Distributed Control / I/O Systems / Industrial Ethernet / PLCs & PACs / SCADA

Death of the DCS

Distributed control systems (DCSs) might not cease to exist completely, what's for sure is that instead of dying, they are going to evolve

By Jim Montague, executive editor, Control

Many years ago, I was interviewing the owners of a bar in Fox River Grove, Ill., about their unusual, two-lane bowling alley, and they told me a story about the former owner that happened many years before that.

It seems that on a hot summer afternoon, business was slow, so the owner took a stuffed moose head, partly sunk it in the nearby Fox River, then called over everyone in town to see the "moose" in the river. A crowd gathered, discovered it was just a piece of taxidermy, and then stopped at the bar for refreshment. Customer shortage solved.

Of course, come-ons and carnival barking are older than time, and I've run across and covered countless breathless promotions. In today's Internet- and social media-soaked world, drumming up business means driving viewers and their eyeballs and clicks to specific websites. The traditional draws of scantily clad women, freak accidents, political jabs and outrageous, black-and-white statements have been joined by even more powerful kitten, puppy and baby goat videos. All fall under the aptly named umbrella of "clickbait."

For aging engineers in the process industries, it appears that the projected "death" of this or that traditional technology can trigger the same reaction, and serve the same purpose of luring their attention. I know a recent "Death of the PLC" headline did particularly well on one of our websites. I'm just piling on with a variation for this column.

However, reality is more complex, less certain, and more boring because it doesn't go down as easy and isn't as comforting as absolute, one-sided, half-truths, which all come under the umbrella of lies. Reality demands actual data acquisition and analysis, and nobody likes to be forced to think because the next task might be getting up and doing something. 

Anyway, while I don't believe that distributed control systems (DCSs) are going to expire, what I have learned in recent months is that they're sure as heck going to evolve. Yawn, not too exciting, maybe I should have gone with "Invasion of the mutant DCS!"

While researching the "DCS and IT blend abilities" feature story for the October issue (p. 83), I was reminded how many IT-style, Ethernet-based, IP-aided and Internet of Things (IoT) functions that DCSs  are adopting. At the same time, PC-based controls are gaining many of the protections they need to run reliably on plant floors and in the field. This isn't a case of IT or DCS beating, killing or replacing the other. The truth is they're taking on each other's useful features, and looking a lot more alike.

Certainly, new and innovative solutions are emerging all the time, such as Bedrock Automation's control system with pinless, electromagnetic backplane and embedded security, and Inductive Automation's open-connectivity, web-based Ignition SCADA software with unlimited storage. Both exhibit many groundbreaking and useful advantages for users, but they and their organizations are also coping with the same challenges that newer players always face—lining up funding and markets, staying focused on effective applications, and attracting new users.

Meanwhile, traditional DCS developers and suppliers are no slouches either, and they're already integrating most of this new era's IT-based and Industrial IoT (IIoT) tools. The challenges for these suppliers are the same faced by all big companies—limiting inertia, not leaning on past success, and making sure the right hand knows what the left is doing.

Both sets of challenges are eternal in business and commerce, but overcoming them requires concentration, and not getting distracted by sexy buzzwords or rising to clickbait. Just expect that the next "DCS zombie apocalypse!" headline is probably another moose head.