Three Ways IEC 61499 Helps Process Industries To Accelerate Operational Digitalization

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IEC 61499

Global economic and market uncertainties are forcing manufacturers to adapt to frequent, high-speed changes in demand, raw material availability, and energy pricing. Such trends, combined with a growing need to accommodate increased product variants and shorter sourcing, production, and product delivery lifecycles, are prompting process manufacturers to rethink the way industrial automation systems need to work.

Technology standards are also crucial in determining how factory technologies can cope with the growing variability in marketplace demand. Many are questioning the efficacy of the traditional IEC 61804 standard in the face of the newer IEC 61499 standard, which offers a more open and interoperable approach.

Meanwhile, field implementations of Industry 4.0 smart manufacturing concepts are taking hold. In this digitalized process industry world, innovators (in this case, the emerging process industries) are leaping ahead while the laggards (traditional “heavy” industries) fall further behind. By sticking with conventional, often proprietary systems, the laggards experience the high costs of customization, modernization, and necessary integration with third-party systems due to obsolescence. Further, performance depends on application software development resources’ skills and domain expertise, which are often scarce. Given the turnover of engineers we see today, the lack of standardization makes these systems difficult to maintain. This confluence of technology and marketplace trends prompts stakeholders across process industries like energy (Oil & Gas) and chemicals, with distributed control system (DCS)-driven automation systems, to revisit their fundamental technology architectures. For many, current DCS systems adhere mainly to the IEC 61804 standard. But the world has evolved, and business requires more agility and flexibility to compete. The structure of the old standard now limits many DCS environments.

IEC 61499 opens the door to newfound agility

The IEC 61499 standard, introduced in 2005, is an open and event-driven DCS architecture for automation and control in which function blocks are the fundamental units of software encapsulation, reuse, deployment, and integration.

As an event-driven architecture, IEC 61499 offers the simplest and most efficient way to synchronize and sequence the execution of operations in distributed applications. All modern industrial automation and control systems (PLC, DCS, SCADA) are built on underlying event-driven, multitasking operating systems.

The genesis of the IEC 61499 standard was to set a foundation for industrial automation application portability that would create wide-ranging benefits.

Three benefits of IEC 61499

1. Easy IT/OT system convergence

To remain competitive, most process organizations are now investing in digital transformation, enabling the capture and analysis of data. That ability, in turn, can lead to more rapid, accurate, and profitable production decisions. However, such access to data requires a much more involved and open level of IT/OT convergence. The IEC 61499 event-driven paradigm is fundamental to IT systems’ operation and offers a simple path to IT/OT convergence.

2. Software applications that can run independently of any hardware platform

Many process industry organizations that have grown up running IEC 61804 standard DCS environments now find themselves constrained with a limited ability to adjust rapidly to marketplace changes. The configuration of their automation system is managed by the supplier of that proprietary system instead of by their engineers. An IEC 61499 environment, on the other hand, is domain-independent and programming language, communication protocol, and I/O architecture-agnostic.

3. Engineering design flexibility that can radically speed up new product time-to-market

Organizations such as the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF)  and the User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries (NAMUR) represent manufacturers advocating for changes to the existing proprietary automation systems paradigm. NAMUR, for instance, has advanced “plug and play” technology by developing a Modular Type Package (MTP) framework designed to streamline interoperability and flexibility.  

The new applicability of the IEC 61499 standard and the interest of crucial automation vendors such as Schneider Electric™ facilitates the adoption of open automation system platforms. Therefore, many ingredients are in place to help reshape the industrial automation systems playing field.

Quality support available to drive success

The long-term IEC 61499 standardization benefits of lower cost, faster implementation speed, and greater automation system flexibility far outweigh the typical 3-12 month learning curve of an initial project. Once engineers master the learning curve, deployment time savings can accelerate by 2-3x. Minimal programming and configuration work is required to implement system changes. Systems are modeled on what the specific plant has to control. The system mimics the plant’s processes and machines. Once the basic function blocks are built, changes can be implemented in a drastically simplified drag-and-drop mode.

For process industries running DCS environments, targeting a secondary process as an initial project is advisable instead of a core process. This will enable engineers to understand the nature of IEC 61499 event-driven approaches. When gaining more experience, they can expand the approach to the more primary parts of the process. Companies like Schneider Electric are in a solid position to aid manufacturers in implementing their IEC 61499 proof of concept pilots and projects. We work directly with manufacturers or through machine and system integration partners to provide support for successful, profitable deployment.

To learn more, visit our EcoStruxure™ Automation Expert page.

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