Looking into the future of SCADA

09 October 2023

Control Engineering Europe spoke with Kyle Reissner, VP Product Management at ICONICS, about supervisory control and data acquisition software.

Q: How can control engineers ensure that their chosen SCADA solution is future-proofed and suited to use in Industry 4.0 environments?
My knee jerk response would be – you can't. SCADA software tends to be needed for control level processes, so you are typically attaching software to machine level control. This makes the SCADA mission critical to production with control actions. The nature and place in the overall automation control system of those applications mandate that there be very few changes to the systems after commissioning. No matter how easy or painless software vendors strive to make the updates and additions to their SCADA software, any updates and additions are going to cause variation and introduce a level of risk when applied to the system. Engineers by nature don’t like risk. They also carry a duty of care to ensure security and safety and to keep production running efficiently and minimising downtime risks. So, once things are operating consistently, they will be looking to eliminate risk, not introduce it.

Now conversely, if you engineer a good system design, where you separate the critical level control from the components that deliver Industry 4.0 value propositions, a more easily maintainable system could be implemented. This type of architecture will be more expensive, however, the value that can be derived from the data will be immeasurably beneficial to day-to-day operations and long-term planning. 

Q: What do you envisage will be a typical application for SCADA in industrial applications in, say, five years’ time?
I think the traditional role of SCADA in the automation control system will remain, and it will likely evolve more and more to the center of everything. However, these systems will be enhanced to be more runtime configurable. This way operators and users can create, add, and enhance the system in runtime and continuously add more components to be able to deploy Industry 4.0 solutions in a way that allows for secure access and sharing. I believe we will also see an explosion of data sharing needs  –alarms and process variables – from SCADA systems to other systems. Given the hardware landscape that is typically under the SCADA, this positions the SCADA software as the layer needed to enable Industry 4.0 and beyond. Even if the sole function of the SCADA is to only perform data acquisition and organise it to a common namespace. In addition, I believe that analytical algorithms will increasingly be applied to the data within the SCADA project itself. This is because the horsepower needed to run machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that provide pointed value will decrease, so these elements can run more and more on-premises or in the cloud and can provide a lot of practical value with very little setup or programming.

Another point to add is that nowadays everyone's talking about large scale AI neural networks and the different possibilities for how these can be applied like fully self-driving cars and other applications in the consumer sector. So, thinking more visionary, I can see a possibility of some specific functions on equipment to make non-rules-based decisions. The scope of this could include the equipment figuring out on its own what's wrong in the event of downtime, how to optimise itself better or even how it should control the process autonomously in certain situations. The autonomous control part sounds wild because it is. Every bit of the engineering part of my brain says you must absolutely know when the machine will move and how far it will move and program that according to set logic that repeats every time. But I could see autonomous control happening in some form in the future. Maybe not in the next five years, but in the years that follow. And for sure manufacturing companies will need to be super cautious about introducing this technology until it's truly well proven and bound to specific functions on a machine or within a process. I remind myself and others that think advanced technology won’t apply to them, that back in the 90’s when I was in high school, I originally thought that SMS messaging wouldn’t catch on…and boy was I wrong about that! So, be sure to think dynamically and out of the box about AI because being a naysayer on new technology might just turn out to surprise you.

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