Virtualization on the plant floor
Breaking chains to improve delivery
Virtualization can bridge distance and make resources available anywhere.
Grant Le Sueur
While virtual computing has been an indispensible utility within the IT industry for several years, manufacturing and process automation industries have been slower to accept and recognize its benefits. However, as the technology evolves, we’re beginning to see the obvious impact it can have on a plant environment. In fact, virtualization will soon change how automation providers develop, deliver, and help commission their systems and solutions.
Breaking the fixed sequence
In general, a fixed sequence of events rules the lifecycle of a project. First, there is a delivery phase, where the system is designed to match production requirements, equipment is procured, the system is staged and tested, the system is validated and shipped, and then the plant is commissioned. After that, the operational phase kicks in, where the new system is supported, hardware is replaced when it reaches its end of life, and the system is upgraded, particularly with new software capabilities.
By enhancing both of these phases, virtualization improves the traditional delivery model. While engineering and testing used to be sequential activities that could occur only where the actual equipment was located, virtualization allows providers to decouple activity and location. It enables delivery activity to occur anywhere in the world, effectively breaking the tether between engineers and the physical hardware. Individuals with specialized talent can now apply their skills to system engineering no matter where they are located, even if they are thousands of miles away from the hardware!
Benefits to delivery
In the delivery phase, virtualization gets a system up and running significantly faster than by procuring and installing hardware and software in the traditional manner. Not only are fewer machines required, but in some cases engineering can commence earlier using a common virtual machine. Hardware that would normally be deployed on-site only after the system has been designed can be procured and delivered to the facility for early installation, independent of engineering configuration. Because virtual machines can be instantiated simply by copying files, engineers can create an entire system in the virtual environment, and they can do it within hours, not days or weeks. No longer does engineering have to occur where the system is going to be staged—it can be done anywhere in the world, and the system can be staged and tested in a place that is nearer or more convenient for the end user.
Moreover, if multiple process designers or contractors are involved, testing and validating can be done concurrently at several locations instead of only where the equipment is. That means the system hardware can be shipped to the site for early installation even while the system is still being tested. After testing, it can be dispatched electronically. Last-minute updates and modifications can be handled in the same way. All of these capabilities mean the plant can be commissioned earlier—the entire delivery schedule has been compressed.
Bring operational problems to the expert
Whether we like it or not, sometimes hardware fails, and components always wear out. After the plant has been commissioned, the new system often exhibits faults that may not be easy to resolve at the facility. Virtualization allows these problems to be brought to the expert. System faults can be located and resolved more easily with an offline shadow system that mirrors the online production system. Additionally, virtual machines can be used to provide updates automatically using fault-tolerant configurations, or they can be copied manually to a replacement server host. The technology also allows system updates to take place on an offline virtual system, and those images can then be installed onto a production host server within minutes, instead of hours, weeks, or days.
Given all these benefits, applying virtualization within manufacturing and process automation industries might the biggest no-brainer of the decade. In fact, some experts suggest that by 2020, very few new systems will be delivered outside of a virtualized environment, while many incumbent systems will be modified to encompass virtualization technologies. It’s already changing the face of how automation providers develop and deliver their solutions and how the end user puts them to use. Are you ready?
Grant Le Sueur is director of product management for Invensys Operations Management.