Open standards tackle digital complexity for process automation organizations

Process automation organizations often can’t take advantage of advances in digital technology due to the lack of interoperability between operations technology (OT) systems, but open standards can be a way forward.
By Ed Harrington, The Open Group July 13, 2018

The operations technology (OT) systems used by the critical infrastructure and automation industries are referred to as process automation. These industries, which include oil & gas, utilities, pharmaceuticals, and mining, are always on and are defined by the legacy systems that help them function. Now, these organizations are looking beyond today’s legacy systems for common technologies that help them balance requirements for uptime and safety with the ability to take advantage of digital data. These industries are turning to open standards to help them. 

Tackling digital disparity

Every organization has its specific challenges. How a control system in the mining industry, for example, will turn data into insights and ultimately into an action varies from other industries such as oil & gas. Despite this disparity, organizations in the process automation sector share common goals such as interoperability, reuse, configuration, standard interfaces, and the ability to integrate best-in-class technologies. Finding this common ground and using those concepts across many different products and processes will be key to moving control system capabilities toward digital transformation.

The business case for digital transformation

When it comes to digital transformation in process automation industries, many organizations lag behind other industries due to a lack of interoperability between systems within individual facilities. The main reason for this is the firewalls and air gaps in place between control systems provided by different vendors as well as the often-outdated technology prevalent within these companies. Automation and control engineers must be able to pass data freely between systems within their organization. However, this can be challenging due to many factors such as different operating languages and security concerns.

The ability to share data freely between different systems will be key to tackling digital complexity in this area. The exchange of data would not only streamline business processes, but it is more cost effective to have interoperable systems. If there is a safe path to digital transformation, automation companies willing to embrace technological change will unlock significant cost savings and efficiency. The technological developments needed for control systems within plants are as advanced as those happening within tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google. 

Improving organizational efficiency

As facilities within critical infrastructure and automation industries will rarely be shut down, operational efficiency is a major focus. For these industries, gaining operational efficiency needs to come from digital transformation. This does not require a rip-and-replace approach, however. Instead, organizations should view this as an opportunity to improve the functional capabilities of their facility and move to a software environment that extends the life of their traditional legacy systems.

Open standards = safe path to digital transformation

An open system will ensure digital transformation initiatives can be done at a low cost and can drive innovation with very little disruption. These systems will allow costs to be driven down, which makes the investment more valuable. In the critical infrastructure and automation industries, businesses will continue to aim for zero or minimal downtime, flexibility in the process, safety improvements, reduced costs, and speed to market. In today’s complex digital landscape, companies should harness the best of both information technology (IT) and OT to transform the capabilities of automation and control, creating improved efficiency and production outcomes. 

Looking ahead

Process automation organizations often can’t take advantage of advances in digital technology due to the lack of interoperability between OT systems, but open standards provide a way forward. Manufacturers still need to consider throughput, uptime, safety, security, and costs, but any new system will need to match or beat current capabilities while providing additional benefits that may not have existed with their old system. Connecting previously unconnected machines starts the process of extracting data to improve organizational processes.

Looking ahead, we can expect to see many companies within the critical infrastructure and automation industries turn to open standards to help them improve organizational efficiency. This will be key to helping them grapple with digital complexities in 2018 and beyond.

Ed Harrington is the director of The Open Group Open Process Automation Forum. Edited by Jack Smith, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, jsmith@cfemedia.com.

MORE ANSWERS

KEYWORDS: open standards, open process automation

Organizations operating in the process automation sector share commonalities in the desire for interoperability, reuse, configuration, standard interfaces, and the ability to integrate best-in-class technologies.

The ability to share data freely between different systems will be key to tackling digital complexity.

An open system will ensure that digital transformation initiatives can be done at a low cost and can drive innovation with very little disruption.

Consider this

Has your organization considered turning to open standards to help improve organizational efficiency?