DCS, SCADA, Controllers

Three reasons to upgrade SCADA software

SCADA systems are rapidly advancing and companies should consider upgrading their software whenever possible because it will increase interactivity, planning, and communication within a company and improve the overall return on investment (ROI).

By Allan Evora October 1, 2017

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software is rapidly advancing and upgrades often are thrust upon owners and operators for reasons such as adherence to corporate information technology (IT) standards or operating system (OS) security. While some customers fool themselves into believing pushing off upgrades saves money, they don’t truly recognize the potential benefits and cost savings. Users that upgrade their SCADA software will realize three benefits that will improve their bottom line and overall activity.

1. Better and safer human-machine interfaces (HMIs)

The HMI is the portion of the SCADA system operators interact with. It’s their heads-up display. Today’s prevalence of affordable sensors means operators have more data than ever for monitoring machines, processes, and facilities; however, more data does not necessarily mean faster and better decisions. For data to be useful, it must be put into context that first makes the operator aware a decision needs to be made. Then, it must provide enough detail to determine the appropriate course of action.

The International Society of Automation’s (ISA’s) ISA-101 standards provide guidelines for building better HMIs to improve the user’s ability to detect, diagnose, and properly respond to abnormal situations. Within the standard a management system consisting of HMI philosophy, style guide, and toolkit gives HMI designers a framework for adhering to the guidelines.

Several SCADA manufacturers have introduced toolkits that allow systems integrators and HMI developers to build better HMIs. They provide built-in tools that promote designs that emphasize philosophies such as:

1. Only highlighting abnormal conditions and assigning priorities

2. Showing the acceptable range of key performance indicators (KPIs) with historical data points and future estimates

3. Normalizing values when comparing KPIs.

4. Removing graphic elements that deter an operator’s ability to detect an abnormal condition

A common method is to develop a layered approach to HMI screen design. 

  • Level 1 is centered around KPIs or variables operators need to effectively and efficiently run the machine, process, or facility.
  • Level 2 includes piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&ID), building riser diagrams, floor plans, or electrical single line diagrams.
  • Level 3 incorporates equipment details.
  • Level 4 can include instrument or sensor details, PID loop tuning, or equipment operation pop-ups.

An HMI that incorporates ISA-101 guidelines creates a safer environment for operators and maintenance personnel by ensuring abnormal conditions are not masked by distracting (and often non-value adding) HMI elements.

2. Event process benefits

A common challenge across the industry is the pressure on organizations to do more with less. The ability to have having operators in command & control centers watching HMIs 24/7/365 is limited to only the most critical operations. For all other situations, a strong event-processing module provides end users with a tool to have peace of mind even when they are away from their SCADA system.

In the last five years, there has been a significant uptick in the capabilities surrounding event processing in SCADA systems. This is not to be confused with SCADA’s ability to read inputs and timestamp them within the alarm subsystem as an event (e.g., generator started, pump running, building occupied, conveyor stopped).

Event processing is SCADA’s ability to have a logic engine that allows the systems integrator or end user to define rules or filters that, when violated or met, trigger an event in the SCADA system. The event can then be used to do any number of things.

Companies may have a rule for an event processor that checks for the following condition: If the space temperature is greater than the thermostat cooling setpoint for greater than four hours, the damper is open, the fan is running, the cooling coil valve is open, and the heating coil valve is closed then create an event called cooling malfunction in zone 1.

Once this event is triggered in the systems, users can: 

  • Send an alert notification
  • Issue a work order to the computerized maintenance management system (CMMS)
  • Generate a report showing values and statuses of all of variables used in the rule 24 hours in advance of the triggered event, and automatically email the report to the maintenance supervisor.

There is a lot of opportunity around event processing and it can’t be emphasized enough. Many new SCADA solutions now incorporate or have add-on modules to handle complex event processing, which may also be known as fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) or condition-based maintenance.

3. The cloud’s potential

The cloud already has changed, and will continue to change, the landscape of SCADA. In its most basic form, the cloud is a collection of software and services that run on the Internet. Users can have a private cloud (inside the firewall), but the true benefit of the cloud comes from the connection to the largest repository of information and networking infrastructure that exists today: the internet.

How is this significant to SCADA?

Remember when GPS first came out? A dedicated device sat on the dashboard and got you from point A to point B… assuming the latest (paid-for) map information was downloaded and installed.

Today’s GPS experience is totally different. It’s delivered on our mobile devices automatically. It reroutes us on the fly, tells us where to find cheap gas prices, and alerts us to the presence of a police car.

In the future, a car’s audio/visual systems may become merely a peripheral for mobile devices as car manufacturers realize they can’t deliver the quality of service users expect. The cloud will do for SCADA what it has done for the GPS.

Imagine a world in which we no longer worry about hardware, software, and all the tasks associated with procuring, installing, and maintaining computers, operating systems, and applications software. Increased security along with increasing bandwidth through fiber optics means we will see the day when SCADA will be sold optionally as a service. SCADA manufacturers will become merely application service providers.

This might seem extreme, but think of the benefits. Facility managers can focus efforts on solving real issues, instead of worrying about recovering from a disaster, running out of hard drive space, or the number of tags needed to support an upcoming expansion.

More importantly, integrators will be able to connect SCADA systems to business intelligence systems to make key operational decisions. SCADA will become an edge device that can publish and subscribe to information previously difficult to attain or too expensive to integrate. The cloud not only will change how SCADA is designed, but it also will connect users to data and computing resources to predict and optimize processes.

New technology maximizes SCADA’s ROI

It’s evident that SCADA systems are rapidly advancing. Better HMI designs, event processing, and cloud integration are just some of the technology trends that help customers maximize their SCADA system ROI. These technology trends should be at the top of the list of considerations when evaluating the current SCADA system and whether or not to upgrade.

Allan Evora is founder of Affinity Energy. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.