Aiming for disruption-free DCS upgrades

06 November 2023

Jens Scheib discusses how modern Distributed Control Systems can offer a pain-free pathway to continuous improvement for process industries.

Distributed Control Systems (DCS) have long been the backbone of industrial automation, providing centralised control over a wide variety of dispersed processes. One of the perennial challenges faced by process industries is the need to upgrade systems without causing disruption to ongoing operations which often run continuously, with any downtime resulting in significant financial losses and/or potential safety risks.

Traditional DCS solutions were often monolithic, with tightly integrated hardware and software components. Upgrading any part of the system for performance improvements, security patches, or integrating new technologies would require a complete system shutdown. This made upgrading a daunting task, and so it would be repeatedly postponed until it became absolutely necessary. This often led to plants being run on outdated operating systems and DCS, which could pose security and operational risks, at the very worst, in case of a cyberattack, leading to days and even months of downtime. 

However, the DCS landscape has been transforming and today’s state-of-the-art systems have been designed with the challenges of the past in mind and offer several features that address the issue of non-disruptive upgrades. These include:

Modularity and scalability: Modern DCS solutions are built on a modular architecture. This means individual components, whether hardware or software, can be upgraded independently without affecting the entire system. Such an approach allows for targeted upgrades, minimizing the operational areas affected. With solutions such as Simatic PCS neo leveraging web technologies, upgrades can often be deployed centrally and accessed by users via web browsers. This eliminates the need to install or upgrade software on individual user terminals, reducing the potential points of disruption.

Decoupled hardware and software: In traditional systems, the software was often tightly bound to specific hardware, making upgrades complex. Modern systems decouple these elements, allowing hardware or software to be upgraded independently. This flexibility ensures that the latest software can run on older hardware and vice versa, providing a smoother upgrade path. Additionally, redundant DCS architectures offer required flexibility during upgrades. 

Integrated simulation and testing: Before deploying any upgrade, it is important to understand its impact. Advanced DCS solutions come with integrated simulation tools that allow operators to test upgrades in a virtual environment, ensuring that any potential issues are identified and addressed before the live system is affected. One of the driving factors for upgrades is the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats. Today’s DCS solutions offer advanced security features by design and ensure that security patches can be applied seamlessly, keeping systems secure without affecting operations.

In conclusion, while the challenge of upgrading DCS without causing operational disruptions has been longstanding, significant strides have been made to address this issue. Through a combination of modular and scalable architectures, web-based technologies, decoupling of hardware and software, integrated testing tools, and robust security features, modern DCS solutions offer industries a path to continuous improvement. 

Jens Scheib is Business Owner SIMATIC DCS Systems for Process Automation at SIEMENS AG.

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