Interfacing with the machine

There have been huge changes in industrial process control but new technologies mean that there are many more ahead.

Process industry automation continues to experience solid worldwide growth as plants must continue to improve performance. End users facing globalisation are driving plant performance at a level that would be inconceivable without modern process automation systems and business processes.

"Process automation technologies help achieve industry business objectives for improved plant utilisation, yields, product quality, availability, safety, flexibility, and delivery performance," Himanshu Shah, senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group says. "Constant cost pressure in process industries leaves no alternative but to improve plant performance, and process automation technologies play a key role in achieving this.

"Many trends are emerging as a result of globalisation, which means more markets, more products, and more partners. One reason the automation systems business will do so well over the next few years is the huge list of challenges and changing conditions in the global business environment that manufacturers must respond to. These challenges include the need to act quickly and with agility to emerging market opportunities, dealing with a shrinking base of educated and well-trained personnel, and increasing pressure to improve financial performance. These challenges are driving a significant change in the way that end users approach everything they use to control production, engineering, operations, and maintenance across the manufacturing enterprise."

With the increased intelligence of field devices it could almost be argued that there is simply too much data to meaningfully manage a process. That, according to Colin Pearson, a process control spokesman at ABB Automation, is why software, and particularly developing human machine interfaces (HMI) that can visualise this information, is what is driving the industry.

"From what we can understand there is a bit of a split in DCS (distributed control systems) vendors," he says. "Some of them are concentrating on the operations of the system, the front end - the human machine interfaces, which is the control systems and the PCs including the graphics and what is available from the graphics.

"Other groups are concentrating on the field devices. Our philosophy is that you can have the smartest devices in the world, whether they are wireless or hard-wired, but if you don't get that information to the users of the system - the operators and maintainers - then all that information that you have on the devices is pretty useless.

"So the front end of the system, the operations of the system is where all our systems are geared towards. We see our customers being more and more concerned, and we call them the pilots of the plant which is quite apt, that when they sit in front of these HMI systems they need all of the information available in a form that they can easily comprehend.

"The biggest revenue loss in all these plants around the world is actually operator error, and that is not operators making mistakes it is operators not having the information at hand to make the right decision at the right time.

"So this is where we see the trend. Our customers want to sit in front of the machine and get access to all the data from what was previously varied disparate systems."

This desire for increased visibility is not just recognised by the vendors but is confirmed by ARC Advisory Group. "Manufacturers in the process industries know that they need better visibility into operations that occur inside their own fence," Harry Forbes, senior analyst, explains. "ARC's end user research indicates that manufacturers believe better visibility has huge potential value in the form of more consistent use of best practices, higher plant utilisation, and improved operational safety."


In recent years there has been much talk about the integration of the safety functions within the prime control functions but as Pearson confirms that has already happened, but he points to further, and probably more exciting integration on the horizon.

"The integration of safety has been around since 2000," he explains. "We have found that the biggest hindrance to that were actually the customers, and their acceptance of it. This is now more and more accepted, in fact there is so much diagnostic and analysis information you get with an integrated system that really the integration of the safety system is not questioned at all. "The next step and one that we are rushing towards is integrating the electrical systems and telecommunications systems. Our new system is able to integrate process, safety, telecommunications and electrical." The haste to add this extra integration is driven by the predicted billion dollar growth in industrial Ethernet that will provide the perfect platform. "There are massive moves from disparate types of bespoke protocols to move over to industrial Ethernet," he adds.

"Then when you start to look at industrial Ethernet, if you have a common platform across all your systems, why on earth have the things separate? If they are connected you get common diagnostics, you get access to all the components. There is a little resistance to integrating telecommunications and we think that is because some of our customers cannot foresee the day when their IT department are part of the DCS solution, and that is not to dissimilar to five years ago when the same could be said of the DCS and safety people."

Wireless world

With the arrival of the Hart 7 specification, which includes WirelessHart, the first open wireless communication standard specifically designed for process measurement and control applications, the prediction was that the technology would take off.

With the advantage of greater efficiency and the elimination of wire, much was expected of wireless but to date in the cautious process sector the expected rush has not materialised.

According to ARC Advisory Group the market for wireless devices in the process manufacturing industries will grow and change substantially during the next five years. Driven by standards based wireless field devices for sensing and by the need of process manufacturers to achieve consistent best practices, the market will reach $1.1bn in the year 2012.

Aided by a compelling value proposition, by new global standards, and improved performance, wireless process field devices (pressure, temperature, level, and flow transmitters) will grow from today's small market to become a significant segment of the total process field device market. New wireless LAN products that combine certification for hazardous locations and improved performance offer an essentially all-wireless field infrastructure. These will aid manufacturers who need greater visibility of their field operations.

The need for more modern work practices, especially in field operations "inside the fence" of process manufacturing plants, is driving technology adoptions which increasingly involve wireless. Process manufacturers want greater assurance that best practices are being captured and used consistently in their process operations, especially infrequent procedures, where traditional operating methods can be inadequate and operator experience is limited.

"With official release of the specifications, the WirelessHart standard is now publicly available and manufacturers can begin implementing this new capability into their products and process solutions," Ron Helson, Hart Communication Foundation executive director said at the launch back in September 2007. "The technology addresses the critical needs of the process industry for simple, reliable and secure wireless communication in the real world industrial plant environment.

It builds on established and field-proven international standards including the Hart protocol (IEC 61158), EDDL (IEC 61804-3), IEEE 802.15.4 radio and frequency hopping, spread spectrum and mesh networking technologies. The new technology addresses the issues users face in the process plant environment and seamlessly integrates existing devices into HART-enabled systems.

With support from the majority of vendors including ABB, Emerson, Endress & Hauser and Siemens the technology has the product base to succeed.

While not throwing their unequivocal support behind the technology ABB are certainly strong supporters, although at present their devices are also compatible with foundation fieldbus and Profibus standards. "We have long believed that a single fieldbus standard would provide significant benefits to both users and vendors," Sean Keeping, ABB Instrumentation vice-president technology says. "However, it is a business reality that multiple fieldbus technologies/standards are here to stay. Therefore, to maximise our customers' ability to choose a best fit solution, we have integrated the leading fieldbus communications protocols into ABB field devices, tools, and host systems.

"This duplicated design effort has been costly for ABB and other suppliers, and has made life confusing for users. We would strongly advocate avoidance of a "multiple standard" path for wireless sensor communication."

"To avoid repeating the 'multiple standard' dilemma we currently have with fieldbuses, ABB's recommendation is that SP100 incorporate the WirelessHart specification as its solution at the instrument level for PV monitoring, asset performance management, and eventually control."

According to Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer of Emerson Process Management, the standard meets the unique needs of process end users, and represents real value to the industry.

"Last year we recognised the tremendous accomplishment of enhanced EDDL (electronic device description language) to increase openness and functionality to enable users to improve operations and maintenance. This year we are celebrating the open WirelessHart standard that is not only simple, robust and secure and but also consistent with customers' installed base of tools, hosts, experience and work processes."

Open standard

Hans-Georg Kumpfmüller, division president for Sensors and Communication at Siemens echoed those sentiments by saying that it was "the first important official open standard for wireless communication available for the Process Automation industry."

But it is not just the control and automation companies that are rushing to embrace the standard, as evidenced by the partnership between Emerson and IT giant Cisco. "If you speak to senior executives about what's stopping them integrating the non-IT with the enterprise space, nine out of ten say 'you show me that you can secure my production capabilities and we will do it tomorrow,'" Stuart Robinson, manager, manufacturing vertical sector, Cisco Systems (UK) European markets, explains.

"The enterprise space is in location A and the production space is in location B. We're there as a pig-in-the-middle saying that, based on the new security firewalls, we can demonstrate that we can secure a production control environment.

"That means you are going to start to take out huge amounts of cost of the overall network, huge amounts of cost from IT that can potentially be invested elsewhere in the business. You can then start to really execute on operational excellence and increase your competitiveness in your own marketplace."

Out in the real world ABB's process automation expert Colin Pearson is seeing a different and less positive scenario for wireless communications. "We are not seeing a massive pick-up for wireless; people are going on to the wireless Hart more as a trial at the moment," he says. "In certain projects and certain industries wireless is really not so much of an issue, particularly with someone who has plenty of space.

"If the drivers of the plant have a wireless device, or a hard wired device, or a foundation fieldbus device, or even if they have got all three of those components on the same system it should be transparent to them. So if I want DCM information from a device, I don't care where it is coming from but I want it in a consistent format and you can get away with that with integration. Without integration you have separate skill sets required to operate separate packages.

 "Yes the wireless Hart standard has just been released, it's a given, something you buy off the shelf as far as the hardware is concerned. But the key to it is getting that data to the people who need it, and the only place to do that is with the people who drive the plant.

"We have not only got this for the main system but what our customers are now demanding is to be able to get access to this system, not only from the control room, but from across the globe. This is where we have seen some of the biggest changes in requirements because people really do want to get access to this data no matter where they are in the world.

"Now we have the technology in place, we have the networks, we have the Internet, and we have the firewalls so it is becoming much safer to transmit important data. But also with remote access you don't need to move this data across the Internet you can literally window in from anywhere in the world.

"We have seen more and more offering this as part of our service contract where we own the DCS system, so will maintain, upgrade and diagnose it all remotely and so all the customer needs to do is sit in front of it and drive his plant.

Future proof

But what of the future? Safety integration is here, wireless is now fully available, and the push is on the increase integration through incorporating telecommunications and electrical systems. Buy beyond that, according to Rockwell Automation's chief technology officer, Sujeet Chand, there is nano and autonomous agents.

"Wireless is not a long-term technology, wireless is here now," he says. "Long term is more nano technology, nano coatings, nano materials, nano sensors. That is one example of where we are investing. How we can incorporate nano technology into industrial automation products. That is ten years and beyond.

"Another area and one that we have published quite extensively on is autonomous agents and that is an area where we have been working for about five or so years. Our Prague lab is quite involved.

"We worked with the US Navy is applying autonomous agents to cooling missile launchers on warships. The autonomous agent's technology is more wielded at systems that have redundancy; agents can reconfigure if there is a failure, if something doesn't work the way it is supposed to.

"We are positioning it as an evolution. If it's a big leap in technology it is very difficult to get customers to adopt it. So we are positioning it as an evolution of where we are today and where we need to go."

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