‘Open Process Control Architecture Standard’ is the Rallying Cry at ExxonMobil’s Industry Day

‘Open Process Control Architecture Standard’ is the Rallying Cry at ExxonMobil’s Industry Day

Interoperability and open systems were the buzzwords that drew numerous automation users from multiple industries to the June 27 Industry Day at the ExxonMobil Houston campus.  Hosted by ExxonMobil and The Open Group, the purpose of the Industry Day was to discuss a proposal for a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture. The architecture, which would be delivered through a collaboration of users, systems integrators, suppliers, and formation of a standards organization, is is a continuation of the vision described at the 2016 ARC conference by ExxonMobil.  

A major driver for this effort has been the widespread call for accelerative automation technology, along with an ecosystem of suppliers that can leverage the latest technology, similar to what has been seen in the computer, telecommunications, and more recently defense and avionics industries.  The current state of the DCS industry has been remarkably depicted with an analogous question: Would you accept a cell phone that could only work in one part of the world and not others?  The answer, of course, is a resounding NO! Why should users accept lack of DCS device and software interoperability?  The efforts for open standards, like ExxonMobil’s Industry Day, have been a result of this motivation.

The discussions, at the event, also focused on addressing the “elephant in the room”: The automation vendors who, literally left to their own devices, essentially maintain closed/gated ecosystems that inhibit innovation.   The only level which has seen significant process automation innovation is in operations software, since it is somewhat open architecture.  The ultimate goal for this initiative is to see fully open systems, down through the controllers, based on standards with strong compliance certifications.

The Open Group

A series of presentations, by The Open Group, discussed the advantages of open system standards, as well as the path to creating an open process control architecture standard group and how users could join.

The Open Group folks shared the story of The FACE Consortium, a vendor-neutral forum that has transformed the avionics industry by using open standards to leverage COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) technologies to dramatically, and cost-effectively, increase system capabilities for hardened and rugged systems that require five nines (99.999%) reliability.  The FACE Consortium tasks included the development and consolidation of open standards, best practices, guidance documents and business models to achieve these objectives:

  • Standardized approaches for the use of open standards within avionics systems
  • Lower implementation costs of FACE systems
  • Standards that support a robust architecture and enable quality software development
  • The use of standard interfaces
  • Portability of applications across multiple FACE systems and vendors
  • Procurement of FACE conformant products
  • More capabilities reaching the warfighter faster
  • Innovation and competition within the avionics industry

The Open Group & Open DCS

Steve Nunn, President & CEO The Open Group, discussed the potential organizational infrastructure needed to efficiently and quickly create an open DCS standards group, which focused on the needs of users.  In Nunn’s vision, the organization would be a collaboration of users, systems integrators, suppliers, and appropriate industry standards organizations.  In order to be successful, Nunn believes there must be a strong certification process, so users can specify and buy with confidence, and that users must also adopt the standards as part of their mainstream procurement process.

Call to Action

Mike Hickey, Director at The Open Group, presented a proposal for a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture. The proposal was reflective of Nunn’s vision, calling for the architecture to be delivered through a collaboration of users, systems integrators, suppliers, all working through a to-be-formed standards organization.  Hickey’s primary calls-to-action for organizations were as follows:

  • Commit to become a founding member and leader in this groundbreaking initiate to change the future of process control automation
  • Commit the right mix of business and technical participants and leaders.
  • Join in the press release to announce the formation of the Forum.
  • Attend The Open Group Making Standards Work Austin event July 18-20 and if interested consider a speaker slot to discuss the initiative.

Contact Mike Hickey [email protected] Phone: 512-343-9159

Thoughts & Observations

That this initiative is striking a chord with a lot of users, was obvious from my experience of the atmosphere of this Industry Day meeting. 

There a great deal to be gained with fully open systems, but businesses are still finding reasons to pause.  A main worry is that, if successful, this initiative would change the entire business models of suppliers. Yet the open systems would seem to change these models in such a way as to create a broader ecosystems of solutions, and in turn, provide more value to the users.  I spoke with a number of managers, from automation suppliers, who were less than enthusiastic about this fully open vision.  Ironically, these same automation vendors are promoting their cloud solutions as essential for users’ businesses, since the Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing and analytics will change their business models.

The initiative for a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture is being driven by these IIoT and cloud technologies, and would significantly change industrial automation supplier business models. We’ve seen this change as a recurring theme already, in industries such as entertainment, telecommunications, and computing.   Reluctant automation suppliers may do well to reevaluate where they can provide the greatest value to customers, in order to ensure their business’ success in this changing environment. 

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