Whenever CONTROL magazine's editors write a technical article, it's a rule that we must talk to several users of that particular technology. We want to hear is your side of the story. So we ask for your opinion an. sometimes, the results can be surprising. This month was no exception.
During the process of creating this month's cover story, I asked several users for their opinions about how control systems from second-tier suppliers compare to the products offered by the dominant distributed control system (DCS) suppliers.
As I was interviewing Lewis Pettengill, a control engineer currently on assignment in Belarus, Russia, he volunteered this comment: "One item that continues to surprise me, in this day of blindingly fast PC processors, is that it has taken so long for many of the larger DCS [suppliers] to recognize the benefits resulting from robust processing speed. Many continue to putter along with 750-millisecond controllers (which includes the input and output buffer scan times) with nary a pause to consider the control ramifications." In Pettengill's opinion, if a faster one can control the plant more precisely, it usually performs better. The faster the information processing, the tighter the control can be.
Pettengill isn't the only one who thinks current DCS offerings are slow. We've heard similar arguments for the past 10 years, as processors and manufacturers continue to clamor for better control technology. But even if the big dogs of DCSs insist on selling outdated, slow hardware, does it really matter all that much? There are those among the DCS user community who think otherwise.
"It's time for the dominant dogs of DCS to reassure the market that they still lead the pack."
"If you look at most process controls, the old, standard speed is plenty adequate and, I think, more stable," says Jim Meils, critical systems supervisor at Aventis Behring, King of Prussia, Pa. "I am a fan of maintaining the standard until the standard is no longer useful. While I'm sure there are processes these days that require much more processing power, most processes don't. To pay the cost for the additional R&D for processing speed that I don't need, is not attractive to me."
"What R&D?" Pettengill says, questioning whether or not the big companies are actually doing R&D any more. "Another parameter hampering the big boys is their lack of innovation. Most have discarded their internal research departments and instead, farm out development to consultants. Their lack of home-grown continuity in their development [team] means they often roll out flavor of the week' control blitzes without understanding the underlying implications."
Bill Gough, vice president of Universal Dynamics Technologies, Richmond, British Columbia, backs Pettengill's assertion: "R&D by the big DCS companies has been lagging when it comes to automatic process control (APC) techniques. I think this is because APC is not an integral part of their business model: selling hardware and services is. Consequently, specialty companies have become the leaders in APC." In fairness, we should not fail to mention that Universal Dynamics Technologies produces "Brainwave," a specialty APC software package.
Tom Badura, an electronics project engineer at a plastics company, agrees: "The standard offerings from the big guys work for a majority of users. However, there are a small percentage of users within demanding, specialty niche markets where I expect smaller, second-tier vendors can really excel."
Users are growing more cynical as well. If the dominant dogs of DCS won't lead R&D, how will they ever keep up with the advances more nimble second-tier control suppliers will likely introduce? Badura offers us an insightful answer: "If they hit on something that really takes off, one of the big dogs will just gobble them up."
Meils agrees: "There are processes out there that do require much faster processing, and this is most likely a 'niche' market that the big boys will not enter until the need is great enough. Even then, they will most likely buy out companies that already develop and manufacture this sort of technology."
It's their image that's at stake. If my small, admittedly unscientific sampling of 150-plus users uncovers four or five people who essentially agree that the dominant DCS vendors are behind the times; have dinosaur hardware; farm out R&D and basic engineering work; and buy technological innovation rather than develope it, trouble is brewing right here in River City. How many of you out there think the same way?
It's time for the dominant dogs of DCS to reassure the market that they still lead the pack, still offer the best hardware and software in the industry, and still provide the best all-around control systems available. If not, their customers might start the hunt for better process control by turning to second-tier suppliers for technical leadership, highly experienced engineers, good service, and everything else that made the big dogs big.