New goals for process automation: continuity, safety, and security

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For decades, industrial automation systems have progressively improved process efficiency and productivity. But that productivity is facing a growing number of risks, from outside and inside the plant. Fortunately, modern automation systems are beginning to include design elements that can help you mitigate the risks to your plant’s operational integrity.

Operational integrity means maintaining production, business continuity, safety and security. The main risks to achieving these goals are:

  • Increasing volume of business and big data
  • Industrial accidents
  • Cyber terrorism or other attacks
  • Keeping up with technology requires more processing power
  • Floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters
  • Poor planning

To reduce these risks, ‘future proof’ automation systems now integrate a group of essential characteristics to improve reliability and protection, as well as speeding up recovery in the case of a breakdown.

More data needs faster processing and access

As the speed of business increases, the amount of raw data generated in your plant continues to grow. Process automation systems that offer I/O mixing and matching capabilities can add processing power when needed. This means you get the performance you need to process extra data without having to replace your entire system, protecting your asset investment.

Beyond processing power, the efficiency of your control systems also requires fast access to historical data. If your organization is running multiple plants with multiple control systems, you’re typically dealing with multiple data historians. New, multi-tiered historians will aggregate a wide variety of sources into a single parent historian, offering an efficient, single point of access to millions of points of data.

Multi-level redundancy boosts resilience

Traditionally, HMI workstations experience temporary loss of view as a request to the server fetches back data from the controller for display. Though efficient enough for PLC-driven applications, this lag may not be acceptable for more complex control strategies. A newer approach is to configure each workstation to fetch data directly from the controller. A network of 1-n HMIs increases resilience, keeping data access open and enabling troubleshooting and disaster recovering if one or more workstations go down.

In emergency shutdown applications, PLCs need high redundancy to avoid potentially hazardous conditions. An architecture based on triple-modular redundancy has proven effective for avoiding failures. An advanced communication module brings data from the safety system to the same HMI and historian shared by the controller, while an asynchronous mode keeps the safety system functionally isolated, allowing users to integrate as tightly as their policies require.

To protect against large-scale natural disasters, state-of-the-art systems mirror the operation of control logic in remote backup locations. As CPU, operating system, and communications are relatively contained, virtual machines can be more easily moved between host computers. This enables a variety of fail-safe scenarios with different levels of redundancy. If a failure occurs in one plant, a backup disaster recovery system mirrored on the other side of the world can be used to get it up and running again, within minutes or even seconds.

Systematic cyber hardening

Industry analyst Frost & Sullivan reports that there’s been an exponential increase in cyber threat levels during the past decade, primarily targeting industrial control systems. Even standalone legacy plant systems are at risk of cyber-attacks, due to the new technology that may have been added over time. To be most effective, cyber security considerations must be designed into the system from the start, and organizations including Microsoft, Symantec, and standards and regulatory agencies are recommending systematic hardening per evolving guidelines. Two examples of reducing vulnerabilities include strengthening password management and avoiding unused programs, systems and ports. Achilles Certification from Wurldtech can help confirm a system surpasses the industry benchmark for the deployment of secure industrial control devices.

Virtualization reduces time and risks

Operational integrity can also be affected by challenges faced at the implementation stage. Virtualization helps eliminate some of the bottlenecks, allowing engineers to design, test and debug an automation system from anywhere in the world. For example, the design of the cabinets and wired processes can be decoupled from the field device type. Standard cabinets can be designed early and programming later for the chosen field device types. Virtualization enables software-configurable I/O characterization to be done remotely, while reducing risk at the implementation stage by simplifying global collaboration on all aspects of the system and I/O. In addition, multiple process designers or contractors can test and validate concurrently at several locations instead of solely at the equipment site.

Controlled obsolescence

It’s always best to swap out parts before they fail. For the sake of cost-effectiveness, many large building complexes are now replacing large numbers of lamps together, at intervals based on expected lifecycles. This can be done during off-hours, helping preserve business continuity. Similarly, if your plant has a detailed roadmap for the lifecycle of each component, you’ll know when it’s reaching the end of its useful life, and can schedule replacement to reduce the risk of unplanned shutdowns.

To learn more about how advanced automation systems are delivering new layers of protection at every level, refer to the Schneider Electric white paper ‘The Protected Plant: How an Automation System Mitigates Risks to Operational Integrity’.

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