The forces reshaping tomorrow’s distributed control system

Oct. 12, 2021
A Control Amplified podcast with Mark Taft, Group Vice President, ABB

Since its introduction more than four decades ago, the distributed control system, or DCS, has made enormous contributions to the safe, efficient and reliable operation of innumerable industrial processes around the world. In this episode of Control Amplified, editor in chief Keith Larson talks about the forces reshaping the distributed control system (DCS) landscape and how ABB is responding to them is Mark Taft, ABB group vice president responsible for the company's process control systems offerings worldwide.


Keith Larson: Since its introduction more than four decades ago, the distributed control system, or DCS, has made enormous contributions to the safe, efficient and reliable operation of innumerable industrial processes around the world. When it comes to global footprint, one supplier, ABB, has had market share bragging rights for at least half that time, according to the ARC Advisory Group's annual reports. It should come as no surprise then that ABB is paying very close attention to the technological and demographic winds of change that are really reshaping how automation gets done in then 2020s and beyond.

Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and welcome to this Solution Spotlight episode of our Control Amplified podcast, sponsored today by ABB. With me today to talk about the forces reshaping the DCS landscape and how ABB is responding to them is Mark Taft, ABB group vice president responsible for the company's process control systems offerings worldwide.

Welcome, Mark. A real pleasure to chat with you today.

Mark Taft: Thanks, Keith. Appreciate the opportunity.

Keith: Yeah, well, it's great. it seems the industry has been talking about "open" in the context of DCS technology ever since someone bolted a Unix-based operating console onto an otherwise proprietary system back in the early '90s. And I know, we both go back that far in this industry, so you remember it as well. But at this moment in time, there seems to be a confluence of more user-driven initiatives towards openness, OPAF, in a way modular automation, to name just a few. They've shown real promise and they all seem to be headed in complimentary directions. What do you see as the motivating force for some of these movements? And how do you expect they'll affect ABB's DCS offering in the months and years to come?

Mark: Yeah, this is an important development in our industry, and I think before I talk about the objectives, I think, one of the key differences about these initiatives, from my perspective, having been through several of these in the past and watching such standard activities as they've evolved is, you know, I think in the past, most of those standards activities were initiated by and driven by the suppliers. I mean, there's been some nominal level of involvement by the customer base, mainly just to check to see that what we were doing made some sense to them. But I think now, it's really key to see how involved the customers are, the fact that they have initiated these activities. And because of that, I really do feel that there will be a much broader adoption and engagement, and ultimately, they will achieve their objectives.

And so if I think about the objectives that they're aiming at, I think there's two major drivers and some underlying things that are a result of that. Certainly one of the drivers is that some of the customers have been frustrated by the fact that their lifecycle costs of supporting their automation assets are higher than they'd like them to be. And in addition to that, with their current control system infrastructure, the cost and agility for innovation is not where they'd like it to be.

Keith: Sure.

Mark: So underneath all of that, there's no doubt about it, there have been some customers who've become frustrated about the fact that when they purchase a DCS, that the costs to maintain that DCS over time are dictated by the supplier, and they feel like they're locked in. And as I said earlier, in addition to that, partly due to this relationship with a single supplier, they feel that the cost and effort, to innovate or to add new functionality, or to enhance the functionality of their automation has been too high and has taken too long for them to implement.

I think the third factor is that our customer's businesses have changed and their strategies have changed over the last 20 years. And the result of that is that they've overhauled the portfolio of products that they want to take to market. And that's led to some divestments and some acquisitions. So, we have a number of companies who for years, and years, and years focused on one or two suppliers for their automation, and now they're faced with a portfolio of very diverse automation technologies. And this is putting stress, especially on their central support organizations.

And I think finally, the customers are looking for a more simplified engineering and commissioning paradigm than what they've been faced within the past. Many of them are finding themselves having to be more agile and reconfiguring their manufacturing processes to deploy new product variants. And in addition to that, there are customers building plants in parts of the world that just don't have automation expertise available. And so they need a system that automates the commissioning of those systems and is not so reliant on having expertise on the ground to do that.

So, I think those are the objectives. Now, how does that affect ABB? You know, I think ABB for the last 30-plus years has invested a lot in ensuring that our existing customers can deploy new technology in an evolutionary manner, and to do so in a way that allows them to continue to utilize the application intellectual investment that they've made and carry that forward through each technology change. And there's no doubt that the standards that are evolving are going to shape our future offering. And we are certainly committed to ensuring that our next-generation technologies are consistent and support the requirements for those standards. But we want to do it in a way that allows our existing customers to continue to carry forward their intellectual investments in the future.

Keith: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Obviously, the standards are important, but are their underlying digital technologies and some of this IT/OT convergence that play a role in making that sort of openness and evolution more practical reality than it maybe it was the past?

Mark: Yeah, I certainly think there are. And perhaps, to me at least, one of the foundational ones is how OPC UA has evolved in the companion specifications that are being developed, that go along with that. And if you look at, for instance, OPAF, they certainly have made that a foundational technology that they're asking suppliers to embrace. And it does provide a number of functionalities that are really going to be required to meet the objectives that they have. It's platform-independent and Internet-ready, and I think maybe most importantly, it has a very comprehensive information model. And that's going to be important to be able to integrate products from different suppliers and make sure that they're going to play well together and be able to exchange information in a way that is not engineering intensive to implement. The final thing and also very important is that the cybersecurity is built into the standard and it is absolutely necessary, of course, for any new technology that we introduce into the market.

Sort of along the same lines as the development of APL and the PA-DIM information model that's coming along with it. This is going to be important to allow customers to access information directly from field-level devices, and not have to route everything through a process controller as we have in the past, and this is a key objective that many customers have. The improvement and the evolving of wireless and 5G, I think, is going to allow customers to deploy more sensors in places that it wasn't cost-effective to do so in the past and also, I think, untether people in the field, in the plants from having to be in the control room to see what's going on or to get guidance. It will allow them to get out into the field where that manufacturing is happening and get that guidance more directly in front of the equipment that they're trying to deal with. And then finally, I think cloud and edge technologies are going to be key to allow customers to achieve this innovation in a more agile fashion, to be able to deploy applications on top of the control systems and to be able to exchange those and maintain them in a fashion that is, you know, less directly tied to the control system itself.

Keith: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I was looking back, and it was about 10 years ago, I helped put together an ABB-sponsored supplement to Control called "The Power of Integration," which had long been a key rallying cry really for AGV, but it seems back then we were more concerned with integration of control platforms with other plant systems to deliver synergistic value, not so much complimentary systems within the control environment. Has the power of integration evolved to mean something different in the context of these new dynamics nowadays?

Mark: Yeah, you know, I still think integration is going to be key and it's something that customers are still going to be very interested in and desirable. But I think the role of the control system in providing that integration is going to change. You know, until now, as you've sort of alluded to, the DCS was kind of the glue that provided that integration and as such, we were focused on integrating other systems with the control system itself, and then exposing that information in a way that was easier to use for our customers. Now, I think if we look forward, the control system, obviously, will still be key in providing information from the plant floor. But, again, with these evolving standardized models, such as OPC UA, the ability to exchange information between applications from different suppliers will be easier, it will allow the customers to have a more vendor-agnostic environment, so that they can mix and match, or even exchange technologies as their needs change or as the solution availability changes. So I think, as I said, the control system, I think, will play a different role but still a key role.

Keith: The whole development of, you mentioned cloud, the whole development of containerization and virtualization should help those components plug and play a little more readily at the system's level, I think, than what we're used to in the DCS history of the past.

Mark: Yeah, and I think that how that integration is supported will remain a key area of potential differentiation in this new standards-driven market. And I think that some people, when they look at OPAF, they say, well, how is a DCS better going to compete in that market? Because now customers can buy all these different things from different people, which of course, that is something they want to achieve.

Keith: Yeah.

Mark: But I think that this power of integration, and the means of supplying it and enhancing it is a potential opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves. And, you know, as I have looked over the past 40 years, that every time we've introduced a new standards-driven technology into our market, customers have high expectations of what that's going to bring. And in many cases, many of those expectations are met, but what happens is that there are a lot of unintended results that come along with that, that aren't foreseen by the customers, and, frankly, have not been foreseen by us as suppliers. And I think that what's going to be key now in this brave new world is for us, as suppliers, to anticipate where those gaps might be and to ensure that as we roll products out, we fill those gaps and ensure that the customers meet their objectives, but also don't give things up as a result of this change.

Keith: Yeah, that makes sense. Another undeniable trend affecting the process industries is a demographic shift from the generations that created and optimized the original DCS to digital natives unfamiliar with the, I'll say, old technology that we sometimes find so, so comforting, will this shift accelerate uptake of new automation paradigms?

Mark: Yeah, I mean, there's no doubt in my mind that that will be the case. You know, as I mentioned earlier, we've made it easy for our customers, and not very disruptive for our customers, to move forward in technologies and carry forward the things that they've known and loved. And, you know, of course, as you know, we have customers that have been involved with our systems for 20 or 30 years.

Keith: Right.

Mark: And I think one of the results of that is that it has put up a bit of a barrier for the introduction of new technologies, and certainly anything that's disruptive. And, you know, what I'm seeing already, as I have traveled around while I still could travel around and visit customers was that this transition that we've been talking about for years, as we anticipated that, well, frankly, my generation is starting to retire, and we have a new generation coming in, that transformation has begun. And as we get this new generation of management, and engineers, and operators entering the workforce, they are not as influenced by the way things have been done for the last 20 years. And back to the contrary, I think they want to see something more modern, that looks more like the technology that they've grown up with, and as a result of that, I think they're going to be much more willing to try new ways to tackle their automation and optimization challenges.

You know, I think the other demographic or result of this shift is, of course, and again, another thing that we've been talking about for years is the experience of these people who have been in these plants for 20, 30 years is going to go away. And now we have to provide a platform, an automation platform that doesn't assume that the operator or the engineer has 20 years of experience with this plant or with this application, and need to provide an environment where we can incorporate new technologies to provide a more innovative and guided assistance to the people that are utilizing these systems, so that you're not as reliant on them having this experience.

Keith: Yeah, I would imagine that the COVID pandemic has also accelerated acceptance of some of those remote access solutions, where you're bringing in remote subject matter experts, either from ABB or elsewhere, to assist, as well as other types of artificial intelligence or, you know, prompted sort of aids for folks working in the trenches. Have you seen that really affect your business as well and your customers' businesses?

Mark: Yeah, for sure. You know, before the pandemic, there was certainly a lot of discussion about what can be done remotely with customers. And I would say, some customers in some segments were actually making progress there. I mean, the renewables market is one area that I think have made a lot of progress in that regard. But suddenly, you know, we were all faced, and certainly, our customers were faced with, how do I minimize the number of people on the ground in this plant to keep it running, and of course, keep it running in an optimal fashion, but without having people on the ground? And so, all of a sudden, things that were unheard of were being done. And I think a lot of customers were surprised at how successful they were at being able to make that transformation. And so, I think that they were making use of, of course, technology that was already available that they didn't really make use of before. And, of course, that's putting more demands on us as well. But it's clear to me that when this pandemic finally passes, these new paradigms, in terms of how their work processes are put together and how they provide insight and support to the people on the ground running the plant, whether it be for maintenance, or engineering, or production, or whatever it might be, these work practices are going to stay in place and will be the new foundation that they work on to provide even higher levels of remote access in the future.

Keith: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, once we do like this COVID pandemic thing, waiting in the wings has been the perhaps even more urgent issue of climate change and industrial sustainability overall. But what increased role can automation platforms play in helping society make strides towards a more decarbonized industry, for example, as well as other aspects of sustainability?

Mark: Yeah, well, I think there's a couple of aspects here. The first one, of course, is as a product supplier, ABB has put a keen focus on supporting a low-carbon society and has actually set a target to be completely carbon neutral in our operations by 2030. And that means that we need to be able to deliver products that are more energy efficient in their design and are incorporating sustainable materials to help meet that objective. And of course, we'll focus on providing products that have lower cooling requirements and lower power consumption and the use of recyclable materials, not only in our products, but of course, in the packaging that we used to ship them around the world.

And I think the other piece of this is to reduce the amount of hardware that is actually required to run a system by taking advantage of virtualization and technology advances in that area. So, as a product supplier, I think that's where we play. But probably the bigger impact is that ABB has also set a target to support our customers to reduce their CO2 emissions by at least 100 megatons by 2030. I'm told that's equivalent to about 30 million combustion vehicles, so it's a big number.

Keith: Yeah.

Mark: And automation, as it has been in the past, will continue to be, in the future, a key facilitator for that by helping our customers optimize their plants. I think the focus on energy consumption will increase. You know, I think the focus on energy consumption in the past in manufacturing has been to reduce the cost of energy. And in a country like the U.S., where the energy costs are low, you know, the objective wasn't that big, but now, with these carbon footprint objectives, that puts a whole new emphasis on that area. And, of course, enhancing and optimizing production to eliminate waste and rework by actually utilizing some of the technologies we've had available that people really haven't deployed in an earnest fashion, like state-based control and just making sure the control loops are performing, are things that we can do to help in that regard.

Keith: Yeah, I was reading the other day, some estimates that said that industry could get halfway to our Paris Climate Treaty desires and obligations just by using technology we already have, but applying it to industry to become more efficient. It's not as sexy as solar farms and other things like that, but when you look at how much we could do when we apply the tools for optimization and efficiency that we've already developed as an automation industry, there's plenty of work to be done even without getting too exotic in terms of new technology.

Mark: Exactly, exactly.

Keith: From a higher view, maybe, you know, given all these trends, what will the DCS of the future, if we even call it a DCS, what will the DCS of the future look like compared to the traditional DCS we've been using for the past 30 years? Can you just paint us a little bit of a picture of how it might look in years to come?

Mark: Yeah, it will be interesting to see if it's called DCS. I mean, certainly one of the things that will be true is that it'll be a flatter technology, and in some ways, more distributed.

Keith: I was going to say it'll actually be distributed this time.

Mark: It'll be more distributed than it is for sure today, and more modular. I think the modularity plays in a couple of areas. One is, I think, from an engineering standpoint, there's a real push from customers now to raise the level of engineering above IC631, where people are still down there programming in that level, to provide this integration and to facilitate an easier way of reuse, I see us raising the engineering to a more modular level. And then the software components or even the product components that make up a system, I think will also be more modular, and that's what's going to help with the agile innovation. It'll make it easier to add new functions and technologies, to upgrade those technologies, and to deploy what we call extended automation components in a way that doesn't affect the entire system. I mean, there are times with various systems that are on the market today, if I want to change one thing, I've got to upgrade everything. And with that, of course, comes cost and risk. And so, we need to be able to have modular components that can be upgraded separately and still play together with the rest of the application. I think that this desire to be able to develop applications in a way that is completely divorced from how they will be deployed in the hardware in the future is a trend that will be realized.

Obviously, cybersecurity out-of-the-box, built into the components rather than layered on top will be key. And yeah, automating as much as possible the engineering and commissioning activities is another thing that I see us putting a lot more focus on. And again, you won't need to have the same innate deep knowledge of how the system works in order to deploy it and support it in the field.

And then finally, I think it's also very critical and, of course, this has always been something that's important to ABB. I think my friends from ARC estimated that there's something like 130,000 automation systems installed out there. And I think this industry has a tendency to think about deploying new technology as it applies to a greenfield facility. And when you think in those terms and don't consider the 130,000 automation systems out there, you might make decisions that make it difficult to evolve those systems to the future. And from our perspective, that's going to be absolutely critical for us to, again, help our customers make that jump forward to the new technologies, but to retain the intellectual investments they've made to get them where they are today.

Keith: So, really look at ways to bring some of these technologies to bear in brownfield situations when you may need to do some upgrades to the systems or whatever without tearing everything out.

Mark: Exactly.

Keith: We know we're very reluctant to do that sort of thing with instruments and such that are already working, but how do you work these new technologies into an already operating plant without undue downtime? That'll be a challenge, but interesting to look forward to.

Mark: Yeah.

Keith: Well, great. Thanks so much, Mark for sharing your insights with us today. I really appreciate you taking the time to join us. Looking forward to seeing each other again in meet space, as they say, one of these days. So looking forward to that.

For those of you listening, also thanks for tuning in. My name is Keith Larson, and you've been listening to a Control Amplified Podcast. Thanks also to ABB for sponsoring this episode. And, of course, to my guest today, Mark Taft, Group Vice President of ABB, responsible for the company's control systems offerings worldwide. Th anks again, Mark, really appreciate it.

Mark: My pleasure.

Keith: And if you at home have enjoyed, or at work, have enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store and at Google Podcasts, plus you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. Signing off, until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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