Processing Magazine

Workstation 'virtualization' takes process development off-line

August 22, 2012

When a production plant looks to install a process-control system, specifying the computer workstations is one of the first jobs done. Besides eventually being used by operators to manage production, the workstations initially are the platform for process development, fitting the software template to the specific application. Sizeable projects, even then, can run 18 months or more prior to process certification.

Some find it ironic that by then those workstations often have already been surpassed in the marketplace — in terms of computational power, functional features or form-factor optimization — by newer models.

This is just one example of how process-industry production plants struggle to take advantage of the latest automation technologies. In general, the need to maintain production is the most important factor inhibiting efforts to modernize. Plants often delay or cancel upgrades when installation would involve prolonged — or even more expeditious — shutdowns.

To gain time and space for continuous improvement, an information-technology concept with a science-fiction moniker — a.k.a., virtualization — may be finding a home in the automation world. For the example cited, virtualization makes it possible to put off workstation delivery until the final process specifications are clearer. More generally, at least one major automation supplier sees virtualization playing a big role in helping processors modernize while maintaining production output.

At its recent user conference, IT automation supplier Invensys Foxboro demonstrated the impact it says virtualization will have over the next several years. Already making use of it are the pharmaceutical industry and others that must validate their processes for regulatory purposes. And it’s a technology well-understood in data centers around the world.

But anytime an IT technology intrudes into the process engineers’ production domain it’s a potentially touchy situation.

A physical computer, quite obviously, is a complete and actual machine, but a virtual machine, such as a server, is nothing more than a set of files and programs running on another server, of which the user may be actually unaware. Operating systems, networks, storage and servers can all be virtualized.

In data centers, a single server may take the place of multiple servers, even “running” multiple operating systems. Resources aren’t as constrained by the number and identity of individual physical servers, processors and operating systems.

In the automation world, this same capability, to model a server in software using virtualization, allows process development, testing and change management to be moved offline, to virtual servers that accurately mirror the process conditions as apprehended by the workstations.

Besides virtualization, other emerging and emergent technologies contribute to efficacious modernization efforts. The wiring of process control systems may seem like a prosaic matter, but it’s usually one of the most labor-intensive and minutely detailed tasks associated with a project. Use of wireless or of “intelligent marshalling” — in which a kind of bus is used to simplify making connections — can make otherwise cost-prohibitive projects look more attractive.

Supervisory control software has been a constant state of evolution and improvement over the last 25 years, and for Invensys Foxboro this culminates in Foxboro Control Software 3.0. In addition, the availability of infrastructure platforms such as Archestra, provide multiple benefits, including enhanced coordination, flexibility and ease in meeting regulatory requirements.

There’s no question that IT-based automation can improve productivity in process operations. The bigger question is justifying the investment in light of on-going production and other economic considerations. But the reasons for embarking on modernization efforts are growing. Both the technologies mentioned above and pressing issues related to process modernization will be the subject of a feature article in the October issue of Processing.