A process control system is like an institution – it stays around for a long time and is hard to change. So how do you go about modernizing an institution like a process controller? As ARC Advisory Group learned recently, Siemens has a plan. While details are scant, the company appears ready to showcase its new web-based concept for process control at the upcoming Hanover Fair in April. What exactly will the company show? This is what we know so far:
- Siemens is planning a big announcement about a new process control concept at this year’s Hanover Fair in April
- No new hardware is planned. The new concept is web-based and will run on the company’s existing PCS7 process control platform
- The new concept will integrate tools to help process users realize their own digital transformation
Software Is the Future of Automation
“Rethinking” is not the same as “redesigning.” Siemens’ claim to be rethinking process control technology is the first hint that the concept is not just new, but different. Apparently, the company is NOT planning to introduce a whole new hardware platform for process control. Why should it? We know that software is the future of automation solutions and that existing hardware is fully capable of supporting today’s automation software and, mostly likely, the software of the future.
Siemens’ SIMATIC PCS7 platform may be more than 20 years old, but its hardware has evolved over time to take advantage of new advancements in processor and memory technologies. Introducing all-new hardware for industrial control systems would mean that owner/operators would have to re-engineer their machine and equipment designs, retrain engineers and operators, and restock spare parts. All this causes disruptions as the end users monitor the results of pilot projects and wait for feedback about everything from usability to firmware bugs.
Web-based Concept for Process Control
From the company’s brief teaser/press release, Siemens’ new process control concept appears to focus on software, rather than hardware. From ARC’s own research, we know that user requirements are changing. Users want more openness, better engineering tools, multi-user support, and better access to process information as their plants undergo digital transformation. Siemens acknowledges that the new concept will be completely web-based and will allow multi-user access to both engineering and operator stations. This has a lot of implications for users.
“Web-based” suggests engineering tools that run in a browser rather than in dedicated applications. While today’s browsers are highly sophisticated, anyone with experience using common office software in browsers is aware of certain caveats and pitfalls. Let’s hope that Siemens takes this into account and helps users learn to trust the browser as the (stable!) window into their processes.
Siemens also claims that the web-based concept will provide support for multiple users. Today, process control systems used in large-scale projects are engineered by a variety of different partners, from EPCs to system integrators to end users. A project destined for the US, for example, may be engineered in both Germany and India, with equipment supplied by providers located in a variety of other countries and time zones. To manage projects of this scale, all project-related data need to be stored in a single location to ensure a “single version of the truth.” But multiple users with the proper credentials must also be able to modify these data. Siemens already has experience with this type of data management with its COMOS and Teamcenter solutions.
Combine Data Sources to Create a Digital Twin
Siemens’ teaser also mentions a new tool called PlantSight, that it claims can “draw data from several different data sources to enable rapid access to previously unattainable information.” This suggests anything from digital dashboards to visualization software, areas in which the company is already highly experienced. The obvious next step here is to convince process users of the value of using these data to create a digital twin of both the product and the process as is now common in many discrete industries. This philosophy is already a core belief at Siemens, so the company will likely use its new process control concept to help process users achieve their digital transformation.
Siemens appears to have something big “up its sleeve.” Instead of polishing up an old institution like the process controller, the company appears to have rethought how we will use process control systems in the future and is on the verge of launching a completely new web-based concept. It’s likely that the company will reveal all at next month’s Hanover Fair. Stay tuned!
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Keywords: Siemens, PCS7, Web-based Process Control, Digital Twin, ARC Advisory Group.