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Knowledge is power

“You can’t manage a process if you can’t measure it,” says Schneider Electric vice president – global SCADA activity, Chris Crowe.

The company’s SCADA business, formerly known as Citect, is famous for bringing us the first Australian-made SCADA system, and Schneider Electric’s continued investment in these products has maintained the home brand’s competitive advantage, says Crowe.

Plant operators benefit from a locally-designed SCADA system as they gain easier access to a development and support team which is able to convert customer needs into efficiency drivers in all areas of their process, according to Schneider Electric.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition, it is a solution that allows businesses to integrate their plant information for the benefit of increased output and simpler maintenance. SCADA translates different sources of information – for example temperature, conveyor speeds, power use and product/materials volumes – into a single database, connecting it together into a uniform report for plant operators to use.

A SCADA system provides easier access to this information, allowing users to pin-point problems with their production line and even prevent downtime through predicting how their machinery will act.

Integrating plant information

For a manufacturer or control plant to manage its business accurately, it must have access to all the information used to form a process. In an automation or control environment, this information must be measured in real-time as every second of the process counts.

A manufacturing plant could use a SCADA system to measure two levels of information: the enterprise, which includes finance, human resources and inventory and is measured weekly or monthly; and the plant, which includes process control, packaging and material movement information which is measured up to the second.

To understand a plant, the operator must have all this information at his/her fingertips, which is where SCADA comes in. Before SCADA was around, plant operators had to travel around the plant, measure each piece of information manually, and collate it. And to make things more difficult, each piece of equipment in the plant would be using a different, vendor-based protocol.

“Nowadays you can sit in front of the SCADA system, which talks to all the dissimilar devices out there in the plant, polls them in real-time, collates all the information and presents it in one summarised view for the engineer to use to pin-point a problem area,” said Crowe.

Once this information has been obtained, an engineer can use the SCADA system to speak to the plant equipment to correct a problem.

“If you had equipment overfill or a jam before SCADA came along, your equipment or product could be damaged by the time you realised. With SCADA, you can use trends to predict failures,” said Crowe.

Know your process

Schneider Electric views wireless technology and the importance of service-orientated architecture (SOA) in the operating plant as key developments in the information integration arena. The use of ethernet and LAN in the plant is an exciting set of technologies to watch in the future, said Crowe.

“If every device on the plant floor become internet- or IP-aware, getting information from each device which carries a sophisticated brand protocol would be easier. Everything could connect everywhere,” he said.

In terms of software, Crowe says service-orientated architecture (SOA) is “changing our world”. SOA is all about allowing various business applications to talk to each other and share data, as a cost-effective solution to improving total system quality. This includes distributed smart embedded components or devices with communication, information processing and embedded intelligence.

“SOA is a big game-changer in the IT area,” said Crowe. “If there’s one thing that’s going to help information integration across an enterprise, it’s SOA. Today you’ve got so many operating systems including Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, SCADA, and MES, all doing their own thing. But we want to connect together and share information.”

SOA is a global standard, and CitectSCADA customers including mines and processing plants are increasingly demanding SOA compliancy, according to Crowe.

“We’re developing our infrastructure within the SOA framework,” he said.

“It allows us to co-exist with different vendors. Today businesses will buy best of breed – systems from different vendors – and they’ll want those different-branded systems to co-exist and work in harmony. We’re all pushing SOA. With big companies asking for solutions, one of the things they put in their tender requests is: are you SOA compliant?”

Customers’ needs are the drivers for future technology trends, and suppliers like Schneider Electric are obliged to develop solutions which bridge existing plant architectures and new SOA frameworks, says Crowe.

Looking to the future

Companies that provide solutions like Schneider Electric are weathering the financial storm this year not only because they offer scalable answers, but also because their offerings ultimately help plant operators to manage and therefore optimise their processes and output.

“In the tougher times I think our customers will stay with us because companies have to be more efficient and smarter at how they run their business,” Crowe said.

Schneider Electric has seen a swing in the market of late, and instead of investing in capital projects, its customers are leveraging existing infrastructure to drive efficiency and productivity. The company says that solutions vendors are in an ideal position to meet their customers’ control and process needs over specialist suppliers. It also says that its offerings can be extended throughout the plant to answer customers’ energy efficiency needs and also claims it can help them to make up to a 30 per cent energy saving when working with today’s technologies.

“This is a plus for us looking forward,” said Crowe.

Schneider Electric

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