An industrial control system (ICS) is essentially responsible for keeping a plant running safely and efficiently. Despite its critical importance as the digital center of plant operations, too often the maintenance activities and critical technology upgrades the ICS needs are sidelined when working with outdated machinery and turbines. During tough market conditions when organizations are financially strapped, the tendency may be to limit maintenance activities to high priority issues only.

Because control systems are more digitally outfitted and connected than other physical assets in industrial environments, they must be updated more frequently than the turbines or other equipment that they control. They need to be continuously monitored for potential upgrades that can improve their overall performance and changes in operational behavior that could indicate dangerous equipment flaws or cyber threats on the network. While a turbine may only need to be updated every half century, the lifecycle of digital components in the control system can be exponentially shorter, typically every four to five years.

As technology advances and cyber risks become increasingly more sophisticated and persistent, the window between critical upgrades will continue to shrink. By neglecting control system maintenance, organizations dramatically increase the risk to their operations, as well as miss out on performance enhancements and advancements in technology that can improve processes. Executives and plant floor operators must ensure that three critical activities take place to maintain control systems:

  1. Conduct proactive updates to human machine interfaces (HMIs) and network hardware
  2. Establish partnerships with original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to leverage their knowledge of proper maintenance and care and to ensure use of and access to high-quality parts
  3. Upgrade ICS software and hardware to keep controls systems running at optimal performance and to protect the units from issues resulting from obsolete hardware

1. Be proactive about HMIs

HMIs are the primary access point for control systems, providing operators with a direct connection to their physical equipment. While HMIs serve as an interface to industrial assets, their visibility is limited to the internal mechanisms of larger assets. As a result, operators are not always aware of impending problems. HMI systems include a range of components — witches, cables, PCs and servers — that all need to work together. If operators neglect to update these components, the system as a whole can put operations at serious risk.

Current HMIs have unique advancements, such as dedicated alarm and event management functions, integrated programming and real-time monitoring, as well as the fastest turnover of any asset in an industrial facility, and they require frequent upgrades to guarantee that the system continues to function properly.

Despite their critical role as the window to the industrial facility, HMI upgrades are often neglected, which can endanger human safety, equipment and operational output. For example, without critical upgrades, a network will not operate at optimum speeds. A slower network speed can mean that the system is not achieving real-time updates, resulting in delays in determining and reacting to operational issues or complete equipment failures. Additionally, without updated equipment, operators may not know whether all backups are in place and working if a failure arises. In downstream environments, one hour of unexpected downtime can cost an organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost production that could be prevented if the HMIs were properly updated.

Outdated HMIs are also more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats. With an estimated 1.3 billion workers already participating in Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), a number that is only expected to rise, employees more frequently use their personal devices to access networks and, as a result, unknowingly introduce threats to the ICS. For example, if an employee opens an email attachment with malware on a phone and connects the device to an HMI network, the malware could infect the entire system.

Many systems still use Windows XP, an operating system that is no longer supported by Microsoft, resulting in more vulnerabilities and increased exposure to attack. Further, if an antivirus package is out of date, it most likely has not updated its virus definition. As a result, the system will not be protected from any malware identified since the last upgrade, and nearly 1 million new malware threats are created each day. In fact, 91 percent of power generation organizations experienced a cyberattack in 2013, and these attacks increased by 100 percent from 2013 to 2014. Regularly updating HMIs means the system will be better protected from internal and external security failures that could put production at risk.

2. Take advantage of collaboration

control systems

Establishing partnerships with OEMs ensures proper maintenance and the use of high-quality parts.

Beyond HMIs, fast-paced technology advancements push machine components and spare parts into obsolescence more rapidly. If these older components fail, operators in turn put increased pressure on the entire operational infrastructure. To avoid unexpected failures and lack of support for available resources for older parts, organizations must transition their business strategy to focus on long-term partnerships with their vendors. Building relationships with OEMs that have the resources to provide training to operating teams,
support for obsolete equipment and fluid upgrades when needed means operators will be prepared when technology moves faster than their ongoing maintenance operations are prepared for. OEMs also have the ability to train employees to effectively perform necessary maintenance activities and understand the particular needs of a unit to predict and prevent failures.

Additionally, OEMs can perform a comprehensive analysis to verify if spares are still using current technology or need to be updated because spares’ quality deteriorates even when they are not in use. An analysis like this should take place on a biannual to annual basis, which also gives operators the opportunity to discuss any recent issues and what can be done to maximize the output of the unit. As time passes, subcomponents may no longer be available for purchase. Additionally, because of the triple redundancy built into many control systems, these components may need to be replaced in threes, which means operators cannot purchase a lone part from a third party and expect the system to operate smoothly. Purchasing parts online from an independent supplier can be tempting, but this comes at the risk of not knowing if the component can or will be successfully integrated into the system and function with the other parts — a risk that can be solved by consulting the expertise of OEMs.

3. Embrace new software & hardware

The Industrial Internet is projected to add $10 trillion to $15 trillion to the global gross domestic product in the next 20 years. This means industrial operators will rely more on the latest ICS software and hardware to increase system performance and reliability. Software is at the heart of the Industrial Internet, providing insights into operations previously not available. Software allows operators to increase efficiency and reliability, providing data for performance analytics, analyzing systems before and during startup to avoid issues, and helping determine new alarm rationalization to save operator time. Keeping control software current allows engineers and operators to take advantage of these improvements.

In addition, control systems consist mostly of digital components that are continually being upgraded and improved upon. These components can often deliver benefits to the customer for overall communication speed of the system, resulting in a reduction of time to start-up the unit, make changes to operating parameters or refresh data on the HMIs. All of these benefits can drive economic advantages to a facility.

Maintaining control systems is essential to ensuring that plant operations run smoothly. Even when an ICS is connected to older machinery, keep in mind that the control systems require frequent upgrades and run independently of older plant equipment. Individuals typically do not delay software updates for their personal computers or smartphones, and plant operators need to adopt the same mindset when considering updates for an ICS. By staying on top of HMI, software and component upgrades, operators will have a more holistic view of their operations and the increased ability to prevent unanticipated downtime and cyber incidents.  

Nathaniel Martin is a product line manager for GE Oil & Gas who is focused on industrial control system life cycle management, distributed control systems and HMIs. He has nearly a decade of experience in product management. Martin has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado and an MBA in finance from the University of Denver.