Advancing Automation Requires an Evolution in Data Management

Advancing Automation Requires an Evolution in Data Management
Advancing Automation Requires an Evolution in Data Management

The last five years have seen a massive shift in the way industry designs and secures automation systems, with much more emphasis on the value of data. And with each passing year, more new software and technology continues to shift how we generate, store, and access critical plant information. This evolution in data management starts where input/output (I/O) enters the system, enabling new control and analytics, and resonates all the way up the automation stack, touching every level of the enterprise.

Industry needs data at all levels of the enterprise to stay competitive with increased speed to market and the ability to rapidly shift production to meet new customer needs. But just having data isn’t enough. If data is trapped in silos or hard to interpret and analyze, personnel across the enterprise will struggle to implement the process, software, and hardware changes necessary to stay flexible enough to compete in the global marketplace.

The technology shifts poised to shape process control over the next five years are focused on this challenge—designed to harness the latent power of the control system to end data silos and leverage data-in-context, unlocking nimbler, more efficient, and more profitable operations.


Expediate information from field devices

Traditionally, the capacity of communications from field devices into the I/O subsystem was limited by the electrical properties of necessary interfaces. As a result, many existing automation systems contain myriad I/O types with a large variety of I/O signals, from traditional I/O to communication protocols such as HART, Modbus, Profibus, etc., each using different physical media and wiring strategies. This variety complicates design and installation. Over time, communication protocols have evolved to fully digital, Ethernet-based protocols with mostly similar names: HART-IP, Modbus-TCP, and PROFINET. However, use of Ethernet devices has been limited by wire length, additional power wiring, and non-hazardous area installation.

Today, Advanced Physical Layer (APL), a new, Ethernet-based physical layer, enables plants to dramatically increase the data connectivity and capacity of the control system. Ethernet-APL provides a physical media enabling digital protocol devices to communicate across long distances via a pair of wires that also provide power. Multiple digital protocols can coexist on the same network.

Since many Ethernet-based protocols are extensions of previously used protocols, there is no need for end users to re-train their personnel. For example, HART-IP is the enhanced version of the longused HART over 4-20mA—now fully digitized and secure. All the tools for device configuration, calibration, and troubleshooting can transition from the non-Ethernet protocol to the Ethernet-base type. The user experience for Ethernet devices will be quite similar to fieldbus-type devices, just much faster—no more waiting for the device configuration display to populate with information.

APL is on the horizon As with any new technology, it will take some time before APL is widely available in all device types. Complex and/or critical devices such as Coriolis meters or digital valve controllers will be the first to realize the benefits of APL, followed by simpler instrumentation such as pressure or temperature transmitters. Time will tell if any existing discrete devices will transition to become “smart” Ethernet-APL devices.

As APL gains popularity, end users will have to seek out solutions that do not require two dissimilar I/O subsystems: one supporting traditional signals and another completely separate APL subsystem. Otherwise, APL adoption will suffer similar deterrents as when the fieldbus solutions were introduced. Emerging solutions that enable users to easily swap out a legacy device for an APL device will be ideal (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Smart Junction Box supporting both Ethernet-APL and traditional field devices. Courtesy: Emerson

APL is more secure

The industry is moving to more open architectures. The NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA) intends to make information available for different use cases including process control, monitoring, and optimization. Smart field devices will need to transmit data to multiple places—not only to the control system or the asset management system. EthernetAPL may allow for control and monitoring solutions to share the same infrastructure without forcing all the signals through the control system first.

Ethernet-based protocols will facilitate the routing of information to all the required end points. However, with the increased exposure of field devices, security will be even more critical. Ethernet-APL will enable more secure communications as it can leverage secured protocols such as the updated version of HART-IP, which includes all the elements required to secure communications among field instrumentation, the control system, and the asset management solutions.

Ethernet-APL will transform the industry by delivering faster, more secure, and easier integration of data from field instrumentation to support the deployment of open architectures. The success of Ethernet-APL will depend on the availability of simple and secure APL solutions based on proven system architectures facilitating the integration of both legacy and new technologies with minimum relearning and the ability to deliver timely information to all the levels of the enterprise.


Near plug-and-play automation

The emerging data evolution extends to how plants connect and integrate subsystems into their automation. This broader integration of subsystems has been costly and difficult to plan because of the time, effort, and expense of establishing and maintaining those links. In addition, rapid market shifts in many industries today drive a need for more flexibility in the manufacturing process. One of the key methods of meeting this challenge is introducing new modular process technology into automation, enabling plants to quickly shift manufacturing to meet global demand.

Module Type Package (MTP) unlocks the ability to bring a broader set of those subsystems more easily into plant automation, providing end users a path to much greater flexibility. MTP— introduced by the User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries (NAMUR)—will help industry integrate distributed control systems (DCS) and programmable logic controller (PLC) systems more easily by reducing the time and cost to integrate distributed process and reliability assets and equipment. Easier integration will increase speed to market and help industry meet customers’ individualized needs.

Much of the potential cost and delay in capital projects or in adding new equipment to existing processes comes from the effort spent on integration. MTP automates much of this integration by providing a framework for standardized equipment data models and description language to streamline interoperability.

One of the best ways to stay ahead of market shifts is to build modular production systems. However, unlocking flexibility typically means purchasing many different types of equipment and making them work together—often with complex custom interfaces. MTP compliance ensures new products will work with existing MTPcompliant products already in place. As the standard progresses, plants will more easily integrate equipment via standardized, pre-tested and pre-qualified interfaces.

The most comprehensive MTP solutions incorporate the control system as part of the process orchestration layer to operate and supervise process equipment assemblies such as PLCs and machinery health and prediction devices (Figure 2). Moreover, asset monitoring technologies can also be designed with pre-configured MTP objects specialized for asset reliability data to enable seamless integration with a plant’s control system. In MTP-supporting asset monitor applications, users create measurement points and can then export an MTP-ready file to import objects directly into control and safety systems without additional configuration.

Figure 2: Holistic MTP solutions provide the DCS in the process orchestration layer to operate and supervise process equipment assemblies such as PLCs and machinery health prediction devices. Courtesy: Emerson

All these technologies are helping industry more quickly and easily move a wider spectrum of data into the control system. As a result, the control system becomes a critical repository for data, adding increasing value through the context provided by control and analytics. New opportunities for process optimization, improved product yields, and abnormal situation prevention through early fault detection, are possible.

Operator effectiveness is enhanced with embedded analytics and decision-making tools using this data, predicting—and potentially responding to—the impact of process changes.

The operator’s role becomes more supervisory, acting as process managers intervening in the process only if prompted or at the most critical points. Moreover, these elevated operators make better decisions.


Access the goldmine of data

If newly contextualized data is locked in the control layer, it is not very effective for the overall improvement of the business. A critical element of data evolution, then, is extracting contextualized data out into the enterprise. Edge solutions get the right data to the right place.

Control system edge solutions can store and contextualize data. New and existing plants put an immense amount of resources into defining the control system hierarchy—such as areas, units, and control modules—so that this configuration accurately reflects the real layout of a plant. This hierarchy information provides the contextualized data structure to enable advanced data analytics. Control system edge solutions are designed to work with the control system by taking advantage of existing hierarchies.

Data is available in the same hierarchy that operators are used to seeing in the control system, with any changes made to the control system automatically reflected in the edge. On the data service side, control system edge solutions leverage cloud and IoT technologies, such as MQTT, REST API, or OPC UA, for secure and efficient data transfer.

Not all the information from field devices is needed by process operators; some information is only relevant to analysts or maintenance personnel, while other information might be needed for more than one use case. For example, certain data used for process control might also be needed for optimization.

The automation system should effectively route the right plant data to all data users. Information should not necessarily pass through the process control system to avoid ineffective data flow. Instead, the system architecture should facilitate secure communication beyond the control system. Because of the critical assets control systems touch, much of the data needed passes through the control system, thus creating a step change in the amount of information required from control systems.

However, to maintain the highest levels of safety and security for processes, operators, and the organization, control system exposure to external systems and applications—particularly those exposed to the internet—is tightly controlled. Edge technologies can help provide data access without relinquishing this control.


Edge solutions plus OPC UA equals secure access

Edge gateway technologies provide isolation of the control system while still delivering data out to the edge (Figure 3). These gateways are not only easier to configure but are more secure, as entry into the control system is even more limited than with traditional solutions.


Data generated and collected by a control system is needed by many plant- or enterprise-level applications, which may be deployed from in-plant networks to on-premise or public cloud. Users also require secure, easy access to control system data. Industrial edge technologies are developed to meet all these needs, and OPC UA is often selected for its ease of installation and enhanced security.

Different than the edge gateways for a single PLC or device, which normally handle data from an individual data source, edge solutions for control systems (or control system edge) must be capable of aggregating large amounts of data from all controllers and nodes in the system, and then transferring the data at sufficient throughput rate.

Secure control system edge solutions provide isolation of the control system while delivering data out to both on-premise and offpremise destinations. These edge solutions increase security because the applications connect to the edge server instead of the control system, minimizing the control system’s external connections. The edge server connects to a control system through secure and protected protocols.

Further security can be achieved if one-way data transmission technology, such as a data diode, is used to connect an edge server to its control system. One-way data transmission disallows communications initiated from external applications to the control system. With all the control system information stored, the edge platform can be viewed as a data replica of its underlying control system. This design provides enhanced protection to the control system, while providing access to the full control system data.

Ultimately, control system edge solutions will provide all users— from the edge to the enterprise—the same experience. Whether it is access to active batch information, alarming, or even monitoring the process, users will access the same operator displays they are used to seeing on the control system. Thus, everyone in the organization will experience plant data in a format they are familiar with and already know how to navigate, whether they are in the plant, at home, or in a conference room at headquarters—all without impacting the control system at any stage of the process.


Evolving data across architectures

The data handling evolution is not just about finding ways to collect more data. Instead, it is a shift across the entire industrial infrastructure touching many points of the automation stack. Thinking about evolution holistically is the key—evaluating and implementing new technologies to break down silos and deliver data wherever it needs to be, while not separating it from the critical context built in by the control layer. Not every technology facilitating this evolution is readily available today, but the foundational technologies they build upon are already on the market, making them a critical element of any five or 10-year plan.

This article was originally published in the Automation 2021: Control Systems Ebook.

About The Author


Juan Carlos Bravo is product manager for the DeltaV PK Controller and data integration for Emerson’s DeltaV DCS. He has 23 years of experience in the process control industry. He graduated as an electronic engineer from the ITESM-CEM (Instituto Technologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey Campus Estado de Mexico) and earned an MBA from St. Edwards’s University in Austin, Texas.

Sergio Diaz is a DeltaV product manager at Emerson, responsible for influencing product strategy and supporting product development. At Emerson, Sergio has held different roles including field service engineer, test engineer, and upgrade team lead. Sergio holds both a BSc and a MSc in electrical engineering from the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico.

Neil Wang is a DeltaV product manager at Emerson, influencing product strategies and supporting product development. He has held different roles, including project engineer, account manager and strategic pricing manager. Neil holds a BSc and an MSc in electrical engineering from Hebei University of Technology in China, and an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta, GA.


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