Process automation is the term most used when talking about computer technology paired with software specifically engineered to help industrial plants or factories operate more efficiently and safely. Before process automation was implemented, individuals would have to physically monitor the components and outputs of a plant or factory. While this would have been an attractive option for the operational side of businesses looking to keep quality control at the highest possible point, it has become an obsolete practice because of process automation hardware and software. Process automation gives businesses the opportunity to implement systems that can run on a constant rate of high productivity and accuracy that is near 100 percent.

Process automation software

Automation software has evolved significantly during the last 10 years. Connectivity to devices and to other networks has significantly improved. It is now easier to connect multiple components within a factory and have them work in a collaborative fashion, giving rise to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Not only do the systems work collaboratively through the use of software, but they are also able to store data about the plant’s operational efficiency, productivity and quality. The storage of the data from the plant’s software is then used to make sure the components and overall factory are being operated as efficiently and energy consciously as possible. If there are changes that need to be made to the software, making those changes and having them reflected across the entire system is easier.

Additionally, the software’s ease-of-use has significantly improved over the last decade. Features have been added to automation software that make it possible to do much more with the systems that are in place. For instance, connectivity to a SQL database for data logging or recipe retrieval previously required separate software that had to integrate with whatever control software was used. This would take extra time, waste manpower and leave the information shared between the SQL database and the retrieval open to easy corruption. This is not the case anymore. Most automation software packages on the market include features that help integrate the information between systems and databases. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software is the primary category of software that helps integrate the information shared between components. But there are other products that now include that functionality at other levels such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which can write directly to an SQL database.

Another advancement in automation software that has come in the last 10 years deals with coding. Coding in PC languages such as C# has become streamlined and more prevalent. It is now commonplace for individuals to program software so that it can be customized to the specific automation needs of their plants. Additionally, the streamlining of PC languages has somewhat erased the former differences between them. The coding languages include tools so that the software being programmed is created in a shorter period of time and with fewer coding errors. This ultimately saves companies money in coding, reconfiguring and troubleshooting.

Finally, the internet has become a vast repository of example configurations, sample programs and application notes that make selecting and programming an application less risky than before. The internet has given a voice to the people who previously could not express any concerns or issues regarding complications with automation software or software configurations. Now, with information friendly message boards and multiple sites dedicated to researching and reporting on the pros and cons of automation software, users are able to accurately choose a package tailored more closely to their needs, which leads to fewer hours spent in the customization process.

Importance of software

Process control and automation can have many control elements, such as:

  • Temperature controllers
  • PLCs
  • Valves
  • Analog and digital sensors
  • Analog and digital outputs
  • Specialized process devices or controls, such as spectrometers or mass flow controls

Each may have its own special software for configuration and monitoring, and each may have its own protocol for communicating with the outside world.

Process automation software generally includes top-level software that interfaces with all these devices either directly or indirectly through other software or hardware.

It monitors and manages their actions, allows interaction from human operators, displays, logs and transmits information about the process, and receives process instructions from other computers and databases. Sometimes the top-level software is considered the “traffic cop” because it stands between all other devices and software to help manage the flow of operation.

The elements needed for process control are control, sensing, visualization and communication. Any software can be considered “process automation software” if it includes the ability to:

  • Control using logical algorithms
  • Sense what is happening at the process level
  • Display information to the user and allow user interaction
  • Communicate to many different devices and protocols
  • Indusoft’s SCADA software, Visual Basic, C+, C#, LabView and WonderWare are just a few of the software packages that fall in the realm of process automation software.

Software selection

The selection of the software is just part of designing the overall process control system. It is easy to get into a “chicken or egg” situation when deciding which software to use.

Engineers could start with the software they want to use (or have experience with) and then select only components that have a proven track record of interfacing with that software. For example, an engineer could have C# libraries already written for Modbus communication, so he or she would only want to use hardware that has a Modbus interface.

On the other hand, engineers could have a hardware preference and would only use software that can communicate with their hardware choice. An example of this would be an engineer who preferred an Omron PLC and needed software capable of communicating easily with that hardware.

Different factors go into designing a control system, but even though communication to discrete devices and controllers has gotten easier, picking the products from a vendor with a proven track record for performance, support and reliability is recommended. In addition to ensuring that a vendor(s) for software and hardware is reliable and knowledgeable, it is important to consider these factors:

  • Size and complexity of the application
  • Who will program the system
  • Who will support the system
  • How long will the system need to last
  • Which desired features will to creep in over time
  • Scalability and expandability
  • Security
  • Cost

During the last 15 years, new software and business models have come into the market. Many are new names previously unknown, which makes adopting them in critical applications that need guaranteed, long-term support risky. However, they are pushing the existing industry players into updating their business and software models to embrace the modern changes in technology. These changes include technologies based on the internet and the cloud. For instance, web servers, remote users, and the ability to move information and control easily from one location to another are now more readily available for commercial-scale industries and process automation software packages.

The functionality already exists in many platforms but is largely untapped. This includes the ability to remotely control and monitor systems, not from a centralized control room, but from users’ mobile phones and tablets. These features are mostly untapped because of security concerns, and “security” also refers to someone being able to actually observe a system in person and not just see it on a screen.

Operators would unlikely want to allow remote control of pipes carrying toxic fluids or a robot picking up expensive products from a conveyor. Many companies will allow remote monitoring, just not remote control.

What do all the cloud-based features really do for the industry? Here are a few tasks:

  • Remote monitoring for production and quality purposes
  • Remote maintenance decisions and troubleshooting
  • System data aggregation from multiple locations
  • Sharing variables and data between systems

Why are people using these features? In reality, companies have been doing this for decades. Many people think the IIoT is a new concept. However, it is just a new name for something that has been in use for more than 20 years.

The difference is that, previously, all code, programs, process automation software, and the infrastructure had to be custom developed and was expensive. More and more, though, the cost is dropping to allow even small companies to take advantage of the same sort of capabilities because standard, off-the-shelf products are cost-effective and easy to implement.

The buzzword for the future is IIoT. The connectivity promised by the IIoT is already being realized in process automation software. Manufacturers have envisioned system-wide communications and have been devising schemes for such communication between devices and machines as well as process controllers for years – from controller to controller and controllers to PCs with plant-wide visualization. What will progress in the future is the ease with which these communication tasks are accomplished. Devices, controllers and software will be designed to be more cooperative and brand neutral in their communications.

The Ethercat industrial network promises to help speed up I/O level communications while simplifying wiring and making integrating other discrete controls easier. Ethernet/IP has long been a standard protocol, but it too is getting easier to use as new tools are being developed and understood.

Corey Foster is an application engineering manager at Valin Corporation and may be reached at cfoster@valin.com. Ray Marquiss is a senior application engineer at Valin Corporation and may be reached at rmarquiss@valin.com. Valin Corporation is a solutions provider for the technology, energy, life sciences, natural resources and transportation industries. Valin offers personalized order management, on-site field support, comprehensive training and applied engineering services using automation, fluid management, precision measurement, process heating, filtration and fluid power products.

Valin Corporation – http://www.valin.com