The forces reshaping tomorrow's Distributed Control Systems

Since its introduction more than four decades ago, the distributed control system (DCS) has made enormous contributions to the safe, efficient and reliable operation of innumerable industrial processes around the world. In this podcast, Keith Larson, editor-in-chief of Control Global talks to Mark Taft of ABB about the forces reshaping the distributed control system (DCS) landscape and how ABB is responding to them. 

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This is an edited extract from a Control Amplified podcast first published by Control Global in Oct 2021. For the original, complete transcript and recording of the podcast, please visit the Control Global link.

Keith: There seems to be a confluence of more user-driven initiatives towards openness, OPAF, in a way modular automation, to name just a few. They've shown real promise and they all seem to be headed in complimentary directions. What do you see as the motivating force for some of these movements? And how do you expect they'll affect ABB's DCS offering in the months and years to come?

Mark: This is an important development in our industry. Before I talk about the objectives, I should mention one of the key differences about these initiatives, having been through several of these in the past and watching such standard activities as they've evolved. From my perspective, in the past, most of those standards activities were initiated by and driven by the suppliers with some nominal level of involvement by customers (mainly just to check what we were doing and confirm it made sense for them). But now, it's really key to see how involved the customers are, considering the fact that they have initiated these activities. Because of that, I feel that there will be a much broader adoption and engagement, and ultimately, they will achieve their objectives.

If I think about the objectives that they're aiming at, I believe there's two major drivers and some underlying factors as a result of that. One of the drivers is that some customers have been frustrated by the fact that lifecycle costs of supporting their automation assets are higher than they'd like them to be. In addition , with their current control system infrastructure, the cost and agility for innovation is not where they'd like it to be.

Customers are looking for rationalization of lifecycle costs of automation assets and a more cost optimized and agile innovation

The general feeling is that the cost and effort to innovate or to add new functionality, or to enhance the functionality of their automation has been too high and has taken too long for them to implement. 

Our customer's businesses have changed and their strategies have changed over the last 20 years. And the result of that is that they've overhauled the portfolio of products that they want to take to market. That has led to some divestments and some acquisitions. So, we have a number of companies who for years focused on one or two suppliers for their automation, and now they're faced with a portfolio of very diverse automation technologies. This is putting stress, especially on their central support organizations.

Customers are looking for a more simplified engineering and commissioning paradigm than what they've been faced within the past. Many of them are finding themselves having to be more agile and reconfiguring their manufacturing processes to deploy new product variants. And in addition to that, there are customers building plants in parts of the world that just don't have automation expertise available - so they need a system that automates the commissioning of those systems and is not so reliant on having expertise on the ground to do that.

Changing customer priorities, acquisitions, and altering market landscapes gives rise to need for a renewed focus on control systems structure and architecture.

How does that affect ABB? ABB for the last 30-plus years has invested a lot in ensuring that our existing customers can deploy new technology in an evolutionary manner, and to do so in a way that allows them to continue to utilize the application intellectual investment that they've made and carry that forward through each technology change.

There's no doubt that the standards that are evolving are going to shape our future offering; and we are certainly committed to ensuring that our next-generation technologies are consistent and support the requirements for those standards. But we want to do it in a way that allows our existing customers to continue to carry forward their intellectual investments in the future.

It should come as no surprise that ABB is paying very close attention to the technological and demographic winds of change that are really reshaping how automation gets done in the 2020s and beyond.

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