The influence of information technology (IT) on operations technology (OT) has many benefits, but does web-based engineering make sense for a distributed control system (DCS)? Configuring a DCS in a browser would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but today it is an integral part of Siemens’ SIMATIC PCS neo, as is the ability for multiple users to collaborate on the same project.
This ARC View is part of a series of reports that look at various innovative aspects of Siemens’ new concept for process automation in the areas of operator empowerment, collaboration engineering, and system robustness.
The Value of Collaborative Engineering Tools
Collaborative engineering happens when multiple users work together to resolve conflicts, agree upon courses of action, or work toward common goals that serve their mutual interest.
According to Siemens, SIMATIC PCS neo was developed with the next generation of process engineers in mind. This involved extensive research into the future needs and expectations of users. One lesson learned is that to attract young engineering graduates, the process industries must embrace modern technologies, from programming languages to user interfaces and collaborative tools that offer convenient, familiar features. This is a challenge considering the age of the installed base and the long lifecycles of process automation systems, so Siemens took a clean-slate approach during the development of SIMATIC PCS neo to learn how engineering tools will be used in the future.
A Single Version of the Truth
Today’s medium to large-scale process projects are often a collaborative effort among users based in locations around the globe. A typical project may consist of equipment makers in Europe, and engineering services providers in India, all coordinated by an EPC based in the US. Companies struggle to manage multiple versions of projects and configurations, especially when several users work on a project simultaneously. In fact, ensuring “a single version of the truth” has been the goal of process engineers for decades.
Advantages of Web-Based Tools
Web-based engineering tools are an ongoing trend in many technical areas, but they remain rare in process automation, where engineering tools developed decades ago are still in use. Legacy engineering tools are often standalone software that was never designed for collaboration and have been updated repeatedly over the years to run on the latest computer hardware and operating systems.
No Software, Just a Browser
Web-based engineering tools require no application software to be installed, so the user need not worry about software updates or hardware compatibility. Instead, the engineering environment is accessed via a web browser. This means that new features are available to users without updates, and the software vendor can reduce the number of targeted hosts supported to a handful of readily available browsers. Not all browsers are created equally, so Siemens provides a list of test browsers and versions.
Using a browser to configure a DCS may at first seem unusual to process engineers accustomed to engineering workstations. To the user, the browser becomes a window into the process of configuring parts of a large project. Today’s HTML5-based browsers can easily mimic the graphical environment that was previously the domain of complex engineering tools. For workstations, most browsers can be configured to operate in full screen mode and to restrict access to other apps and/or operating system functions.
A key advantage of web-based engineering tools is that they allow multiple users to collaborate on a project simultaneously, regardless of their location. All users work on the same configuration files and data, which are stored in a single location and updated in real-time. Central management of configuration files makes it much easier to manage large projects as they are engineered around the clock by multiple users, each with clearly defined privileges.
The recent pandemic provided the final proof of the advantages of web-based engineering tools, when many process engineers found themselves locked out of the office or plant. Those with access to engineering tools via a browser were able to continue working from home – and not just on their own, but in parallel with their whole team around the world.
Change Management and Project Recovery
Central management of project data is an important feature of engineering tools. Web-based engineering tools greatly simplify change management and project recovery because the critical project files and data are managed from a single location, helping to ensure high availability and quality of service.
In multiuser environments, these features play a critical role because they document all changes with a timestamp, allowing changes to be tracked and traced and, if necessary, rolled back to a previous version. For example, if the plant’s performance changes after a turnaround, the engineering team can call up previous project versions and ‘roll back’ to one if desired. New modifications can be tested with the freedom to revert to the current version at any time with the click of a button.
More Efficient Engineering with Templates and Spreadsheets
Familiar, modern features help engineers concentrate on the task at hand rather than worrying about process or syntax. Engineering tools today must also support concepts that help shorten engineering time. This is possible with support for industry standards or the use of reusable modules, such as templates or companion specifications that describe a particular function or device. Examples range from pre-defined, pre-tested control loop templates to users managing a plant’s IO list in Excel and importing it directly into the DCS with a simple command.
Engineering Made Easy
While designing the new user interface for SIMATIC PCS neo, Siemens emphasized the user experience (UX), a term used frequently nowadays in reference to industry software. According to Siemens, while process control is inherently complicated, the process of DCS configuration doesn’t have to be. With a common workbench for all automation tasks that is consistent and easy to learn, the company claims that SIMATIC PCS neo helps guide the user through tasks, for example, by highlighting objects commonly used together and filtering out components that are not currently relevant. Like with office software, a simple undo feature lets the user revert to a previous version in all aspects of the project.
There is a cultural change happening in the process industries. As the industrial world opens to the advantages of modern information technology, software is taking on a pivotal role in both engineering and operations. At the same time, young engineering graduates are entering the workforce with expectations of how to share and apply their newly acquired skills. Despite a plethora of installed systems, technology in the process industries must keep pace with these developments.
Siemens developed SIMATIC PCS neo with this goal specifically in mind. Rather than updating existing engineering tools, the company started from scratch by designing a new user interface around web technologies that support a multiuser environment. The result is a fresh approach to the old science of process control based on principles of openness and collaboration – just what the next generation ordered.
ARC Advisory Group clients can view the complete report at ARC Client Portal
If you would like to buy this report or obtain information about how to become a client, please Contact Us.
Keywords: Siemens, SIMATIC PCS neo, Operator Empowerment, Collaboration Engineering, System Robustness, Distributed Control System, Process Automation, ARC Advisory Group.