Best practices in integrated HMI/SCADA systems enable smarter data acquisition

Open platform development tools enable more effective, affordable approaches to SCADA.

01/06/2016


Harnessing the power of data has driven substantial change in the oil and gas industry. As embedded technologies have fast-tracked and expanded data collection and analysis, the impact is global, and operators worldwide are able to develop fuel sources that were once thought inaccessible at any cost. High performance, HMI-based systems are at the center of this technology expansion, handling diverse and demanding physical computing environments while executing sophisticated SCADA applications. It's a successful combination of hardware and software capabilities that has broadened horizons for oil and gas operations, setting the stage for intelligent oilfields where people, equipment, and assets are connected for the highest quality production and safety.

Blending rugged HMI hardware with open platform SCADA development tools reduces costs and simplifies support of multiple PLC families, often found in complex oil, gas and refinery systems. Image courtesy: Corvalent

Conversely, SCADA applications are complex and time-consuming to develop, increasing the challenge of seamless integration with new and existing HMI systems. Deployment becomes even more complex as designers and OEMs must reduce development resources to ensure competitive value in unique oilfield settings, but must not sacrifice proven rugged performance, system consistency, and long-term supply in the process. Today's pre-integrated HMI/SCADA systems are helping to resolve the issue by blending software and hardware to simplify development, reduce proof-of-concept timelines, and ensure compatibility. Not all platforms are created equal, however, and OEMs must be well-versed in the best practice design choices that protect long-term HMI/SCADA performance from both hardware and software perspectives.

Integration simplifies development

HMI/SCADA systems are deployed in some of the most dangerous, remote, and technically-sophisticated environments on the planet. It is no small value to ensure compatibility and simplify development, as these systems are integral to ensuring nonstop oil and gas exploration and production. They must be able to meet a range of environmental extremes, including resistance to shock, vibration, temperature, and dust. Incorporating SCADA software at the manufacturing level is a new trend that ensures customized performance and prevents the runaway integration challenges that can occur when systems are dropped in-either for new deployment or refreshing existing systems in the field.

Open platforms make all the difference

Open platform SCADA development tools are the most important factors protecting cost, flexibility, and more importantly, longevity of integrated HMI/SCADA applications. An open, nonproprietary alternative to costly in-house design supports oil technology companies facing pressure to reduce costs or quickly introduce new features in connected embedded designs. An open platform ensures an efficient path to meet application requirements without incurring large, upfront development costs, compounded by lengthy time-to-market.

A common mistake is to expect an expensive licensing requirement as a stumbling block. However, OEM licensing models contrast favorably to the expense of retaining an in-house development team creating applications from the ground up. Existing software modules help developers avoid time-consuming, low-level processes, and instead, remain focused on customization to distinguish their application and get to market faster. For increased long-term value, the open platform ensures applications can be maintained or used by any system integrator.

Flexible deployment options based on price vs. performance

Oil rigs or mining platforms may be operated by PLCs from different manufacturers. Supporting these various product families is a costly challenge, requiring OEM support of HMI development packages from each PLC vendor. In contrast, an open HMI/SCADA platform is compatible with most types of PLC families; with full open platform communications and connectivity, the system can communicate with PLCs and controllers from nearly any manufacturer. As a result, OEMs minimize integration issues that can add up over time in terms of cost and overall resources. It's important to note that without this ability, an oil producer might be faced with choosing all products related to a single PLC family. This potentially increases costs by eliminating the ability to evaluate each piece of an integrated system on its own merits of price vs. performance. For example, a panel PC running recognized HMI software could be as much as several thousand dollars more per installation, compared to a bundled hardware/software HMI and SCADA system.

Transforming oil and gas with better data

Integrated HMI/SCADA systems acknowledge that reliability feeds profitability. The top priority for these streamlined systems is to deliver real-time data to help produce gas more efficiently and safely. Best practices for SCADA software include database connectivity that simplifies the linking of multiple data sources, both to record information and to use data to develop analytic dashboards. This allows operators to read information at a glance, and make quick decisions that improve safety, productivity, and efficiency.

Notably, as systems grow less isolated and begin to take advantage of Internet and cloud-based capabilities, the ongoing need to mobilize oil and gas data is driving many operators to seek SCADA applications that provide mobile and remote-monitoring capabilities. OEMs should consider the software's ability to easily view data, remotely control operations, or communicate with multiple sites from a central control facility. Next-generation systems offer these features from a thin-client application accessible on portable devices, such as tablets or smartphones.

Ensuring reduced costs for long-term software migration

Open platforms can also bridge the gap between customized features and faster, more fluid integration. In addition, long-term software migrations are protected with the forward and backward compatibility maintained in a licensed development tool. Oil OEMs are assured a path to the newest development platforms without extensive re-engineering costs. In an optimal licensed software development product, support is added routinely, enabling OEMs to capitalize on new operating systems; technology standards, such as HTML5 for web access; and other valuable communications protocol development-but without assigning resources of their own to develop these improvements. Planning ahead also includes embracing mobile access or cloud-ready options.

Pre-integration reduces on-site deployment challenges

OEMs must pay attention to how simply the application can be deployed on-site. Add-ons can present common problems because systems suddenly need a raft of new interfaces or features to connect to existing systems. Several oil technology partners offer the option of shipping an HMI/SCADA system as a fully-tested, turnkey system. It is a best practice to determine the ideal level of partnership between OEM and technology supplier or developer because a more synergistic relationship can save valuable time and resources in deploying the end-user application.

With a partnership approach, manufacturers can integrate customers' intellectual property as part of system development, creating compatible plug-and-play options that refresh systems, streamline part numbers, reduce development time, and ensure simple on-site integration. Expertise in applications, such as chemical analysis, fracking data collection, undersea robotic equipment, subsea systems, and onshore/offshore surface logging adds value here, helping reduce development time and costs and minimize integration headaches.

Longevity as a business practice

Continued updates to both hardware and software are essential for keeping oil and gas systems fielded for long-term deployment. Working closely with the forward and backward compatibility of the software development platform, the hardware side of the equation requires consistent, high-quality components and flexible materials planning. Creative and proactive programs add value, helping to protect investments in long-term product lifecycles. Oil OEMs should expect technology investments backed by a focus on longevity by design with extended support programs readily available.

Best-practices checklist

It's ideal to address all these options as a checklist. Asking key questions can solve problems early and ensure reliability when shifting to an integrated HMI/SCADA platform. In addition to seeking a hardware and software platform that is proven and feature-rich, OEMs should ask for details on a vendor's historical record of consistency and long-life production in products for the market. What are typical development and deployment times, and can other customers attest to the seamlessness of the process?

This is particularly important given the unique deployment scenarios found in oil and gas environments, for example, computing settings that can range from dry and dusty to Arctic cold. Does the system handle a range of PLC and industrial interfaces, with application notes and case studies available to demonstrate systems in action? How much expertise supports the integrated HMI/SCADA platform, including years in business? How many HMIs and SCADA licenses are deployed and supported?

Request details on oil and gas experience as well as familiarity with other ultra-rugged industry segments. Increased insight here will have an impact on product performance. Are environmental concerns addressed for hardware performance, including differentiators such as IP ratings, ruggedness validated for extended temperature and designs incorporating processors on a long-term embedded roadmap? What reliability and compatibility tests are performed and are they continually evolving with industry needs?

Before making a technology investment, ask for specific planning commitments that ensure the HMI software's forward and backward compatibility. Does that include assurances for hardware/software compatibility moving forward for new operating systems, drivers, and firmware? Can the system be accessed via mobile and cloud-ready platforms? These are essential questions that establish future flexibility of the SCADA application. It may be worthwhile to choose a flexible tool that offers both options.

Can the vendor further minimize OEM costs by delivering not only hardware and software, but also the OEM's custom application, pre-installed, tested, and ready for deployment? Ask for assurances that costs are firm and committed. This applies to contract services as well as software customization, technical support, and product availability for the long term. Lastly, for remote oilfield deployments, it may be critical to work with a manufacturer offering training, such as webinars or on- and off-site classes that can help operators avoid unknown challenges or unexpected delays in the field.

A new era of data-driven oil and gas development

Asking the right questions can help determine your best options for advanced HMI/SCADA platforms that are driving the oil and gas era of access to data anytime, anywhere. These high-availability, open-platform systems are capitalizing on long-term product development roadmaps, commitment to longevity and reduction of costs while optimizing performance all the way from wellhead to corporate offices. In the field, integration is seamless, customized, and protected from runaway costs.

The real market goal is integrating people, process, and technology, and integrated HMI/SCADA systems reflect this priority. By blending software and hardware to simplify development, reduce timelines, and ensure compatibility, collaborative relationships between hardware and software industry partners are adding value in a volatile technology market. This higher-end integration is opening the door to reduced development resources without sacrificing performance or system longevity in the process.

- Martin Rudloff is the chief technology officer at Corvalent. Edited by Eric R. Eissler, editor-in-chief, Oil & Gas Engineering, eeissler@cfemedia.com.



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