or computer with email connectivity – at some point,” he said. All of these introduce the possibility of a cyber-attack.  “To prevent this it is important that security is designed into solutions at all levels. For example, RTUs with ISA Secure Level 2 certification are designed to prevent hackers from making any changes to the OS, control logic, or data. RTUs serve as the edge device with connectivity to physical I/O, serial communications, and Ethernet, filters, and forward an encrypted VPN to the data center. Designing security at every level is a must if you want to trust the data you use to make decisions.” 

Meeting expectations
It is now possible to monitor and control hundreds of thousands of variables in thousands or even tens of thousands of devices spread across countries or continents – in near real time. The continuous evolution of mobile network bandwidth and speed is enabling further growth. What was once consumer infrastructure is being used more and more for industrial applications. To meet the expectations of the smart factory, SCADA systems must be able collect, store and analyse all types of factory data and present it in a concise and useful way.  This requires the software to be constantly updated to help improve performance, to add new functionalities for smart factory use and to add ever more advanced analytical capabilities, including predictive analytics calculations. 

Martyn Williams, managing director of COPA-DATA UK  picked up on this point. He said: “Until recently, enterprise and OT operated in entirely different silos. Today, software is expected to execute a range of different tasks and processes, including those usually associated with IT, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). “Without regularly updating SCADA to meet these new requirements, platforms will quickly become outdated. These updates are not just for improving vertical integration, but also for improving existing capabilities. 

Staying up-to-date
Today’s SCADA software could, for example, provide meaningful future predictions which assess energy consumption in a factory in the event of a change in production volume. Without regular updates, this valuable insight would not be available. 

“Analytical tools are not the only advantage of using SCADA software which is regularly updated, said Williams. “Updates are also important from a cyber security perspective. As industrial software becomes more sophisticated, the techniques used by hackers are also developing. Without consistently protecting systems from new threats, manufacturers may be putting their facilities at risk.  Software with IEC 62443 compliance, for example, requires vendors to provide evidence that proves exactly how the software’s security is improving. As the standard requires recertification annually, manufacturers can ensure their software vendor is constantly under scrutiny from a respected third-party.”

Trend-driven changes
According to Bernhard Staufer, business development SIMATIC SCADA at Siemens AG, digitalisation is being driven by two key trends – technology innovations and changes in user behaviour and expectations and it is these trends that are impacting what users expect from a SCADA system. “We now have to provide more than just supervision, control, and data acquisition on a workstation or terminal – users also want to be able to conveniently access information whenever and wherever they wish. SCADA systems will become the data backbone linking operational technology and information technology and will be a key component of digitalisation,” he said.

This can already be seen in many areas, such as for tracking and tracing products and resources, or for optimising processes in various industries, from manufacturing to infrastructure. Data from SCADA systems can now support proactive maintenance – helping to detect impending failures, create dynamic maintenance plans complete with parts lists, notify teams, and provide additional information on-site on mobile devices. “SCADA systems need to be flexible so that they can accommodate the requirements of different applications,” said Staufer. “It is also important to keep in mind that these systems are handling sensitive data. Plant owners want to be in control of their data at all times, and they want to be able to choose whether to perform a task on-premise or add features in the cloud. Therefore, SCADA systems must be open, supporting standards such as OPC UA or cloud protocols such as MQTT.”

In the future, Staufer predicts that OT and IT will merge, giving users the freedom to choose between performing a task in their SCADA system, in the cloud, or using edge computing. “The question of what I want to do will become more important than the question of how and where to do it,” said Staufer. 

The continual advancement of IT digitisation has become common practice for business processes according to Nathan Ghundoo, marketing manager, Software Industry Business at Schneider Electric. This, he says, can offer productivity gains and allows the return on investment to be measured. “Successful manufacturing businesses will now start to transfer this mentality into their OT as well as their IT,” explained Ghundoo.
“It is important to identify the best ways to continually optimise a manufacturing processes. The first foundational step is having a robust SCADA system to connect all the machinery and equipment through a centralised hub. The hub sits at the core and acquires all the data from the site, including information like machine status, process status and gives operators the ability to control and monitor equipment. A good SCADA presents this information back via a HMI allowing for a contextualised view into the organisation’s operations, empowering operators to make informed decisions quickly.”
As systems evolve, the importance of collecting, storing and analysing this data is becoming more important. Historically, SCADA was used for operating and monitoring production in a plant. Today, however, SCADA systems are much more advanced allowing operators to simulate the impact of their actions, not only against the yield of their product but against the financial impact on the business vs their production goals.

 “As SCADA technology continues to evolve, manufacturers will also need to educate their employees on how to operate SCADA systems efficiently through simulation, continuous improvement and by adopting best practices,” concluded Ghundoo.

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