Leveraging the OT edge to navigate process manufacturing
As plants adjust to meet the realities of a new global marketplace, an evolving control system with secure operational technology (OT) edge technologies will help lead the way.
- Modern distributed control system (DCS) software is providing more capability at the edge to drive innovation and performance improvement.
- OT edge solutions can connect to IT systems in the cloud or on premises, providing access to the user without needing to physically access the DCS.
Process manufacturing, DCS, cloud insights
- The cost and complexity of accessing the critical data connected to the distributed control system (DCS) is a challenge for process manufacturers.
- Process plants can connect their DCS to the cloud via secure operational technology (OT) edge computing technologies to deliver data to a central location.
As process manufacturers head into a new era of manufacturing shaped by new pressures from the global marketplace, connectivity is taking center stage. Gone are the days when almost every plant kept its operational technology (OT) separate from the internet. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the performance benefits gained from connecting to the cloud. Additionally, the expectation of a new generation of workers to stay mobile with information at their fingertips – in the plant, at company headquarters, and even at home – has broken down many barriers between information technology (IT) and OT. This has created opportunities for enhanced connectivity, where once there were only perceived liabilities.
Among challenges faced by process manufacturers when working through this IT/OT convergence are the cost and complexity of accessing the critical data connected to the distributed control system (DCS). Traditional DCS architecture can trap valuable contextualized data under many layers of controllers, requiring complex engineering to make that information available in a secure and efficient manner.
However, modern DCS software is providing more capability at the edge to drive innovation and performance improvement. As plants modernize their DCSs, many are now implementing cloud-integrated systems with OT edge technologies to securely deliver data in real-time to the wide variety of software platforms used to analyze, evaluate, and improve performance across the enterprise.
Visibility of control and optimization data in real-time
Personnel shortages, supply chain pains, sustainability initiatives and a cloud-connected world have all acted as catalysts for change in process manufacturing. Many companies are no longer able to sustain a deep bench of expert personnel at each plant to drive reliable and efficient operations. This has led staff to embrace constant connectivity, helping drive new, innovative technologies to do more with less.
Today, plants can connect their DCS to the cloud via secure OT edge technologies to deliver data to a centralized repository, where cross-functional teams can use them to make better business decisions. Using data diodes, zero-trust architecture, and other technologies, engineers can ensure transmission is entirely one-way – from the control system outward – enabling secure visibility of control and optimization data in real-time. Moreover, these same OT edge solutions can connect to IT systems in the cloud or on premises, empowering teams across the enterprise with highly contextualized control system data, without the need for anyone to touch the DCS for information access.
Modern architectures and protocols, such as Ethernet advanced physical layer and OPC UA, are creating a bridge between OT and IT, enabling easier connectivity and more data flow. Smart sensors can use this advanced technology to collect data from a wide array of equipment and pass it directly to reliability and analytics software at the edge, simplifying engineering by completely bypassing the controllers (Figure 1).
The DCS is evolving, empowering worker skillsets
While today’s available DCS modernization technologies are exciting, it is the emerging technologies just over the horizon that will shift the paradigm of process control. Many control system manufacturers have noticed the skillset advance of today’s personnel, where the lines between IT and OT personnel have become thinner. To meet the needs of this new generation of plant personnel, forward-thinking organizations will begin to implement more extensible DCSs, providing a sandbox environment where highly capable personnel can use their skills to develop new options for customization.
DCSs with HTML5 frameworks and application programming interfaces (API) will empower advanced users with the capability to create customized packages for specialized operations. In addition, increased programming capabilities will provide plants with the tools they need for more advanced process optimization, focused on their industry and on their unique needs for technologies, strategies, and resources.
Engineering the future: DCS, OT edge
The future of process manufacturing is in highly specialized, highly customizable operations that unlock the agility necessary to quickly meet changing needs. The technologies both existing and emerging at the OT edge – securely linking the DCS to cloud computing – will play a central role in enabling cross-functional teams to collaborate so they can constantly meet the needs of the global marketplace. As plants begin to modernize their control technologies to meet the challenges of the coming decades, automation system architectures designed with security, flexibility, and connectivity in mind will be critical to generating value across the lifecycle of the equipment. Implementing OT edge technologies will dramatically simplify that effort, while cutting costs and accelerating implementation.
Claudio Fayad is vice president of technology of Emerson’s Process Systems and Solutions business. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keywords: process manufacturing, edge computing
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