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Impact to operations, a main concern

Impact to plant operations is the leading consideration when upgrading process automation systems, according to recent research. Other very important considerations: manufacturing cost pressures, changes in the process, and getting needed bug fixes.

Process automation systems have progressed beyond the traditional distributed control systems, but many familiar concerns remain among users, such as reliability, help-desk support, and upgrades.

Control Engineering’s and Reed Research Group’s survey shows newer systems are more reliable, and 37% expect to spend more and 43% about the same in the next 12 months on process automation systems.

For this survey, a process automation system (or distributed control system, not a single controller) is defined as the collective sensors, logic, and actuators that operate as one working process unit in a plant. The logic portion (software and boards) can be from one vendor and other pieces may be from others.

Process automation systems generally boast a long list of features and capabilities, but not everyone makes use of all of them. When asked their level of implementation of these process automation system features and capabilities, 96% reported using the human machine interfaces (HMI), 55% using them extensively, and 41% using them somewhat. This is followed closely by commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software, with 95% usage — 53% extensively and 42% somewhat. Ninety-three percent reported making use of the ability to keep existing I/O wiring, with 40% making extensive use and 53% using it somewhat.

Multi-vendor support is also commonly used, yet while 63% of respondents make some use of this, only 27% make extensive use. Similarly, although integrated system architecture was used by 88%, only 35% answered that they use it extensively, while 53% use it somewhat.

Wireless technology is moving ahead, but it has not yet taken over. While 51% of respondents make at least some us of it at the system level, 49% do not, and even fewer use it at the I/O level, with 53% making no use of it there.

On the “less popular features” end of the list, 67% of respondents report making no use of language support (German, French, etc.).

Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they planned to upgrade, migrate, or replace their process automation systems. Asked how they planned to go about that, 64% said they would do it in small portions spread out over 24+ months, 13% in large portions taking 12 to 24 months to complete, and 8% in large portions fully completed in fewer than 12 months. Very few (4%) planned to do it all at once (during a shutdown).

Respondents gave a variety of reasons for going to a new process automation system. Among those staying with the same manufacturer, many responded that their old system had become “unreliable,” “parts were hard to get,” or “don’t have to de-terminate thousands of I/O,” and the like. A good number wanted increased capabilities, and many showed appreciation for the supplier they had; one mentioned “good customer service,” another mentioned “major improvements,” and another simply said “TRUST.”

One said the reason for the change was “being forced to do so by that manufacturer, which triggers a review that could dump them, also.”

Among those who preferred to change manufacturers, a typical reason was “cost, performance, capabilities, reliability, level of customer service.” One user said simply “HELP DESK.” In fact, lack of support was one of the most frequently cited reasons for switching suppliers of process automation systems.

Users advice: Migration, cost

Respondents offered advice about features, implementation, purchasing, migration, or other matters concerning process automation systems. One said to get in-house architecture and system requirements in place, and determine process requirements and growth allowances before requesting bids. Another warned that “consideration of software intra-operability and personnel training/support requirements must be taken into account in evaluating new system(s).” And several said that cost was not always a good guide; as one put it, “It is sometimes ill-advised to consider cost as the main determining factor when selecting systems. What may save money in the short term may be more costly in the long term.” And perhaps the simplest advice was this: “Do your home work.”

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