Ethernet everywhere as ABB takes a wide screen approach to integrating process, power and telecoms

May 17, 2009
Despite the pronounced hiccup in ABB’s fourth quarter, senior process automation vice president Nick Laming believes there are already signs that this will be a short, even perhaps just a six-month contraction.

INSIDER hasn’t been fully immersed in ABB since attending its Automation World user conference in Orlando two years ago. So it was perhaps appropriate — and appropriately green, given that it resulted in the emission of just 0.07 rather than 1.23 tonnes of CO2 — to visit ABB’s St Neots, UK operation on the day that Automation World returned to Orlando after last year’s excursion to Houston. And to judge from colleagues’ enthusiastic blogging from Florida, while there was a noticeable absence of the alligators which gave ABB’s new CEO Joe Hagan a nasty turn on his morning run there, the content of the St Neot’s presentations bore a close resemblance to those on the menu in Orlando.  

Short contraction

Despite the pronounced hiccup in ABB’s fourth quarter, senior process automation vice president Nick Laming believes there are already signs that this will be a short, even perhaps just a six-month contraction, at least for his part of ABB — so much so that he even dared to utter the, for politicians, doom-laden phrase “green shoots,” which he already claims to have identified. If that is true, then it will be because of the combination of good planning and good fortune which has positioned ABB ideally to take advantage of the simultaneous opportunities created by the continuing need for investment in energy supply, be it fossil fuel, nuclear or alternative, and infrastructure and the fact that, in the U.S. in particular, much of the fiscal stimulus will be delivered through investment in those sectors.  

Back at Orlando two years ago, the emphasis had been on playing to those strengths by integrating ABB’s process and electrical capabilities. The intervening two years have seen real flesh being put on the skeleton of that concept and its extension to a third dimension in the form of telecoms. And the same philosophy extends to what ABB sees as the changing role of the process automation vendor, as it increasingly emphasizes its MAC (main automation contractor), MEC (main electrical contractor (MEC) and main instrumentation vendor (MIV) capabilities which, claims Laming, is something of a forte of the U.K. operation. That, says project director Philip “Pip” Clark, involves educating EPCs (engineering, procurement and construction contractors) and their clients into appreciating the benefits of involving the MAC as early as possible in a project and, ideally, at the beginning of the initial FEED (front-end engineering design) phase. That’s become even more significant on projects in difficult or hostile geographical and political environments where there is an increasing trend towards off-site building and containerization of process automation and electrical systems.  

System integrator

Add in the very demanding site security requirements on many such projects, and the wisdom of including an integrated telecoms offering becomes apparent. As Ian Holden, U.K. telecom manager for process automation, explains, ABB’s telecoms capability came out of the Bailey acquisition of the late ’90s and is essentially that of a system integrator taking overall responsibility for ensuring that a diversity of different vendors’ equipment comes together precisely to meet the EPC’s and client’s requirements. Although organizationally part of ABB’s Oil & Gas operation it is a capability which Holden anticipates will become increasingly important across a much broader range of applications as the trend towards remote operation and remote diagnostics gathers momentum across the process industries.  

Underpinning this growing emphasis on integration is System 800xA, the process automation system first introduced back in 2004, which is increasingly being presented as a common management environment embracing process, electrical and ultimately telecoms, although project engineering team leader Colin Pearson concedes that customers may not yet be quite ready to take that final step. The physical embodiment of that integration is the extension of Ethernet as a common backbone linking horizontally from the process environment into the electrical world via the new IEC 61850 standard, as well as up to the corporate level through ISA95-based integration with ERP and, ultimately, down to the instrument level. That would see the replacement of conventional Foundation fieldbus and Profibus networks with FF HSE, ProfiNet and IEC 61850, all coexisting on the same physical network. The final stages of that evolution are still a few years off, concedes a frustrated and impatient Pearson, but 800xA is, he believes, the best equipped among the current generation of process automation systems to adapt to and accommodate that evolution as it develops.  

Object technology

The justification for that claim is ABB’s Aspect Objects technology and specifically the Aspect Integrator Platform, whose pedigree predates 800xA and which provides the basis for ABB’s entire IndustrialIT strategy, as well as the means by which an increasing number of third parties can ‘IndustrialIT enable’ their products for integration within the 800xA environment.  

But it is perhaps the recently introduced Extended Operator Workstation (EOW) that provides the most direct embodiment of this ongoing drive for integration. The wide- screen EOW is fast becoming the HMI of choice for System 800xA and, while other vendors have their own big-screen HMI offerings, Pearson is adamant that the ABB solution is very different. It’s not just a big plasma screen, he stresses, but incorporates proprietary technology which links multiple individual displays into a single seamless whole. While control rooms will continue to retain conventional desktop screens for individual operators, experience has already shown that, where the facility is available, it’s the big screen that operators use for the majority of the time. “It’s all about reducing operator error,” says Pearson.  

Legacy controllers

When it was first introduced 800xA was widely seen primarily as a solution to ABB’s problem supporting the users of the dozen or more legacy DCSs it had inherited through acquisition by migrating them all to a single platform. How successful that has been can be judged from the fact that while every other DCS vendor saw ABB’s legacy sites as potential targets for their own competitive migration strategies, ABB has retained its position as the global DCS market leader. Hence Pearson’s claim that “Nobody else is as good at connecting legacy controllers into the same system,” although the cynic might have added that nobody has had quite as much practice.  

Now however, according to Laming, the huge investment ― $500 million prior to the 2004 launch, but nobody’s letting on how much more since — in System 800xA is paying off as it becomes the vehicle for ABB’s much broader integration ambitions. Moreover, he argues, that level of investment represents a huge hurdle for those vendors whose current systems were introduced earlier in the cycle and which, he believes, are now showing their age and their limitations. “What next from Emerson?” he muses, tongue in cheek. “A DeltaVx?”  

The initial pretext for INSIDER’s visit to St Neots had been to delve a little deeper into the recently introduced SIL 3 version of the System 800xA HI integrated Safety Instrumented System (SIS). As safety systems consultant Roger Prew explained, both versions are unique in being based directly on the controller from the BPCS (Basic Process Control System). Even Yokogawa’s ProSafe, he claims, while looking like a Centum controller on the surface, is in fact very different under the skin. Both the SIL 2 and SIL 3 versions use a separate diverse coprocessor alongside what is effectively a standard BPCS controller, and it is this diversity which, claims Prew, makes the approach not just equivalent, but superior in terms of immunity to common mode failures to conventional TMR solutions. Moving up from SIL 2 to SIL 3 has required relatively minor changes to the hardware, together with changes to the firmware and toolset, says Prew. In effect those changes allow the Safety Manager to check every memory transaction and continually to check the I/O bus, the associated I/O having already been SIL 3 certified.  

Can existing SIL 2 systems be upgraded to SIL 3? Yes, says Prew, although the need to do so might suggest serious problems with the original safety assessment, but the update would essentially involve a change of the associated hardware and firmware and recompiling the application.  

And how has availability of the SIL 3 version affected the overall balance of the arguments for and against integrated safety solutions? The proof is to a great extent in the eating. with ABB now claiming a total of 1300 SIL 2 nodes installed and that it already has 10 installed sites for the SIL 3 version. More significantly in the long term, says Prew, is that many of the major users who were initially reluctant even to consider an integrated solution, including some of the biggest names in the Middle East, are now accepting the concept as suitable for new installations, although they are more likely to stay with TMR in legacy situations.