Legacy of Industrial Controls
Programmable Industrial Controls replaced electromechanical relays toward the end of 1900s and since then has helped millions of plants to be automated and enable them to be operated safely and reliably ensuring continuous production.
The way these controllers have been marketed, purchased, installed has been more or less standard for more than four decades now. There has not been any significant change in the way the OEMs have evolved their channel for sales and support. The product in itself though has undergone multiple versions of evolution but there has not been any major disruption which can be compared to the disruptions that have happened in Information technology or the communication world. In the industrial automation world, we are still looking at digital (1s and 0s) and predominantly 4 -20ma signals to get the information from the real operational world and this information is processed to convert into decisions using one of standard IEC 61131 -3 Programming languages for decades now.
The question that we ought to ask ourselves about industrial controls is – Are we on the verge of disruption with advent of 5G and increased reliability, security, and bandwidth in the network?
Drawing the parallel
When I joined my first organization as controls engineer, we had about four or five server machines in a small corner room which was slightly more cooler (literally) than the other areas in the office and this was called as the “server” room. There was one server for the Intranet, one for mail, one for common file storage, one dedicated server for finance team and so on. As time passed by these servers became a bit more noisier and bigger but got special attention when they were given a more secure place with special access to only some designated people. Within a decade I noticed that this room became empty, and all the servers vanished. I was wondering what happened – but as a user, I still had all my services without any disruption and infact it became much faster and more reliable. It also spared me time to search for the special designated individual to get access or ask for additional space etc. I had almost unlimited space for files and any special access request was replaced by simple workflows. This was the era when datacenters caused a major disruption in how enterprises started managing their server requirement. Today organizations maintain their own servers, server rooms etc. in every office or subsidiary is like stone age history. This has enabled organizations to manage their costs and operate more efficiently.
Connecting Industrial Controls to the Servers and Storage
The reason why the servers and datacenter history are an important reference point to the disruption we are thinking will change in the industrial control world in the next decade is the number of similarities and possibility of leveraging lot of learnings from datacenter transformation. Today large enterprises across industries may it be Power generation, Oil and Gas, Mining, Food and beverage would have more than five hundred control systems and I/O subsystems across multiple plants to keep their production running. These systems are typically from multiple different OEMs like ABB, Rockwell, Siemens, Schneider, Honeywell etc. The systems are installed in a designated area of the plant called the “Control Room”. There are multiple servers and clients running HMI/SCADA applications acquiring and sending back data to the controls to enable stable plant operations. The plant operators sitting in the control room are responsible for monitoring and sending commands to the controls. Each of these large enterprises has hundreds of engineers or contract staff with skills to maintain these Control System and HMI/SCADA servers.
Building onto the primary question about disruption
The question we need to ask today to industrial controls world is that can we do away with this “Control Room” as we had done away with the “Server Room” a decade or so ago?