Open Process Automation Forum Redefining Next Generation DCS

Author photo: Harry Forbes
By Harry Forbes
Technology Trends

Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) is call for a new generation of industrial control systems that will be much more virtualized and “software-defined”

In response to the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF), a forum of The Open Group, many DCS suppliers are defining a new generation of products in which industrial control systems will be virtualized and “software-defined” to a much greater degree than today.  This OPAF effort was initiated by ExxonMobil in 2016.  This largely end user-driven initiative seeks to define “a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture that applies across multiple process industries.”  The functions of any DCS in today’s plants could be replaced by these new systems, which consist of both servers and small automation edge devices.  ExxonMobil sees its existing industrial control system (ICS) applications moving gradually from the installed DCS to these small devices or to on-premise, high-availability servers that can virtualize them.

OPAF’s goal is to standardize on ISA95 level 1 and 2 functions

OPAF focuses on standardizing systems for ISA95 level 1 and 2 functions.  These are basic inputs and outputs from field devices and regulatory control function block execution.  Today, these functions are performed in proprietary DCS and PLC controllers, which are sized to support roughly 100 to 1,000 function blocks each.  ExxonMobil and other end user firms envision automation systems with many more, but much smaller, process controllers.  These smaller hardware devices would control as few as one to two loops each, creating what are in effect microservices for process automation.

Proof-of-concept system moves initiative from the realm of possibilities into reality

David DeBari, Prototype Lead Engineer for the OPAF program at ExxonMobil, worked closely with a team at Lockheed Martin and others to develop a prototype proof-of-concept system based on the OPA architecture envisioned by ExxonMobil and the industry standards identified by OPAF.  In a first-of-a-kind presentation on the proof-of-concept system at the 2018 ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, DeBari proudly reported that “We’ve been able to transform from the art of possibilities into a running, proof-of-concept system.”  For those in the industrial automation industry who have been discussing these types of open automation system “possibilities” for decades, this was exciting news.

OPAF member suppliers participating in this initial proof-of-concept project included R. STAHL, which provided basic I/O; Schneider Electric, which provided intelligent I/O; Intel, which provided distributed control nodes (DCNs); NXTcontrol (recently acquired by Schneider Electric), which provided both DCNs and a software controller; ABB, which provided additional soft controllers; AspenTech, which provided advanced process control (APC) software; Inductive Automation, which provided a human-machine interface (HMI); ANSYS, which provided a second HMI; and Wind River, which provided the Real-Time Advanced Computing Platform (RTAC).

As Mr. DeBari explained, the objective for the proof-of-concept project was to demonstrate the feasibility of the architecture to deliver the targeted multi-vendor interoperability through standards (without resorting to gateways or translators), interchangeability to enable components to be individually and freely replaced between vendors (without having to modify the underlying logic), configuration and application portability, and application development flexibility.

In addition to a quantitative assessment of the market and associated analysis, ARC’s recently updated market analysis report on Distributed Control Systems includes information on the Open Process Automation and related initiatives to help clients stay up to date on the latest technology, regulatory, and industry trends. This includes information about the latest developments from the key global suppliers and standards organizations. The research report also discusses longer-term trends impacting this market and its growth over the next five years.

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