Distributed Control

DCS future to be inspired by aerospace industry

ExxonMobil's choice of Lockheed Martin to help specify its next generation automation system is fueled by frustration.

By John Rezabek, process control specialist, ISP Corp.

In the past five years, my plant manager has permitted me to take part in the ongoing rounds of operator interviews, as we've sought out individuals to replace senior operators leaving for retirement and new opportunities. In our area, the vast majority of the people we interview have no idea what it's like to work in a large process plant. How do you give candidates some insight into an operator's work life?

Our operations manager liked the metaphor of a passenger plane. Similar to a plant in steady state, an airline flight is best when it's smooth and uneventful. Operators and pilots allow automated controls to stay on track, and are relaxed enough to wander around or use the facilities. However, like startups and shutdowns of a process plant, you'll find the flight crew at the helm during the stressful and risky times of takeoff and landing. Major maintenance, repairs, additions and upgrades can only be completed on the ground, and the plane doesn't make any money when it's in the hangar. And, unplanned interruptions to a flight—like unplanned interruptions to a continuous process—are abhorred, and have consequential visibility to high levels of the enterprise, even as far as Wall Street.

If you find the analogy compelling, you may also be intrigued by ExxonMobil's choice of Lockheed Martin to lead the fight for an open process automation solution for their large process plants. Exxon led the way in the 1970s and 1980s, deploying some of the first incarnations of DCS to refineries and chemical plants. The then-large corporate engineering departments had individuals stationed in the offices of their favorite suppliers to guide development and root out bugs and performance issues. No one had completely divorced their enterprise from legacy pneumatic and electronic controls before. In some ways, thanks to Exxon and their kin like Mobil and Amoco, the early DCS emerged after a few iterations as a highly reliable and bulletproof system. So bulletproof that many of those systems are still in service today. With billions of dollars to invest in replacements, and a large repertoire of invaluable advanced controls to migrate, ExxonMobil has been searching for a new "future-proof" strategy for years.

Clunky and underperforming, bolted-on solutions have caused many end users to regard open technologies as flawed.

The process industries probably have something to learn from the culture of aerospace, avionics and defense systems. The immediacy of the life-or-death consequences of small design choices, like tube fittings or terminal blocks, is much more compelling. Our choices as process control professionals can be just as consequential, but we can get away with more ignorance, sloppiness or laziness because our processes are largely unmanned, consequences evolve more slowly and—shamefully—no one trusts our instruments anyhow. When an aerospace engineer makes choices about what a pilot will see or experience, I'm guessing there may be a bit higher aesthetic as regards precision, timeliness, data validity and reliability. We're already learning and borrowing from the modern fighter cockpit's focus on "situational awareness" in the design of our HMIs.

ExxonMobil seems to think they can also teach us about open solutions.

In recent years, process industry systems suppliers seem to have become dismayed with open solutions, especially during the years when upstream projects in search of minimally engineered expedience were spending feverishly. Open standards (like fieldbus, for example) require greater effort and introduce uncertainty: vendors can't just de-bug their own offerings, they have to interoperate and interact on an intimate digital level with their competitors as well. Clunky and underperforming, bolted-on solutions have caused many end users to regard the open technologies as flawed.

In contrast, the defense avionics industry today embraces Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE). FACE defines open standards from software clear down to interfaces and hardware backplanes. They have come to embrace this strategy because stovepipe solutions—as in closed and proprietary—were on an exponential and unsustainable cost trajectory. FACE enables extraordinary modularity, interoperability, scalability, and consequent cost efficiencies. ExxonMobil is aiming to launch a completely new platform for automation and control, and it's scheduled to become a reality very quickly.

Our normal vendors, whose pursuit of market dominance has given us irksome dualities like Foundation fieldbus, Profibus, WirelessHART, ISA 100.11, etc. in lieu of common platforms and open solutions, may find their solutions superseded. Stay tuned—the industry's next generation process automation platform is pushing back from the gate.