Procedural automation everywhere

June 23, 2017
Few and surmountable obstacles lie between us and command-perform-verify.

ISA released the ISA-106 “Procedure Automation for Continuous Process Operations” initial Technical Report (TR) defining models and terminology in August 2013, and several manufacturers have implemented their interpretation of this document within their control systems.

The TR models define how to capture information about the physical assets, from the enterprise level down to an individual device, and the requirements that define a procedure. It establishes the functional requirement for the automated procedure, and ties these requirements directly to objects in the physical model. The lower the level, the more detailed the association between procedures and objects. The implementation module is where the “rubber hits the road” by defining a set of ordered tasks, which may have their own subtasks to perform step-by-step actions in a defined order.

There are three elements contained within each task:

  • Command: Something to trigger the individual action;
  • Perform: Do the action(s); and
  • Verify: Confirm successful completion of the task.

Each task’s command-perform-verify sequence can include a mix of automated and human operations as appropriate for the specific assignment. For example, a human may need to verify if an automated task has been performed correctly, or vice-versa. After each command has been performed and verified, notification is sent to the next task in sequence.

We normally associate procedural automation with larger activities such as plant startup or shutdown, but the same tools can be used for more routing procedures such as isolating and starting up a redundant pump system, performing online maintenance of a piece of equipment, or even something as “simple” as performing an in-line valve performance test; all of which normally require communication with someone physically at the asset to verify, or in some cases manually intervene in, the process.

One way to do this is via wireless technology such as IEEE 802.11, which may be shared with the backhaul to wireless sensor networks to provide the infrastructure using appropriate smart tablets or equivalent. But equipment capable of working in classified areas, including intrinsically safe equipment, usable with personal protection equipment (PPE) in place, and operable in the wide range of temperatures and humidity expected in a plant environment, is something that continues to evolve. Most available solutions today “harden” conventional IT products, however, as this market grows, dedicated solutions will become increasingly available.

One of the other challenges with the “all things to all users” wireless network is how to ensure that the right information is delivered not only to the right place but also at the right time. The right time typically requires sufficient speed for the service to meet the minimum update requirements for the end use. This means the system must be configured to make smart use of in this case, the wireless backhaul, with message prioritization and effective bandwidth and channel management to meet the real-time requirements of controls as well as other users such as the roving operators/maintenance technicians. New work items within IEEE and IEC committees are working to address this issue, but that is the topic for another day.

Though ISA-106 Edition 1 was developed for process industries, the principles can be applied to any industry, and the next edition is planned to be revised for broader application. The principles of procedural automation, linked with connection technology as described above, will certainly make it possible to apply it anywhere, including your local franchise restaurant, which also relies on repeatability for success.

Procedural automation can be used to capture and share corporate knowledge including best practices, and to minimize errors with resulting decrease in incidents, improved safety and higher throughput. These are the reasons and drivers for development of this standard and in fact, the majority of global standards. The Procedural Automation standard is new, but like other standards that we do not even realize affect us every minute of every day, this standard too will impact you directly, and perhaps indirectly several steps removed.

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