The Future of Process System Architectures – Insights from 2017 Foxboro User Group

  • November 13, 2017
  • Feature
The Future of Process System Architectures – Insights from 2017 Foxboro User Group
The Future of Process System Architectures – Insights from 2017 Foxboro User Group

By Bill Lydon, Editor,

At the 2017 Foxboro User Group Conference in Foxboro, Massachusetts, which took place August 22, 2017, Don Clarke, Vice President Global Application Consulting and Schneider Fellow for Schneider Electric described a future vision of highly distributed process control embedded on single chip processors. This is enabled by the advent of recent technologies, such as IIoT and Industry 4.0, a common topic of debate revolves around how process system architectures will be shaped in the future. 

Clark opened by imploring all of ‘us industrial automation geeks’ to start thinking differently. “As we look at this brave new world of competitive challenges regardless of our industry, we need to think as businessmen and businesswomen and think about profitability,”  Clark described.  He further mentioned that the process might be daunting for people that want to cling to the old comfortable and secure roots of industrial automation “geekdom”, but the focus has to be more about profitability.  “It is going to be a long journey” Clark shared. Still, he highlighted the efforts that Schneider Electric is making, and claims that once started, the momentum created will yield increasing profits for many throughout the industry. 


Remember the Point of Process Control

Clark began with an anecdote from early in his career. At this time he worked at a 3M plant in a small town in Oregon and the company was very active in the community.  As a result, Clark would often go and talk at schools and civic groups.  On one occasion, in an elementary school, he talked to seven and eight-year-olds about the plant and what they produced.  He asked the class, “What do you think we make at 3M?”  The children responded with various answers, including masking tape and sandpaper, but were shocked when he told them, “We make money!”  

Back at the Foxboro User Group Conference, Clark asked the audience how would they answer that question for their company’s plants? “Regardless of the product produced, you make money or would not be there.” Clark suggests, “Start to think a little differently about your plants, instead of seeing pressures, temperatures and flow think about cost, quality, and schedules.”  He went on to explain how the entire process industry is based on this mentality. “Process control takes assets and makes sure we deliver on the design capability, whether it is making electricity, ibuprofen, or unleaded gasoline and do it in a safe way a with a profit for the business,” explained Clark, “That is what control is all about.” 

According to Clark, this has always been the case, even before automation when a person was in the plant manipulating manual valves and other controls of the process. “Control will always be with us because mother nature is against us!” Clark exuded, “Nothing is cooperative, especially when dealing with thermodynamics, kinetics, and real chemicals…Things want to go boom!” This continued need for control helped to emphasize Clark’s main point, “We will always have some kind of control, but how we control has always been changing.”


Process Control of the Future

So what is Clark and Schneider’s vision for the future of process control? Clark described a future concept with control at the asset combined with the miniaturization of technology and embedded computing power, which enable highly distributed control.  Clark referred to contemporary DCS architectures to illustrate his point, “We forced control to be put on the process not in the process,” described Clark, “In the future, we will embed control in field devices.”  He referred specifically to assets in the process such as pumps, valves, and other devices.  Clarke detailed this as the process of creating Cyber Physical Systems (CPS), a network of these low-power devices which communicate using wireless mesh networking and harvest power from the process to operate.

This vision, according to Clark, is where complete functions can be, “Put on a chip for about $3, that can do about 8 things.  It can perform a few control instrumented functions like a PID loop and OR gate.”  These devices, as he continued, would be embedded in physical devices adding intelligence making them smart. Therefore, Clark notes,  “This is referred to in the business as Cyber Physical Systems.” 

One example of such a system explains how a pump manufacturer, subject matter experts in their field, could use the small embedded devices to improve control and generate predictive maintenance advisories.   The end goal of these concepts, relatedly, is to make systems more reliable and simplify system engineering and integration.

Don Clark described a single chip solution, Common Core Functionality (CCF) as the fundamental building block for systems in the future.


The Schneider Electric Focus

The architecture would further enable a shift of focus from process efficiency control to business performance control, with increasing levels of improved monitoring and control.

This architecture will rely on open standards including ISA 95 and developments from The Open Process Automation Forum.  

As for Schneider Electric? Their focus will remain at the system level.  The company will continue to embed intelligence in their own sensors and valve portfolios. Schneider will also provide embedded technology to equipment providers, in support of their vision for future process control architecture.  “We want to create, essentially, a system of systems so that each little teeny CPS is sold with a little system complement.” Clark shared, adding that as users insert more of these components, they end up creating a larger and larger system.

According to Clark, “This is the Internet of Things as we see it.”


Bill’s Thoughts & Observations

The Schneider Electric Foxboro group has clearly been doing their homework on the Internet of Things and edge computing.  As for the actual realization of the process control vision, Don Clark was clear that there are not yet products to date around this vision, but such products are on the roadmap.  Schneider Electric is recognizing that the nature of the industry, their business models, system architectures will change due to the large influx of technology, IoT, IIoT, and the Open Process Automation Forum imitative.  Relatedly this effort, and the related presentations at the 2017 Foxboro User Group conference, further shows that Schneider Electric Foxboro is supporting The Open Process Automation Forum in a big way.


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