Servers and Storage have become Datacenters, Will Industrial Controls become Controlcenters? – Part 2

In part 1 the question we had was, whether in the industrial controls world, Can we do away with the “Control Room” as we had done away with the “Server Room” a decade or so ago.

Exploring the possibility

The answer to the question according to me is “yes”. With the advent of 5G and secure and reliable connections, the traditional control rooms should move to a concentrated “Controlcenters”.

The Controlcenters should be able to host multiple racks of Industrial Control System which can be prescribed on a service basis for developing and deploying controls code as per the need. They would become virtual machines of the Operation technology world. The Controlcenters shall be maintained by experts and ensure they are kept up to date in terms of security patches, operating system etc. The Controlcenters like Datacenter can have multi-tiered operating models like Tier 1 to Tier 4 providing a higher degree of availability, speed and processing capability which the user can subscribe to, based on their application criticality. For example – a Sewage Treatment Plant application can run on a Tier 1 Controlcenter whereas a Boiler Management System Application can run in Tier 4  Controlcenter.

The key challenge to make this work effectively is a need for transformation to happen in the I/O world also. We should be looking at three different configurations for I/O handling in the future –

  1. The sensing from traditional Digital (1, 0) and 4- 20ma analog signal should move to more image and acoustic centric wherever possible.
  2. Wherever we would have to still rely on traditional sensor data and control commands, the sensors and actuators must be 5G enabled so that they are able to talk to master control in the Controlcenter directly
  3. Wherever wireless sensing is not feasible, we should make our I/O concentrator or Network Interface Unit smarter with 5G. Each of the Network Interface Unit would then talk to the designated master controller in the Controlcenter like how a trader today is able to trade stocks in a stock market using his broker’s portal in seconds with no failed transactions

This need for transformation is not just driven by technology but is also need of the hour. With Industrial IoT evolving and maturing, we need to be ready for hundreds of new solutions every year. The control system is the backbone on top of which these solutions would rely for data and transferring the commands back to the real world of devices.

As the Information technology world evolved and there was rapid progress in terms of new features and products, industrial world also needs to break the barrier of fear of “shutdown” and take steps to “thrust” the newer technologies and take the giant leap. With Cybersecurity threats also looming large, enterprises must make their control systems more secure and keep them updated with different forms of protection. Controlcenter would be able to handle these cyber threats more effectively than an individual enterprise would be able to do today.

Benefits from the Transformation

The benefits of this transformation would deliver to the end customer are multifold –

  1. Save real estate space and capital cost for setting up control rooms
  2. Millions of dollars are spent on design, selection, testing, installation, commissioning, and upkeep of control systems. With ControlCenters these could be cut to half or even lesser saving on both OPEX and CAPEX
  3. The Operators sitting in front of the HMI/SCADA terminals are process experts who have extremely limited or no knowledge of the Control Systems. They are sitting in that control room because it was designed to be that way about a couple of decades ago and that practice has continued. These operators can be moved to a centralized location for more efficient management reducing operating cost as well as improving overall production efficiency with cross plant learnings.
  4. The change in sensing to more image, acoustic based can enable modern control system to be more accurate in decision making and decision guidance using advanced ML/AI technologies that can start running on advanced controller in the Controlcenters delivering more efficiency in production.

There are certain inherent risks but can be mitigated by meticulous planning and robust selection of technologies for implementation.

Role of the technology OEM

The role of the OEM would be pivotal as they would have to make some important changes in the Control System platform to allow the setting up of the Controlcenters. They would have to look at the following aspects –

  1. Interoperability between different systems
  2. Data acquisition from different I/O nodes
  3. Standard Programming and cross compatibility between platforms
  4. Failover management and disaster recovery
  5. Advanced processing for deploying and running ML models

Who can set up the ControlCenters

The first step of setting up a Controlcenter can be taken by the technology OEMs. Progressively, this can become a big market for large Services and Infrastructure management organizations who can take up this transformational setup for Industrial controllers.

We are at the tipping point where this transformation is going to become very essential to keep the traditional industrial controls relevant and important to deliver efficiencies that the market is demanding. We must be ready and buckle our shoes to take this leap and ensure we are not overrun by other disruptive technology that may emerge and take over the entire space of Industrial controls and SCADA/HMI world.

Author Details

Ramji Vasudevan

Principal Advanced Engineering Group. 22+ years of Experience in Control Systems, Industrial Automation, MES and Industrial IoT Solutions.

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