Future-proofing your process control systems

16 February 2021

Joe Bastone explains how control engineers can ensure that their process control assets are future-proofed and have the flexibility needed to meet ever faster changing customer demands.

Since the 1980s, most automation projects have followed a very predictable process, with significant engineering effort expended early in the project lifecycle to determine how every device is connected to I/O modules, how I/O modules are associated with process controllers, and how control strategies are assigned to the appropriate process controller.

Subsequently automation providers have spent several decades finding solutions to help streamline project workflows. This process has brought about much greater efficiencies. At the same time, lean execution methodologies have challenged long-held assumptions about how projects should be deployed. Despite these advances, which have simplified many implementation tasks, there was still room for improvement.

More recently, however, a breakthrough technology has been developed that helps process control systems become future-proofed and have the flexibility to meet changing customer demands. This solution enables automation end users to decouple I/O from control, providing expanded options in control distribution and facilitating modular and parallel project execution; apply control application containers to provide flexibility and standardisation of control hardware platform location and associated engineering; and centralise IT infrastructure to help lower project engineering and lifecycle costs, better leverage skills, and drive consistent physical and cybersecurity management.

The latest approach to project design and implementation employs lean project execution principles, software and networking to unchain control applications from physical equipment, and controllers from physical I/O. This enables control systems to be engineered and implemented in less time – at lower cost and risk – with simpler modular builds. The solution also transforms the way control systems are maintained over their lifecycle, shifting day-to-day management of servers to a centralised data center, where experts and established protocols are able to contribute to reducing cybersecurity risk, and allowing plant engineers to focus more proactively on optimisation of their control systems.

With today’s innovative methodology for automation projects, process control systems can be more easily expanded incrementally, and at the same time, the impact of late design changes is significantly reduced. 

Project engineers now have the ability to decompose many of the parts of a control system that have been historically coupled in a tight and inflexible manner. They can configure I/O modules independent of controllers, and no longer have to worry about specific connections between devices, I/O cabinets and controller hardware. This means that their focus can shift to improving overall plant control strategies and process operations.

For example, as plant personnel executes an expansion or debottlenecking, they might have to bring on additional control capabilities. The new project approach enables them to easily reallocate control functionality and still access all of the I/O installed in the field. They don’t have to rebuild control strategies or move I/O modules to different locations. New resources can be added to the existing infrastructure on an as-needed basis without concern for overloading the controllers. Furthermore, extra I/O modules can be included in the current I/O “hive” without the high cost associated with a more traditional scenario.

In summary, a new approach to implementing automation solutions will foster a trend in the industrial landscape and companies will no longer be tied to control system platforms without the freedom to expand and enhance their design. This approach enhances automation performance and eliminates tightly bound relationships between I/O and control functionality –allowing both new and existing systems to adapt to their processes.

Joe Bastone is director, Experion Product Marketing at Honeywell Process Solutions.

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