Companies developing multi-vendor prototype that is open and secure

ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin are working together to build a multi-vendor interoperable prototype that is a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture, with commercially available software and hardware components.


The gauntlet has been thrown down. One of the major automation users in the world wants to streamline its technology architecture where it is more open, more interchangeable and easier to address.

Oh, and at the same time, it has to be secure.

That challenge has hit the industry and ExxonMobil said at the ARC Advisory Group 20th Annual Industry Forum in Orlando, Fla., it wants that mandate filled within the next three years.

To get there, ExxonMobil signed on integrator Lockheed Martin to build a multi-vendor interoperable prototype that is a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture, with commercially available software and hardware components.

The reason for that is pretty clear and it is something users in the industry have been talking about for years. Times are changing and, especially in the oil and gas industry, the days of tying into one supplier for a distributed control system (DCS) are about over.

While a facility may have multiple DCSs from different vendors, however, they are not interoperable with each other. That has to change and ExxonMobil and Lockheed want to develop a proof-of-concept for an open process automation system.

Change with meaning

"It is no longer sufficient to to just solve a problem, we have to do it as efficiently as possible," said Sandy Vasser, facilities instrumentation and electrical manager for ExxonMobil Development Co., during his keynote at the ARC conference. "The number of projects are the same, but we have to think differently."

The new approach characteristics Vasser discussed include:

  • Reduce customization and rely on standardization. "We don't want to do engineering to order. We want to be specific in our orders. We want to order standard solutions."
  • Reduce complexity and simplify
  • Eliminate, simplify or automate processes
  • Reduce number of dependencies
  • Reduce the amount or automatically generate documentation
  • Take managed risk
  • Develop and enable trust with our suppliers and contractors.

As a result, Vasser said suppliers need to offer products that can "Age in place. We are asking to replace pieces at a time to keep things up to date," he said. Meaning no system stays in place for 30 to 40 years anymore.

With that mandate, it means technology needs to be secure by design.

"Security cannot be reactive," he said.

Vasser added users and integrators keep bolting on more and more security which helps keep things secure, but it can become way too cumbersome.

"If we keep going this way, we will have a secure system that does a little bit of process control," Vasser said.

Remaining viable

During his part of the keynote, Don Bartusiak, chief engineer at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering, added to the concept of truly open systems.

Over the coming decade at ExxonMobil, he said, there will be a significant percentage of control systems that will face obsolescence. So to remain competitive in an industry that right now is not doing all that well, companies must lower capital costs which should improve profitability.

The problem is with entrenched DCSs in place and anchoring facilities across the globe, yes, you can update, but it does not allow users to reap the benefits of new technologies that can take advantage of any derived benefits.

Plus, he added, security is not intrinsic to the system. It is, in fact, not built on, but bolted on.

After laying out the scenario of what the industry looks like now, Bartusiak talked about taking advantage of the trends already in existence from other industries.

He added the defense avionics industries, for which Lockheed Martin is a major player, have transitioned from a proprietary stovepipe model to a fully open and interoperable system architecture. If the manufacturing industry can make that transition, then they will be able to take more advantage of opportunities from the Internet of Things (IoT), wireless, and cloud services.

Acting as a backbone to the entire open system concept, Bartusiak said new security models are emerging to enable more secure data flow between the operations technology and the IT side.

"We have to do more than just slap on a firewall, we have to do a fundamental change," he said. "That will mean security is built in intrinsically."

Breaking away from tried and true technology

ExxonMobil's approach is a bold move for an industry that prides itself in remaining loyal to tried and true to technology that works. The problem is it needs to take advantage of the boost new technology will bring.

ExxonMobil's goal is not to just develop this type of open system for themselves, but a commercially available system for the industry. Why? While there are multiple reasons, but one major thought is the more users demand this type of system, the more it forces suppliers to acquiesce.

The future is staring at the industry and it is only a matter of time before everyone catches on to this sea change in automation philosophy. It is interesting how everything seems to lock in together like a bicycle chain: Open technology, interoperability, plug and play parts, safety, all covered by a secure, protected environment.

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control

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Anonymous , 03/23/16 10:15 AM:

Additionally I personally believe a new platform should provide for new innovative functionality in devices. Most systems are limited to the functionality of 4-20 mA and on-off signals. These signals limit the capabilities devices can provide. Due to the high cost of hardwiring these signals point-to-point only part of the I/O certain types of devices provide were actually wired, further limiting the functionality the plant can gain from the device. By instead using digital fieldbus, the amount of functionality that can be put into a device is virtually limitless. Many innovative devices not possible with 4-20 mA and on-off signals already exist, and many other enchanted devices can be envisioned for fieldbus. Plants built on fieldbus can adopt these innovative devices as and when they become available. Learn more from this essay

Oh, and at the same time, fieldbus has to be implemented in control systems with “device profiles” to make devices interchangeable for easy replacement.

By providing fully digital systems which are user friendly, we could see the same level of innovation in automation we have seen with digital cameras, smart phones, and tablets etc.

By standardizing on fieldbus there is no need to customize I/O for 4-20 mA in, 4-20 mA out, discrete DC in, AC in, dry contact, DC out, relay, AC out, thermocouple, RTD, and pulse/frequency etc. signals.

Since fieldbus makes no difference between input and output devices, or scalar and discrete devices, and does not care how many signals each device has, it is easy to handle instrument design changes such as an on-off valve change to a control valve or an electric actuator / motor operated valve (MOV) because there is no changes to the system or wiring. They are all the same because in fieldbus all signals are virtual communication relationships, not physical wires. Adding more devices to an existing junction box is also easy. Perhaps controllers will be a box with fieldbus and Ethernet ports – without traditional I/O cards?

With fully digital devices, networked from the very first meter, the sensors and actuators, the plant is fully enabled to migrate to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and associated business models whenever they feel they are ready.
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