Fieldbus / Systems Integration

A 25-Year Odyssey to Connect the Enterprise

Despite Light-Years of Progress, Plants Remain Challenged to Integrate Control With Information Systems

By Paul Studebaker

When Control's inaugural issue was published in October, 1988, our first mention of enterprise resource planning's (ERP) ancestor, computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), was still half a year away. Over the following 25 years, we chronicled the trials and tribulations of bringing the incredible advances in information technology to the complex, cautious and insular world of industrial process control. In commemoration of our 25th anniversary, here's the first in a monthly series describing progress in each of 12 technologies, as written in the first 300 issues of Control magazine.

The Way It Was in 1989

CG1401 Feat2 Fig1"Today's leading-edge industrial facilities must produce high-quality products at competitive prices —and do so in an environment that permits unparalleled flexibility," said David W. Brown, then senior departmental manager, Lockwood Greene Engineers in April, 1989. As a result, many businesses have undertaken major revisions their management and operational philosophies. Some of the more progressive in the process industries have adopted CIM strategies and have implemented numerous CIM technologies.

CIM —the orderly integration of computer-based operations throughout a facility—is a major task.

Computer technology has seen dramatic advances in the past 10 years, including the development of plant host computers at financially viable costs and networked personal computers that are integral elements of a CIM architecture. Software has evolved from proprietary, highly customized applications to those which allow a systems integrator to program PLCs and configure DCS systems on a standard PC.

The latest technology to affect process control is networking. Even though CIM projects are customized, there are still standard elements, e.g., PLCs, distributed control systems, host computers, graphic consoles, PC workstations, and management information systems (MIS). Within the past few years, it has become possible to send fast, high-quality data throughout this chain of microprocessor-based devices.

Also Read "Enterprise Control System-It's a New Thing, Again!"

"Legacy computer systems offer the greatest resistance to systems integration," said Sam Bansal, then a contributing editor, in "Integrating Process Control with MRP II" (August, 1990). "Differences and redundancies in data definitions and untimely generation and storage of data can make it difficult to effectively communicate data from different systems to each other and to the user."

The accompanying timeline shows how the rise of PC-based and Internet technology, improvements in speed and networking, and standardization of interfaces allowed quantum leaps in enterprise connectivity. That led to increasing interconnection and interaction between control and IT systems, and the virtual—and often painful—melding of the regimes' professional minds.

25 Years Later

Perhaps a sign that we're ready to take enterprise connectivity as granted, at least as it applies to process control, Control's coverage of the topic thins out in the first few years of this decade. In January 2012, Dan Hebert, senior technical editor, simply said, "Implementing this level of connectivity can be very complex, but standards such as OPC, ISA-95 and Business to Manufacturing Mark-up Language (B2MML) can ease challenges. Using these and other standards can provide a vendor-independent format for data exchange, enabling seamless connections among systems from different suppliers."

But it's still not simple. In November 2013, we sum up the situation: "The gap between business-level IT computing and its counterparts on the plant floor is narrowing in many places, but there remain yawning canyons in others," says Jim Montague, executive editor. "Despite the challenges, the Industrial Internet is bringing the benefits of commercial connectivity and collaboration platforms to the realm of manufacturing."

See a timeline throughout the past 25 years.