DCS solution: from skids to plantwide control

19 January 2021

Suzanne Gill finds out more about a distributed control system (DCS) solution that is well suited to use more widely throughout a manufacturing plant, than traditional iterations of the technology.

While Distributed Control System (DCS) technology advances over the years have paralleled those of other automation technologies, because DCS solutions are employed to control continuous processes, which often requires 24/7 operation for many years non-stop, the opportunities for upgrades are limited and many control engineers will not be willing to risk upgrades while the process is running, despite that the fact that it is possible to do.

Because the cost of any downtime is like to be huge, the process industry is generally more conservative than other manufacturing sectors and any system changes tend to be small, incremental enhancements rather than a wholesale change.
“What we are seeing on many DCS controlled processing lines is a move to more open systems and more interaction with other technologies. In line with smart factory goals, there are now many smart devices being integrated into the field and this provides more data that filters up through the plant’s control systems and, when turned into information, this data can help the control engineer to run a better system,” explained Richard Sturt, solution architect manager at Rockwell Automation. 

Process challenges today remain the same the same as they did 10 years ago and today’s DCS solutions still need to fulfil many of the same functions as their predecessors. In the early days of the technology, DCS was costly to implement and so its use was restricted to high end applications and it was very specialist. “More recently, DCS applications have broadened out so in relative terms system costs have reduced,” continued Sturt. “This means that the technology is starting to find new areas of application and can be applied more widely throughout a manufacturing plant.” 

Responding to this need Rockwell has recently launched PlantPAx 5.0 –its first dedicated process control product. The PlantPAx 5.0 family consists of two dedicated process control products. “The range is still based on the company’s Logix controller technology but is now, in effect, a Logix superset. The addition of new CPUs offer more process capabilities,” said Sturt. 

The PlantPAx 5.0 family includes a solution aimed at smaller scale applications – on process skids, for example. This effectively allows skid builders to employ the same technology on the skid that is used on the plant’s main DCS, offering huge integration benefits. Further, the use of identical operator interfaces means there will be a similar look and feel across the plant for users. 

By far the biggest cost of developing a process control system has been engineering hours, so PlantPAx 5.0 includes features to help reduce this time-consuming task. It features built in functionality as standard aimed at reducing engineering effort. Traditionally, for a typical control system, up to 35% of the code writing requirement would relate to diagnostics and any code created would need to be updated in the event of any system changes. To reduce this effort, PlantPAx 5.0 makes automatic diagnostics available at the click of a button for all Rockwell components – which means they can automatically send fault messages to the DCS in the event of a problem. 

This modern DCS solution provides a wide range of architecture options for increased flexibility. It is based on secured, open communication standards, using EtherNet/IP as its backbone which makes real-time information readily available throughout the enterprise.

Today analytics form the basis of strategies to realise profit from the process operation. PlantPAx DCS has purpose-built frameworks that easily connect live and historical data from the DCS into reporting and analytical tools. Frameworks enable extended experiences, such as Augmented Reality, using workflows aligned with process strategies controlling plant operations. The system allows users to adopt a scalable analytics strategy by leveraging predictive and prescriptive models for process applications such as soft sensors, anomaly detection, or model predictive control. 

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