Breaking the interoperability barrier

ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin and friends lead charge to open, secure, interoperable process control system

By Jim Montague

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We all knew this was coming—even if it took a few decades. Change can be denied and resisted for a long time, but eventually pressure builds, tectonic plates slip, volcanoes erupt, ice shelves crack, and suddenly the world is different.

In the process industries, end users face many similar forces: end-of-life and obsolete equipment and facilities, increasingly mega and complex projects with ever-tightening deadlines, and unfortunately, some control suppliers unwilling to provide interoperable components and networking. Users have coped with these occupational hazards for decades, of course, but now they're compounded by tightening margins due to reduced energy prices from fracking and plentiful supplies of natural gas and oil.

Plus, like everyone else, process users see increasingly cheap and powerful microprocessors, software, Ethernet, wireless and Internet technologies proliferate in consumer smart phones and tablet PCs, watch them enable mainstream, IT-based, enterprise applications, and justifiably ask why similar tools and efficiency gains aren't nearly so prevalent in process applications.

No surprise, a few users have finally had enough. They report their projects, operations and customers can't afford to coddle and be hamstrung by old, cumbersome, labor-intensive, time-sucking process controls.

“A lot of our systems are becoming obsolete, and we need to replace them and continue to add value. Traditional DCSs weren't solving our business problems, so in 2010, we began an R&D program and in 2014, we developed functional characteristics we could take to the process industry,” says Don Bartusiak, chief process control engineer at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. (EMRE). “Our vision is a standards-based, open, secure, interoperable process automation architecture, and we want to have instances of the system available for on-process use by 2021.”

Julie Smith, global automation and process control leader in DuPont's process control consulting division, adds that, “DuPont is business-centric, but has a decentralized manufacturing and engineering structure, so our role is technical stewardship. We recommend the best, fastest, most cost-effective equipment we can find on the best platforms, and do lots of dynamic modeling and simulation. As a result, we're excited about the open process automation initiative. It's been needed for quite awhile.”

Open control basics

About a year ago, Exxon hired Lockheed Martin as system integrator to oversee and coordinate development of an open, standardized, secure, interoperable process control system. Lockheed solicited requests for information (RFI), received 53 proposals from suppliers, and began to build a database of who's capable in which technical areas. Following its studies and scope work this past year, it sent request for proposals (RFPs) to 82 suppliers, including the originals and others identified in an open call. These proposals for a proof of concept (PoC) prototype on Exxon's open control system were due back on Feb. 13 to Lockheed, which is scheduled to deliver its PoC prototype in fourth quarter 2017 (4Q17). 

To encourage other users, system integrators and suppliers to participate in developing and implementing the new open control system, ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin have also spent the past year working with the Open Group to form the Open Process Automation (OPA) Forum, which is billed as “an international forum of end users, system integrators, suppliers, integrated DCS suppliers, academia and other standards organizations working together to develop a standards-based, open, secure and interoperable process control architecture.”

The Open Group is a global consortium that helps members of its forums achieve their business objectives with information technology (IT) standards. For example, Lockheed has participated in the Open Group's Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium, which is a gathering of avionics manufacturers formed in 2010 to create an open avionics standard for making military computing operations more robust, interoperable, portable and secure. FACE has been an inspiration and model for what OPA hopes to accomplish.

“Openness is about more than interoperable technologies. It's about improving relationships between people and between enterprises, and making the whole greater than the sum,” adds Steve Bitar, program lead for ExxonMobil's open architecture initiative, who spoke at the ARC Advisory Group Industry Forum on Feb. 6-9 in Orlando, Fla. “It's compelling to believe all components should be modular and open, but in practice, other factors may be deemed more important than openness and modularity alone, and a risk-based analysis, using new technologies and comprehensive testing can help determine which components should remain tightly coupled. The question is, what can we break up, but still ensure reliability? One of the main reasons we're pursuing an avionics model is because those systems also connect hundreds of devices in standardized ways, so it's easy to make sure they're safe before takeoff.”

Once OPA defines its business framework, it will begin to pick and choose standards—including considering those already available for networking and controls—for its interoperable system, and then draft conformance certifications for its open components. Following its launch at the ARC conference, OPA is scheduled to:

  • Provide a business guide about its standards effort in 2Q17;
  • Release OPA standard, version 1, in 1Q18;
  • Start a conformance certification program in 3Q18; and
  • Released OPC standard, version 2 in mid-2019.

Lessen the layers

“Our effort is inspired by avionics and military aviation because they've successfully transitioned from customized systems to open and interoperable ones,” adds Bartusiak, who led presentations and panel discussions on Exxon, Lockheed and the Open Group's open systems initiative at the ARC event. “We also see this as a way to use virtual technologies to allow our control systems to be different from the seven-layer Purdue control hierarchy model that began to be developed in the 1970s. For example, the new, open control system will build in security, and have wireless, cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) connections.”

Referenced and applied in several ways for different applications, the seven-layer Open System Interconnect (OSI) Model for Control Hierarchy was developed by the International Standards Organization. It's served as a conceptual framework for controls, networking, enterprise and security strategies and standards, such as ISA-95 for control/enterprise interfacing and ISA99 for cybersecurity, and more recently been joined by a simpler five-layer model for IT and Internet applications.

“If we're controlling temperature and pressure in a process, those components are typically networked on Level 3 of the Purdue model, but that means only Level 3 is reusable. We want to get rid of that hurdle, and get application portability at Level 2,” explains DuPont's Smith. “Likewise, we struggle with devices like process heaters that usually have a multivariable process control (MPC) on Level 3 as well. They work OK for awhile, but they're also prone to wear, require updates, and get broken communication links that need patching. These features can be hard to get back, and that's why they often fall into disuse. We could redesign these solutions to put in a different DCS, but if we could simply get away from using a proprietary DCS, then we could make advanced control a lot more portable, too.”

Bitar adds that Exxon and OPA also want to migrate from the usual, vertical hierarchy of sensors, controls, operations management, business planning and services to a flatter, simpler architecture with more “democratic” devices participating jointly in their real-time service bus network, and polled as needed by controls, operations, business and service functions. “This allows decoupling the sensor or other data producer from its consumers, enables configurable quality of service with no re-provisioning, reduces sensor integration costs, and improves data bandwidth,” he says. “We just need to get out of the century-old paradigm that each single-loop controller can only support one sensor and one actuator. Nothing binds us to this single-loop archetype—everything can work everything else now—but we can't seem to get out of the idea of this algorithmic pairing of one, single input and one, single output for our systems, even though there are better ways to control highly interactive and dynamic processes.”

Gene Tung, IT division lead for Merck & Co.'s vaccine manufacturing plants, adds that, “We have a lot of legacy process equipment, suppliers we rely on, and a corporate DCS standard. However, there's still a lot of variety in our process controls so we use about 50% outsource and 50% in-house experts, and we'd all like to see more standards and languages.”

Waking up from history

Like any big shift, the interoperable process control movement doesn't come from nowhere. Irritation due to lacking interoperability is an old problem, but it's been an unavoidable cost of doing business that users traditionally just had to live with. There have been many efforts to create greater openness and interoperability in process controls and networks, and though some pushed the needle on openness, they all fell short of actual, plug-and-play interoperability. Even common Ethernet cabling couldn't make the proprietary protocol languages talk to each other. Protocol-converting modules, software, communication strategies like OPC-UA and Internet-aided data transfers have helped, but plug-and-play control still seems out of reach to most end users.

“This problem goes back to before the Foundation fieldbus (FF) protocol (ISA/50 SP) began in 1985. That project started as a way to fix a problem that Exxon Chemical was having—whenever they had a new DCS to put in, they were on the hook to just one supplier, had no choice but to use it, and felt like they couldn't seek competitive bids. Many of those constraints are still in place today, whether by software, training or devices on Ethernet that can't interoperate,” says Dick Caro, CEO at consultant CMC Associates.

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