SCADA is dead, or is it?

11 July 2023

Data plays a vital role in the digitalisation of industrial facilities. But, as digitalisation goals become more ambitious, how is technology for data capture and analysis changing? Stefan Reuther examines the role of SCADA in Industry 4.0.

Let’s get this straight: Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems as we knew them have gone. The traditional automation pyramid has collapsed, and IT/OT convergence is on the rise. The next generation of solutions has arrived and is paving the way for advanced manufacturing.

We are in the age of industrial digitalisation, and control and monitoring software has never been so ubiquitous. Before we can understand the purpose of SCADA in Industry 4.0 journeys, we need to understand how the technology is changing. It has shifted from being 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 platforms with open system architecture.

Open system architecture describes the elimination of vendor dependence that is often associated with early and proprietary SCADA systems. In practice, an open system is not limited to operating with one original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) products, or a limited number of communication protocols. 

This level of flexibility is key to ensuring modern systems are fit for purpose in modern factories. Moreover, providers of futureproof SCADA systems must 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 software platform, guaranteed updates are one the one hand a necessity, however vendors do also need to ensure Long-term support (LTS) for up to ten years. 

IT and OT convergence
Another consideration is the integration of Information Technology (IT). Some modern platforms are capable of integrating data sets that were previously limited to the IT space. For instance, capturing data from Enterprise Resource Management (ERP) or Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) systems for consideration alongside Operational Technology (OT) data from the factory floor. 

Data collected by IT systems can be used to streamline production processes, fix critical issues faster and make better informed decisions – but only if it is collected, transmitted and processed effectively and securely. 

The most effective systems will be able to operate across both of these technology spheres. In addition, a software platform doesn’t only gather data from different hardware and IT systems but do also need to provide data in an open format and accessible for third parties. Modern SCADA can operate like a data hub or, as you could also name it, as an OTIL (Operation Technology Integration Layer).
So, how do engineers use this technology in their digitalisation journey? On its most basic level, a SCADA system lets an operator verify that its machinery is operating correctly. However, modern systems should enable an operator to use SCADA data to determine how to make improvements or adjustments to equipment to maximise productivity or efficiency. 

At the beginning of any project, a manufacturer should consider its data sets and use them to determine smart goals. Is achieving better energy efficiency a key company goal? The platform should be capable of identifying areas of high energy usage, and this is where that organisation should start their process. Is improved capacity to produce customised projects a goal? In this case, data on equipment availability will be key. In order for the company to make informed decisions on digitalisation, having access to a full facility of data sets is key. 

Without having clear visualisation of all the data produced from a facility – whether this is related to energy usage, productivity, downtime or something else – it is impossible to embark on an informed Industry 4.0 journey. In fact, proper investment in data collection technology should come before any other smart factory investment, including any hardware. 

There is no doubt that Industry 4.0 is transforming the way manufacturers operate, but it is also transforming how SCADA systems work, and what businesses should expect from them. Long gone are the days when straightforward data capture is enough. To fulfil Industry 4.0 goals, SCADA systems must be much more advanced.

Stefan Reuther is a member of the executive board at COPA-DATA.

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