Shift in control system technologies, design

Project execution using a process control system highly integrated virtual environment melds software and networking to uncouple control applications from physical equipment, and controllers from physical I/O. This reduces capital cost by shifting from customization to standardization and eliminating some non-value-added work.

By Jason Urso September 11, 2019

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace, and process control technologies have responded by adapting Lean project execution principles, software, and networking to decouple control applications from physical equipment, and controllers from physical input/output (I/O). Modular designs allow multiple controllers to form one virtual controller. Such technologies used in the connected global economy help business decisions to be agile and accurate.

Processes must execute with speed and efficiency. Projects must be completed on time and within budget. Workers must have the ability to react to changing circumstances with confidence based on available and precise data. Technology must enable success, not hinder it.

Few technology environments are more complex than those required for industrial control systems (ICSs). These environments must incorporate critical functions including cybersecurity, redundancy, high-speed networking and deterministic operations. This helps customers control safety-critical process manufacturing facilities with the highest levels of reliability.

Process control systems (PCSs) have served the process industries well over 30 years. Many opportunities to harness the power of new technologies and make a step change in benefits remain. For example, the process industry continues to have an opportunity to drive down capital cost by shifting from customization to standardization and eliminating significant amounts of non-value-added work. Further, with installed systems, improved operations continue by converting data into knowledge and transforming knowledge into more precise action.

Ultimately, the process industry has more opportunity to execute projects in less time with lower risk while improving throughput, quality and operational reliability. Decades of implementations and customer collaborations provide first-hand knowledge of the pain points impeding project efficiencies and limiting customers from achieving and sustaining best operations. Helping customers overcome these roadblocks has resulted in a new approach to deploying and operating ICSs by integrating a virtual environment.

Lean automation projects

Automation can be implemented effectively by applying Lean execution methods for automation projects. Such a strategy removes the traditional dependencies that used to force project flows to be sequential by combining universal I/O devices, virtualization, virtual engineering and automated commissioning.

Doing so separates physical from functional design, breaks down task dependencies, uses standardized designs, and enables engineering to be done from anywhere in the world, resulting in significant risk and cost reductions.

Less complexity, modular design

New generations of control system technologies use Lean project execution principles, software and networking to unchain control applications from physical equipment and controllers from physical I/O. This enables control systems to be engineered and implemented in less time, at lower cost and risk, and with simpler, modular builds.

This transforms how control systems are maintained over their lifecycles, shifting day-to-day management of servers to a centralized data center, where experts and established protocols mitigate cybersecurity risk, allowing plant engineers to focus more proactively on control system optimization.

Eliminating complexity, decoupling control from the physical platform and reducing information technology (IT) costs can remove roadblocks preventing simplified control system design, implementation and lifecycle management for project operations.

Architecture differences

Moving I/O to the field shifts the process control system closer to production units. Control centers are jammed with customized system cabinets along with massive amounts of wiring with little documentation. Distributing the control system closer to the process equipment achieves greater project savings with fewer wires and engineering hours in a smaller space.

Some facilities have implemented remote I/O strategies to reduce project costs, but other opportunities are inherent such as modular and parallel project execution.

To achieve the next generation of benefits, consider a high-speed Ethernet field I/O network that connects controllers to universal I/O mounted in the production areas. Such communications should be cybersecure with a built-in firewall and enhanced with encryption technologies where needed while providing the technology to accommodate an inevitable increase in the amount of sensed data.

Four architecture advantages

Benefits of such an architecture include these four aspects:

1. Universal I/O discovery capability allows a controller to access any networked I/O module and channel. A traditional approach of controller to I/O communication requires a direct one-to-one physical connection between controller and I/O cabinet. Networked I/O eliminates a significant amount of planning and manual work. The system designer engineers the control strategy and assigns it to a controller and it will find its relevant I/O. This decreases project engineering planning and engineering.

2. Packaged control capability provides a simple software option to deliver redundant control with high-speed performance. As a process controller subset, these control capabilities are ideal for packaged equipment and provide regulatory, sequence and logic controls. This eliminates the need for complicated subsystem integration.

3. A universal wireless hotspot provides wired or wireless communication to field instruments and allows each field I/O box to be a wireless hotspot, if needed. This enables field workers to execute digital procedures with live access to control system data during commissioning and operations.

4. Modular commissioning provides the ability to commission field I/O cabinets independent of the control system. With this capability, controllers can run on a laptop, plug into the remote cabinet at a module yard and perform a set of commissioning activities as if connected to the rest of the control system. With this flexibility, modular builds spanning multiple yards becomes simple.

These combined capabilities provide significant engineering, enabling projects to execute in less time with lower risk. For example, eliminating the risk and re-work inherent to late changes ensures automation does not become the critical path [bottleneck to completion]. Adding a new I/O as a result of change extends the control system network without requiring complicated changes to the control system.

One virtual controller

Traditional control engineering during a project requires meticulous planning since it is driven by a rigid hierarchical approach defined by a tightly bound physical relationships between controllers and I/O. Inefficiencies, re-work and risk materialize during seemingly inevitable late changes to I/O or controls that require a physical reconfiguration of the system.

By allowing multiple physical controllers to appear as one virtual controller, the control architecture becomes a controller data center where process controls can be automatically load-balanced across the available controller computing resources. The advantages are powerful, especially when applied to the processing of late changes. This avoids the need to manually assign control strategies to specific physical controllers.

Consider the following results:

  • Eliminating assignments of controls to specific physical controllers; control strategies are assigned to the controller data center.
  • Automatically allocated and load balance controls to available controller resources, saving time and promoting efficiency since a physical configuration is no longer a roadblock. Any controller can communicate with any I/O.

Cut process control IT costs

The virtualization technology described reduces IT costs by eliminating the amount of physical IT nodes by as much as 80%. However, even with that effort, a large IT infrastructure remains onsite for reliability and scope of loss reasons. Lifecycle costs decrease by using virtualization, which replicates virtual machine files from offsite to the onsite location.

This fault-tolerant architecture enables operations from a central operations center or a regional data center. By shifting the majority of a process control IT infrastructure, central operations becomes possible, eliminating costs associated with control system IT infrastructure deployed at each industrial facility. This architecture includes the same level of high reliability expected for critical process control.

This approach to multi-site consolidation enables the standardization critical to an efficient foundation for maintaining the process control IT infrastructure, which is considerable when deploying a control platform enterprise scale. For example, consider the simplification in assuring consistent deployment of Microsoft Windows patches, antivirus updates and process control system releases.

The result? Process control engineers can focus on optimization rather than performing administrative tasks.

Faster commissioning

A distributed virtual architecture changes the relationship of assigning devices to I/O modules, control strategies to controllers, and compute resources to servers. For example, rather than physically running fiber-optic cables from a central control room to add a field cabinet, the cabinet can be added to the new architecture and benefit from universal I/O discovery.

Adding a controller to increase spare capacity? Traditional processes require rebalancing the control or moving control strategies and related I/O modules and device recommissioning. Contrast these three late-change scenarios with the newer platform’s process:

  1. Add a cabinet to architecture.
  2. Add another controller to the architecture.
  3. Load new control strategies.

Less work increases project speed and efficiency by decoupling the assignment of I/O modules and control strategies from specific controllers. Knowledge workers can focus on the group of controllers. This modern approach to designing and maintaining ICSs provides the next generation of benefits.

Jason Urso is vice president and chief technology officer, Honeywell Process Solutions. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Virtual process controllers, modular I/O

Lean project execution helps control system design.

High-speed Ethernet field I/O network enables smarter designs, cybersecurity.

Design the controls, assign to a controller, and it finds its relevant I/O.


Streamlined control designs will enable benefits more quickly.

Author Bio: Jason Urso is chief technology officer for Honeywell Process Solutions.