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One control room for multiple plants is another likely scenario. “New process control architectures will allow this,” Brandon Henning, global industry manager for food and beverage for GE Fanuc, says. “What you’re going to see is a retooling of process control. You will have a cockpit from where you can run 10 plants. Companies will be able to leverage the investments they’ve made without having to completely retool.”
This remote control is predicated on different ways of handling information. “The interesting thing will be to concentrate the information flood,” says Gerd Ulrich-Spohr, strategic technician for industry automation at Siemens Energy & Automation. “If you have a lot of data, you have to shrink it to something that you really want to know. Often you have information about the temperature or pressure, but what you really want to know is the state of the process. What will be very interesting is if we manage to combine the available information and change it to information that is really needed and tells us more about the state of the process, rather than the details of the data.”
Invensys’ DeVries sees a merging of two data models to build one version of both business and process control truth. “Plant-floor workers are trained to think in terms of a loop. If the loop isn’t wired correctly, you can’t do anything else. Office knowledge workers don’t think of a loop, but they have a sense that the data is sound—that there is one version of the truth. Several of our clients are merging these two ideas—determinism on the plant floor and the IT idea that the data, wherever it is has to be secret and private and trusted.”
With all that information from not just the sensors, but from the rest of the local plant and other, remote locations, HMI will acquire a whole new look. The over-riding vision is one of all human interactions coming via a single HMI, supplying users with only the information they need when they need it. DeVries says it will be “almost like an ATM—reliable around the clock and available only to the appropriate people.”
This single point of data contact may be a fashion statement of sorts—the wearable HMI. “I find it amazing that we haven’t already gone in this direction,” says Steve Garbrecht, director of product marketing at Wonderware. “The idea that I have to have a PC on my desk or a flat screen in a control room seems nonsensical. The first person who comes up with a PC device that’s really lightweight, like a pair of sunglasses—that makes it really useful—will not only have a business device, but an automation productivity device.”
Steve Baker fills out the vision. He sees a wireless HMI client—some type of LCD glasses that would display the facility layout in a 3D-rendered view that changed, via GPS, based on the person’s location—connected to the processes while the wearer wanders the facility. Vocal or sub-vocal commands or some small text-messaging keyboard on a wrist band would allow the interface to monitor or control the process so the operator would never be out of touch with plant operations.
Robert Fretz, head of process automation and MES for F. Hoffman-LaRoche, suggests, “No more control rooms—operators would simply input process changes through their PDAs.”
Rick Dolezal, manager, global marketing for the process business at Rockwell Automation, says Geordie LaForge glasses (like those worn by the blind helmsman on the Star Trek series, who wore a prosthetic device wired right to his brain that allowed him to see) are just the next step in remote operations. “Wastewater treatment plants already run 24/7, but we send people home at midnight. If there’s a problem, they can get out of bed and check remotely. Just take it another step. You have these glasses where one eye is the HMI and the other is clear.”
If the thought of walking around with an HMI screen fixed to your eye makes you a little nuts, remember that Plant 2025 is also going to be employing younger engineers with a whole different attitude toward information access.
Wonderware’s Garbrecht says, “People say this is too distracting, but younger people have no problem multi-tasking. They can have a full conversation while they’re texting someone. Twenty years from now people are going to ask, ‘Why did they have these things on their desks to look at information or carry these things around on their belts?’”
The old joke is that the plant of the future will employ one operator and a dog. The operator will feed the dog, and the dog will prevent the operator from touching any of the controls and messing up the system. The scenario is unlikely, says Stan DeVries, director of operations management solutions at Invensys Process Systems. “In some areas like power generation and oil and gas, some plants run almost without staff now, but that’s not a vision for the process plant of the future,” he says. What we’ll see instead is, “about the same number of workers 10 to 15 years from now, but what they will do will change quite a bit.”
Like DeVries, Emerson’s Peter Zornio predicts the process automation plant will have fewer people, especially in hazardous areas, but he adds. “Nobody believes there’s just going to one person. There will be a few people, knowledge workers, backed up by a cadre of detail experts in some central location like a central engineering office or the vendor’s office. They’re going to be using tools like video conferencing, wikis and high-tech search engines to troubleshoot detailed problems in areas they don’t know enough about.”
Dave Emerson, principal systems architect at Yokogawa, goes one step further to the “retirement home control room.” He visualizes connections to retired process control experts who can see what the young operators see and help them interpret the information. “Retirement is no longer a barrier for a lot of people,” he says. “That knowledge will be easy to tap.”
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