Son of PlantScape renews Honeywell’s PLC challenge

Feb. 27, 2009
Such systems have in the past been characterized by attempts to reduce the engineering and configuration effort required of the user and, hence, the overall cost of ownership through the use of preconfigured displays and prebuilt algorithms.

Ever since the DCS was invented, vendors have grappled with the challenge of how to get the entry-level price down to the point where they can compete successfully for small- and medium-sized systems business with PLC-based solutions put together by system integrators. When the mainstream DCS business is in good health, with the oil & gas, petrochem and refining markets booming, such development projects tend to get left on the back burner, and it’s a sure sign of harder times when one of the majors comes up with a smaller offering. Latest in a long, but not always distinguished line — names such as microProvox come to mind — is Experion LS, which apparently had its first public outing at the ARC Forum in Orlando.

Those not lucky enough to enjoy the Florida sunshine, and that includes INSIDER, have to make do with a less than entirely informative press release, which doesn’t even explain what LS stands for. Nor does it indicate whether LS is a subset or derivative of Experion PKS, but simply states that it is “a new product within Honeywell’s award-winning Experion Process Knowledge System” that “provides the power and reliability of a distributed control system (DCS) in a small and flexible solution.”

As well as being smaller than a conventional DCS, LS is described as being “scalable from a single PC and controller to multiple stations.” Such systems have in the past been characterized by attempts to reduce the engineering and configuration effort required of the user and, hence, the overall cost of ownership through the use of preconfigured displays and prebuilt algorithms. Again LS is no exception and is claimed to require less engineering support than either a PLC-based system or a full-blown DCS, with the additional claim that it can help plants save up to $20,000 per year in support costs for each system.

Batch is Key

And while such systems are always described as being suited to the management of both continuous and batch applications, it’s the latter which are key, given the target markets in specialty chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and consumer goods. Consequently LS comes with “Honeywell’s S88-compliant and scalable solution for batch automation that can be fully redundant,” which sounds as if it’s the same, recently upgraded batch solution now offered on the full-scale Experion, although the release doesn’t specifically say so. Honeywell is also making much of the system’s ability to enable configuration changes to be made without interrupting production.

If all of this sounds more than a little familiar, it may be because it is. Back in July 1997, we were reporting the launch of a new “hybrid control system” which, according to the then president of Honeywell Industrial Control, Markos Tambakeras, “extends Honeywell’s ability to fully satisfy the requirements of manufacturers in industries in which Honeywell traditionally has not had a large global presence … specialty and fine chemicals; pharmaceutical; food and beverage; mining, metals and minerals; power and semiconductors.”

That system was of course PlantScape, which had been developed jointly with Rockwell, ironically, at least in part as a response to DeltaV, which at that time was perceived by competitors as being specifically targeted at small-scale applications. Unlike DeltaV, PlantScape never lived up to the expectations either of Honeywell or indeed of Rockwell, who marketed it as ProcessLogix, although its C200 controller lived on as the basis of the original release of Experion PKS.

A DCS for the Masses?

One commentator who seems to believe that the concept is still valid is ARC’s Craig Resnick, who is quoted in the press release as arguing that many applications in the target markets “would benefit from the functionality of a DCS, but the installed base has been limited due to the perceptions of lack of scalability, great complexity and high costs.” As a result, he gives his somewhat qualified endorsement of the new system, saying that “Experion LS appears to address these issues by being designed to be a DCS for the masses, one that can be specified, purchased, installed and maintained in a scalable fashion by organizations that have not utilized DCS systems in the past.” (Our italics.)

While system cost and performance are clearly important, success in Honeywell’s target markets is critically dependent on its ability effectively and economically to support the smaller end user. It was largely for that reason that 12 years ago it got into bed with Rockwell on PlantScape, hoping to piggy-back on the Rockwell channel. This time around it appears to be going it alone, working, as the release puts it, through “local authorized Honeywell Experion implementers to provide project implementation and ongoing application support” and providing “training, support and ongoing technical assistance to system integrators to promote project lifecycle success.” Whether integrators find that a compelling proposition will determine whether Experion LS is any more successful than PlantScape in making inroads into markets traditionally dominated by PLC vendors.