A process control system is like an institution – it is around for a long time and it is hard to change. So how do you go about modernizing an institution like a process controller? Siemens has a plan. While details are scant, the company appears ready to showcase its new web-based concept for process control at the upcoming Hanover Fair in April. What exactly will the company show? For now, we can only speculate based on a few teasers.
Software is the Future of Automation
“Rethinking” is not the same as “redesigning”, and Siemens’ claim to be rethinking process control technology is the first hint. Apparently, the company is NOT planning to introduce a whole new hardware platform for process control. Why should it? We know that software is the future of automation solutions and that existing hardware is fully capable of supporting today’s automation software and, mostly likely, the software of the future.
Siemens’ SIMATIC PCS 7 platform is more than 20 years old, but its hardware has evolved over time to take advantage of new advancements in processor and memory technologies. All new hardware would cause a disruption as customers carefully watch the success of pilot projects and wait for feedback about everything from usability to firmware bugs.
Web-based Concept for Process Control
From its brief teaser/press release, the focus of the new process control concept appears to be solely on the software. From ARC’s own research we know that user requirements are changing. Users want more openness, better engineering tools, multi-user support, and better access to process information, among others. Siemens already acknowledges that the new concept will be completely web-based and will allow multi-user access to both engineering and operator stations.
“Web-based” suggests engineering tools that run in a browser rather than in dedicated applications. While today’s browsers are highly sophisticated, anyone with experience using common office software in browsers versus their desktop counterparts is aware of certain caveats and pitfalls. Let’s hope that Siemens takes this into account and helps users learn to trust the browser as the (stable!) window into their processes.
Combine Data Sources to Create a Digital Twin
Siemens’ teaser also mentions a new tool called PlantSight, that it claims can “draw data from several different data sources to enable rapid access to previously unattainable information”. This suggests anything from digital dashboards to visualization software, areas in which the company is already highly experienced. The obvious next step here is to convince process users of the value of using these data to create a digital twin of both the product and the process, as is now common in many discrete industries. This philosophy is already a core belief at Siemens, so the company will likely use its new process control concept to help process users achieve their digital transformation.
Siemens has something big up its sleeve. Instead of polishing up an old institution like the process controller, the company appears to have rethought how we will use process control systems in the future. That makes us curious about next month’s Hanover Fair!