Driving digitisation: open standards in process automation

Organisations often can’t take advantage of advances in digital technology due to the lack of interoperability in their IT systems in different facilities, but open standards promise a way forward

When we talk about process automation, we are talking about industries that cannot, or will rarely ever, turn their factories off.

In industries such as oil and gas, pulp and paper or pharmaceuticals, process automation systems have long been defined by proprietary technical control systems.

As digitisation continues to create norms for all industries, manufacturers are looking beyond today’s systems for common technologies that can help them balance requirements for uptime with the ability to take advantage of digital data – and they’re looking to open standards to help them.

All types of companies worldwide are trying to digitally transform, but in the critical infrastructure and automation industries, organisations often can’t take advantage of advances in digitisation due to a lack of interoperability in individual facilities.

Recent figures show that 97% of IT decision makers say that legacy infrastructures are holding back their cloud and digital strategies. A major issue is the firewalls that are in between systems from different suppliers, along with often outdated technology, both of which are holding whole industries back.

Automation engineers want to be able to pass data freely between systems in one organisation, but this can be tricky due to different operating languages or security concerns.

This free exchange of data would not only mean that processes are streamlined, but it’s also cheaper to have a plant “talk as one” and have interoperable systems.

Finding common ground

Every company and industry has its own set of challenges. The manufacturing information that a factory leader in the oil and gas industry wants versus what someone in the food industry making soft drinks needs, for example, will be different in both the type of data as well as the timing of the data feed.

How the control system in the pharmaceutical industry will be able to turn data to information and ultimately into an action will vary from the other industries as well.

Despite the variation across industries, there are also commonalities in the desire for interoperability, reuse, configuration, standard interfaces and the ability to integrate best-in-class technologies, to name a few.

Finding this common ground and utilising those concepts and ideas across many different products and processes is crucial, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Digital transformation equals efficiency

All companies are trying to continually increase productivity and customer satisfaction. To do that, control system capabilities need to start moving towards digital and data transformation.

Manufacturers are concerned about throughput, uptime, safety, security and costs. Any new system has to match or beat existing capabilities in these key criteria while providing additional benefits that may not have previously existed.

Then, connecting previously unconnected machines starts the process of extracting data to solve big problems. Manufacturers can utilise that data to improve their processes.

Efficiency is a big focus in these industries, especially as they are “always on” and downtime is not usually an option. Therefore, digital transformation and innovation means increased efficiency.

This can’t require a “rip and replace” approach, but rather improving the functional capability of the facility and moving to new software programming environments which extends the life of legacy systems.

Openness: the way forward

By having an open system, digital transformation initiatives can be done at low cost and can drive innovation with little to no disruption.

In addition, cost is always a pressure for organisations in these sectors. These systems allow costs to be driven down and the investment that companies have made to become more worthwhile.

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Businesses are still seeking zero or minimal downtime, flexibility in the process, improvement of safety, reduction of costs and speed to market.

But in today’s landscape, companies should look to harness the best of both IT and operations technology (OT) to transform the capabilities of automation and control, creating improved efficiency and production outcomes.

The Open Group London event and member meeting will take place 16-19 April 2018. Computer Weekly readers can save 20% on the non-member fees by using promotion code LON184-CW.

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