Processing Magazine

Irrational exuberance revisited — or maybe not

March 1, 2014

For no single discernable reason, the ARC Industry Forum held just last month in Orlando was incredibly upbeat. While admitting to continuing uncertainty, guys and gals seemed to be bouncing off the walls with sheer delight in exchange of information.

The event attracts automation suppliers, corporate users, industry journalists and interested bystanders in the world of IT-based automation and integration. The near-insurmountable challenge of integrating generations of technology and installed proprietary systems inhibits fundamentally the promise of computerization. And we all know it.

Pre-2008, enterprise system vendors were still trying to grow their system footprints to cover anything that moved, and some automation vendors still talked about “top-floor to shop-floor” integration. At this year’s ARC Forum, it’s clear that suppliers now better realize that what users want are tools for needed or ad hoc integrations, while not redoing what’s already in place.

More recently, as Andy Chatha, president of ARC, pointed out in his opening remarks, justified paranoia about cyber-security also serves as a brake to integration efforts. That’s why emerging corporate architectures, he says, will tend to leave process control systems in place, while business systems move to the cloud. Some important assets will be dual-facing, both to the process-control side and sharing data on the plant network.

Exxon and excellence

ExxonMobil’s Sandy Vasour’s presentation on challenging traditional practices in project management of large capital projects was especially interesting. “Automation can never be on the critical path again,” he said.

To reduce punishing project costs, ExxonMobil now looks to, among many other things, use standard hardware and do customizations in software; virtualize hardware to minimize on-site testing; simplify interfaces; and mitigate version changes and required documentation. Vasour also detailed how recent advances in I/O marshalling deliver significant cost and labor advantages.

“Technologies we’re working on,” said Vasour, “include ‘smart I/O,’ Ethernet IP-based interfaces, standardized human-machine interface, 61850 IEC, and wireless.”

Next, Donovan Waller of Anglo-American Mining said, “When it comes to the equipment we use, the remaining proprietary elements much be eliminated. Today they persist in even minor pieces of equipment. We don’t want to go into the boxes we buy. We want to make sure the boxes communicate.”

Tales of tools

Steven Toteda, GM of the wireless business unit at Eaton Control & Power, commented later, “One reason for the proprietary nature of solutions is the suppliers’ goal of offering a recipe of products. But you reach a point where it’s just too complex for a group of suppliers working with a lead contractor.”

In the main, Toteda was at the event to talk about MESH technology as the means to a seamless plant network, and the security and safety benefits that can follow from it.

Don Pearson is the chief strategy officer with Inductive Automation, a new-breed SCADA vendor that sees it as the means to aggregate data from across several operations layers. It is committed to Web-based technologies, SQL databases and the OPC standard.

Pearson pointed out that a further big structural impediment to integration and computerization is the way systems are sold, i.e., based on per-user licenses. He says with Inductive Automation, an unlimited number of clients can be applied to a server license, freeing the creativity of users.

Power-house automation vendors Invensys, GE Intelligent Platforms and Yokogawa all introduced solutions or talked about their future at ARC and we’ll look to provide updates in the pages of Processing or in our newsletters in the next several weeks.