Ever since we entered the new millennium, there has been increasing and remarkable progress demonstrated by various technologies such as computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and networking and hardware devices. This is evident by many of the products and services such as the mobile computing devices with ever increasing reliability and functionality, almost omni-present network connectivity, cloud computing services and robots capable of doing increasingly complex tasks. As we observe, all of these developments are gradually beginning to affect, or will be affecting in future, almost every area of our lives in a significant way. One interesting area where the application of such advancement will have impact is the future of the instrumentation and control systems.
The traditional scene on the factory automation and the process automation is set for change by the initiatives such as Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Big Data. In a very simple view, these initiatives, among other aspects, are about establishing connectivity of the system components to the internet and subject the data to analysis. The sensors, actuators and the components of the control systems are proposed to have connectivity to the Internet. It is proposed not to have direct command from the internet to any of the instrumentation and control system components.
These initiatives will direct the all hardware and software components of the control systems towards vendor neutrality. Key benefits being claimed by this action are the cost effectiveness, innovativeness and on-demand availability. Inter-operability has been attempted before and not so successfully. Fieldbuses promised inter-operability; but then every vendor started their own flavour of the fieldbus. However, this time around, a big push from Information Technology (IT) is set to make the Operational Technology (OT) a subset of itself. These initiatives are not limited to control systems or field instrumentation. They are applicable, for example, to condition monitoring of equipment like motors or pumps. Ability to remotely control the application execution or the functionality of application has great potential with reference to control system and its configuration.
Another major aspect of these initiatives is the application of analytics to the data obtained from instrumentation and control devices. The use of analytics has been successfully applied in the field of marketing and to a considerable extent in machine learning among others. By employing a combination of analytical techniques, the predictive outcome from the analysis of the data now carries a much higher confidence level than ever before. The analysis looks for patterns and correlations in the process data and provides recommendations on the operation and maintenance. The application of the analytics claims cost benefits by preventing any potential breakdown of equipment. The analytics tool can also be used to develop insights regarding the process or machine, meaning the application of the analytics will be able to reveal several correlations which are hidden or not completely known. Knowing such correlations can be potentially beneficial.
Some products, solutions and the standards are mentioned to realize the pace of the initiatives cited above. There are control system components (Honeywell ControlEdge PLC, Siemens IOT2000 Gateway) available which can implement the initiatives. Yokogawa offers ‘ISA 100.11a’ compliant field instruments. Products such as the motors with ‘smart sensors’ (ABB) offer seamless solutions. Siemens along with IBM is bringing ‘MindSphere’, GE is offering ‘Digital Mine’, Dell is offering ‘Edge Gateway 5000’, Microsoft is offering ‘Azure’, and Amazon the ‘AWS’. Emerson has a big presence in ‘Wireless Hart’ and Cisco offers several industrial products/solutions. The development of protocols such as ‘6LoWPAN’ and ‘ISA 100.11a (IEC 62734)’ are making it possible to interface field instrumentation with the internet wirelessly. The ‘OPC-UA (IEC 62541)’ also makes it possible to have device level internet connectivity.
The area of the process automation is a sensitive matter in the context of “opening” the control systems to a third party for data access. And this is understandably so. There is a divide in the opinions about the application of the IIoT initiative. Many experienced control engineers have strong reservations about the IIoT and they claim that the existing control systems are already doing what IIoT has to offer and that there is no need for such thing as IIoT. Concerns have been raised regarding consequences if the control systems fail. Nevertheless, the work in this direction of these initiatives continues to progress. The review of the famous Purdue architecture (IEC 62264-1) is also underway so as to accommodate the Industry 4.0 and IIoT initiatives.
Big IT companies are already offering IoT as a service under their cloud services platform. This may be extended with time to other areas. Now is a good time for engineering service providers to start thinking about the implications of all these developments, and as a result, how they can start engaging with clients to provide them with new capabilities in these areas.