Moving automation off the critical path of project execution requires agility as well as speed. As discussed earlier in this article series, the move to configurable single-channel input/output (I/O) systems and fully digital instrument communications has advanced both causes. First, by improving the ability of automation system designs to absorb and mitigate midstream changes in a project’s functional requirements. Second, by eliminating hardware and software interdependencies and allowing more project execution tasks to advance in parallel rather than sequentially.
But there’s another class of tools, technologies and best practices that can further reduce project execution risk by increasing the absolute speed, efficiency and first-time accuracy of automation engineering tasks. Broadly, they fall into three groups: standardization, computer-aided engineering exchange (CAEX) tools and cloud-based environments. Each has an outsized impact on a different phase of project execution: from design to implementation to test.
Standards, templates streamline design
ABB, for one, has long employed a philosophy of re-use and standardization in order to drive down project costs and delivery times. During the initial stages of a project, this includes standards and templates such as for developing functional and detailed design specifications.
These standards range from libraries of TÜV-certified oil & gas applications to templates designed to seamlessly integrate IEC 61850-compliant intelligent electrical devices (IEDs). Available to project teams through globally accessible repositories, these standards also help to enforce consistency across today’s multinational organizations.
Consistent use of standards also breeds familiarity and reduces the need for training relative to custom, one-of-a-kind project designs. These benefits accrue not only during the execution of a project, but continue to add up through the operational phases of a production asset’s lifecycle.
Fast, error-free implementation
When standards and templates are used consistently in the design of automation systems, project implementation largely consists of instantiating the appropriate standards and templates with project-specific data. CAEX tools help automate many of the labor intensive, manual tasks involved in this process. This helps to minimize human error, directly leading to lower costs and less time spent in functional testing (Figure 1).
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CAEX tools from ABB, in particular, convert project-specific data from a variety of sources into a common data format. This data is then used to automatically generate a large proportion of project-specific application software and associated hardware documentation, such as bills of material and wiring diagrams. The tools also help manage changes and revisions, creating discrepancy reports between versions and facilitating roll-back to an earlier one if necessary.
System testing moves to the cloud
While a secure cloud-computing environment enables efficient collaboration among today’s global design teams, it’s during final system test that the cloud truly shines in terms of project execution efficiency.
By moving to standardized I/O hardware and enclosures, we’ve already eliminated the need for a factory acceptance test (FAT) on control system hardware. Now, with a combination of virtualization, emulation and simulation technologies—all implemented in the cloud—engineers can perform a virtual FAT of the finished control system software, probing its performance against the project’s functional specifications, without ever leaving their desks.
With ABB automation systems, this is made possible because their flagship System 800xA platform has for several years now supported virtualization in operational mode, meaning that control applications execute as virtual machines abstracted from hardware implementation specifics.
For testing purposes, this virtualized application is moved to the cloud and paired with emulation software that recreates the actions of the control system hardware as well as simulation software that recreates the dynamics of the process to be controlled. Communication with other third-party applications can also be simulated and tested in this way.
This virtual commissioning helps to identify any potential issues, resulting in smoother, faster production start-up. Testing application software in the cloud also allows control system hardware to be shipped to site much earlier.
Quality of inputs is job one
A final set of contributions to increased project execution efficiency actually comes before all others, and rests primarily with the asset owner/operator and its engineering partners.
First is provision of an upfront functional requirement specification that is clear, precise—and complete as possible. Second is engineering data that is consistent, correct and of high quality. Third is a willingness to accept standard designs and templates where practical—even if some compromise is necessary. Efficient project execution hinges on the quality of inputs as well as a flexible, modular and pragmatic approach to automation engineering.