Is SCADA shaping the smart factories of the future?

14 February 2023

Suzanne Gill asked a variety of SCADA providers what they thought were the most important features of modern SCADA systems, and why?

According to Felix Krahnert, Marketing Manager for Human Machine Interface at Siemens, openness is key. “SCADA systems need to communicate with an ever-growing number of other software- and IT systems,” he said. “Seamless data flow is essential for every digital factory and to meet Industry 4.0 goals so modern SCADA solutions need to help engineers by making the basic tasks as simple and efficient as possible. With the right tools, it gets easier to reach Industry 4.0 goals because they help to get value out of the data.”

According to Melissa Topp, director of global marketing at Iconics, there are two schools of thought when it comes to selecting a replacement SCADA system today. One is to select a minimal SCADA where much is left up to the system integrator in the form of scripting and customisation. The other is to select a solution that offers a wealth of options, but that also delivers rapid development tools for quick and easy implementation. “Scenario one offers a more direct replacement for traditional SCADA systems but may not deliver as much in terms of future proofing your investment, and due to the scripting involved, will either lock you in to using the system integrator that delivered the solution or will require domain experts on-site for long term maintenance and improvement. The second approach will deliver a clear step up, with modern functionality and a platform for easy in-house management,” she said. 
The first requirement when selecting a SCADA solution to help meet Industry 4.0 goals is for it to be forward thinking in the protocols and interfaces it supports – including, for example, OPC UA, MQTT, web services, REST, JSON, Sparkplug B which have all grown in importance in recent years. 

The second requirement is that all information needs to be placed in context, to be self-explanatory to users, and to facilitate object-oriented layered analytics. This will speed up development and deliver functions that can analyse huge amounts of data across classes of equipment or processes. 
“The greatest challenge at the outset of any upgrade project is deciding what the future state should look like,” said Topp. “It is easy to re-implement an existing system with some new technology, while adding a few new bells and whistles. It is much harder to understand the full potential of a modern SCADA and to strive for a system that is greatly enhanced at the same time.” She warns against getting locked into solutions that require extensive scripting. “It is great to have a close relationship with a talented integrator, but when they leave or retire, who will manage that system going forward? Relying upon a platform that has a robust set of features that are maintained and carried forward through versions will save time in the long term. 

“Create a checklist of potential functionalities needed, both in the short term and as you enhance over time, and make sure the SCADA vendor is compliant. Look for proof points that the vendor is staying current with industry trends. Never underestimate the importance of looking for a solution that is ‘cloud ready’ either. Whether your organisation has already embraced the cloud, is currently investigating it, or is not even considering it, the pathway to having a cloud-based or hybrid solution can sneak up on you quickly! It is good to be ready early.” 

A rapid evolution
Stefan Reuther, executive board member at Copa-Data, said: “SCADA technology is shifting from a tool for monitoring and data capture, to the technology shaping the smart factories of the future. One of the crucial ways this is achieved is the use of SCADA with open system architecture.” 

Open system architecture describes the elimination of vendor dependence often associated with early SCADA systems. In practice, open system SCADA is not limited to operating with one original equipment manufacturer’s product, or a limited number of communication protocols. According to Reuther providers of SCADA systems must also be willing to continually adopt and embrace new standards to keep up with the growing scale of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) device networks. “When specifying a SCADA platform, guaranteed updates are a necessity, however vendors do also need to ensure long-term support for up to 10 years,”

Another consideration is the integration of Information Technology (IT) into SCADA systems. “Some modern platforms are capable of integrating data sets that were previously limited to the IT space. For example, capturing data from Enterprise Resource Management (ERP) systems for consideration alongside Operational Technology (OT) data from the factory floor,” pointed out Reuther. “The most effective SCADA systems will be able to operate across the IT and the OT technology spheres.”

Reuther went on to discuss common SCADA upgrade challenges. He said: “Overhauling ageing SCADA systems can leave engineers with a significant programming burden. However, good SCADA systems are capable of removing the need for complex programming.” He argues that if parameters are set instead of programming – with the help of a library of pre-designed static and dynamic elements and symbols – no prior knowledge of programming is needed and projects can be created with just a few clicks — in comparison to tens of thousands of lines of code. 

Replacing outdated systems
The need to upgrade to more modern SCADA solutions stems from the fact that traditional SCADA systems have become limited, in the context of Industry 4.0, for extending beyond industrial automation to industrial autonomy, which requires the incorporation of added dimensions of automatic data-driven anticipation and adaptation to unforeseen plant operating conditions without human intervention. 

“The insufficiency of traditional SCADA or Distributed Control Systems (DCS) alone for autonomous operations lies principally where there is emergence of multi-site, modular ecosystem business models; where individual site systems need to operate in conjunction with each other, as a system of systems,” explained Marcel Kelder, Sales Director Digital Enterprise Solutions at Yokogawa Europe B.V.

“As per the Purdue enterprise reference model (ISA-99), both systems (SCADA and DCS) are not designed to simultaneously achieve both vertical and horizontal data integration,” said Kelder. Offering an example, he sited modular green hydrogen production. “Horizontal integration refers to the integration of the different on-premise systems – the electrolyzer system, the compressor system and OPC UA, Profibus DP, Modbus TCP/IP or the IEC61850. Vertical integration refers to integration with the business domain, the Cloud (e.g. through MQTT interface), remote centres or IIoT devices where cybersecurity is crucial in supporting different architectures and protocols.”

For large sites, horizontal and vertical integration is often separated through different systems. However, for smaller and modular operations, separate solutions may be too complex. “For this reason Yokogawa has developed an edge computing solution for vertical and horizontal integration, encompassing multiple systems, simultaneously. This integration includes both data and HMI, as well as alarms and safety,” continued Kelder. “To achieve maximum efficiency operators need one unified interface for operating all systems. This starts with operator graphics for operating all system modules.”

For the safety of the plant, the alarm philosophy and the safety override philosophy must also be integrated and aligned with all systems. Kelder said: “Collecting alarms from different systems is common, however alarm handling – such as alarm confirmation, alarm suppression or alarm on/off can be challenging because there must be bi-directional data exchange between the edge computing system and other systems. The same applies to safety overrides.  In the event a module is delivered with a safety system, an operator may wish to override a safety loop to do maintenance, or other activities. 

“In the case of a cloud environment, many of the data and messages collected by the edge system on-premise must be sent to the Cloud for analysis, with the outcome of the analysis then returned to the edge system. In this way, the edge system becomes the data hub of the modular plant, crossing vertical and horizontal domains, enabling autonomous orchestration.

Autonomous orchestration engines are key to achieve the potential of autonomous and unmanned operations in a bid to increase plant operating efficiency, productivity and also keeping personnel out of harm’s way.

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