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Manufacturers collaborate to secure process control systems

Nearly 100 companies are working together to develop open standards for process control systems that will bring prices down and improve their resilience to cyber attacks

Nearly 100 manufacturing, software and consulting companies are collaborating to develop process control technology that promises to be less expensive to deploy and more resilient to cyber attacks.

The companies aim to create technical standards for process control to ensure process control systems from different manufacturers work seamlessly together, reducing reliance on one key supplier.

The project, which is being coordinated by The Open Group, a supplier-neutral technology forum, is expected to lead to significant improvements in cyber security, said Steve Nunn, The Open Group’s president and CEO.

“The one thing that has been missing, that we all have to deal with now, is cyber security. Companies have struggled to build cyber security into process control models,” he said.

£100bn a year industry

The work has the backing of leading process control companies, including Honeywell, Yokogawa and General Electric, which form part of an industry with a market of £113bn a year generated by the top 50 suppliers.

Process control systems are used by a wide range of manufacturing industries, including pharmaceuticals, oil and gas companies, pulp and paper, utilities, food and drink, mining and metals, to control and monitor their production processes.

For the past 25 years, however, there have been few commonly agreed technical standards, which means process control systems from one supplier are incompatible with those from another, said Nunn.

This has pushed up costs, made control systems difficult to secure, and made it difficult and expensive to replace and repair control systems once they reach the end of their life.

Plug and play process control

The collaborative initiative, known as the Open Process Automation Forum, aims to develop plug and play technology that will allow manufacturers to transfer software from one process controller to another with the confidence that the software will work correctly.

“From a user point of view, it gives companies more choice [as it] creates a more competitive market. They don’t have to buy a system from one supplier, they can mix and match,” said Nunn, in an interview with Computer Weekly.

The project developed out of work by oil and gas company ExxonMobil,which began raising the need for greater integration between process control systems at industry events around two years ago.

Exxon approached the Open Group in June 2016, after seeing its work on standardising the Unix operating system and, more recently, a project to create standards for military aircraft to make it possible for the US Air Force to mix and match parts for combat aircraft from different aircraft manufacturers.

“It was the same issue [for the US Air Force]; they don’t want to buy planes from just one supplier, they want to buy parts from the best suppliers,” said Nunn.

“A process control standard gives companies more choice. They don’t have to buy a system from one supplier, they can mix and match”

Steve Nunn, The Open Group

The manufacturing companies met twice in summer 2015 to identify their shared problems, followed by a face-to-face meeting with the process control system manufacturers in November.

“We identified that the pain points – the high capital costs of replacing and refreshing systems, the lack of software portability, the need to build advanced cyber security, and the current inability to use third-party components to get the best of breed – are common across industries,” said Nunn.

The participants plan to work to an “aggressive timetable”, said Nunn, and aim to publish a first version of the process control standard in 2018.

In a separate move, the Open Group has updated its IT4IT guidance for managing IT organisations. Estimates by Gartner suggest it can save companies between 5% and 20% of their total IT budget, freeing up funds for innovation.

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