From the inception of the digital technology revolution, automation system architectures have been defined based on the constraints imposed by hardware, software, networking, power and cost imposed by the available technologies. For example, the earliest process control systems were comprised of single computers due to the high cost of computers at that time. These systems morphed into distributed control systems (DCS) with architectures defined by cost and the networking technology available at the time. Initially the DCS architectures were based on bus or ring networks. As networking technology expanded, flexibility of automation architectures likewise expanded to include multilevel busses, rings, meshes.
The result is that today’s automation system architectures do not match the natural topologies of industrial plants and enterprises. Such statements have been received with a hint of surprise. Automation companies do not often consider that there is a natural topology to industrial enterprises – but there is. If a lead engineer at an industrial site is asked to describe how the plant works, they will eventually get to a discussion on the equipment assets that perform the work of converting raw materials and energy into useful products. These equipment assets are grouped into higher level unit asset sets, which are in turn grouped into area, plant, enterprise and value chain asset sets. The natural topology of industrial enterprises is based on their asset hierarchies while automation system architectures have little or no relationship to the industrial topologies.
On first inspection this mismatch may not appear to be problematic. But matching traditional automation systems to industrial operations can add a significant amount of work and time in the execution of automation projects and the ongoing operation of automation systems. It can also lead to an increase in errors due to confusion created by the mismatch. Industry professionals learn the specifics of the operations they are working in – including the asset hierarchy. When an automation system is utilized, they are forced to learn the specific architecture of the automation system, which is different from the plant topology, and to implement the control system. When digital automation systems were emerging, there was no choice other than working to reconcile the plant architecture with the automation system architecture because the aforementioned technology constraints left little choice to the automation suppliers. But with the advent of technological development, such as IoT, IIoT, Fog, Cloud, Edge and the like, new levels of agility in system architectures are enabling flexible automation system architectures. These architectures will be able to be close matches to natural industrial topologies making them much easier and less expensive to implement, operate, and maintain.
This is how we see the Future of Automation!
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