How a modern DCS can improve plant operations and enable digital transformation

Oct. 14, 2021
With a modern DCS, chemical processors can achieve plant-wide control and optimization, maximize fixed-asset utilization, minimize unplanned downtime and reduce operating costs.

The chemical processing industry is facing many challenges, including skilled workforce gaps, increased competition, margin erosion and regulatory compliance. Yet, too many chemical producers continue to rely on outdated distributed control systems (DCS) that do not meet current demands, much less take advantage of technological improvements that help drive productivity and improve environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance.

As a result, chemical producers are missing out on opportunities to maximize fixed-asset utilization, reduce unplanned downtime and improve product quality, all while keeping employees safe and protecting the environment.

Since the DCS is the automation “brains” of chemical production processes, it offers one of the best opportunities for producers to modernize their operations. This article shares insights on how a modern DCS can have a major impact on plant operations and provide a strong foundation for a successful digital transformation journey.

Drawbacks of a legacy DCS

Before discussing the benefits of a modern DCS, let’s take a critical look at their aging predecessors, many of which have been in service for more than 20 years. Over their life cycle, there have likely been different implementations of applications using different programming styles. The result is a control system that makes support difficult and costly, which in turn, makes it even harder for operators to cross-train on different units. Each of these systems require specialty service and parts, are costly and difficult to integrate with other systems, and rely largely on tribal knowledge to operate and maintain. With roughly half of the industry’s workforce eligible to retire in the next few years, maintenance of these systems will become even harder.

So, while the legacy DCS performs its basic function of controlling production processes, it cannot contribute much more. In contrast, a modern DCS uses standard library technology, complies with ISA standards for high-performance graphics and alarm management, and simplifies operations by improving situational awareness. In addition to improving efficiency of operations personnel, it also enables digitalization, which helps process engineers implement continuous improvements — and helps executives make critical business decisions in real time.

Let’s take a closer look at the how and why.

Accelerating digital transformation

Digitalization starts with the safe and secure flow of data from instruments, intelligent electrical devices, controllers and plant production systems. A modern DCS platform aggregates all this data and integrates with enterprise-level systems to enable the use of visualization and industrial internet of things (IIoT) applications. This puts a fact-based lens on what is happening on the plant floor and why, empowering leadership to identify opportunities for improvements across people, processes and equipment, and measure progress against desired business outcomes. The integration of process and power data into one information-enabled solution helps chemical producers get the most out of their resources. These capabilities also inform the executive level, giving them the right data at the right time rather than requiring them to be reactive.

A modern DCS also helps protect the critical data being collected and shared. To mitigate the potential risks introduced by the convergence of OT and IT systems across the enterprise, a robust modern DCS must comply with ISA/IEC 62443 and follow cybersecurity best practices to achieve strong industrial security for networks and systems. Cybersecurity systems based on this defense-in-depth strategy establish multiple layers of protection through a combination of physical, electronic and procedural safeguards.

Improved troubleshooting and lowering mean time to restoration (MTTR)

Data contextualization provided by a modern DCS allows operators to visualize, control and analyze operations in real time. This improves situational awareness and troubleshooting. Because the DCS generates clear, usable information and diagnostics, operators are alerted to immediate issues and gain access to the relevant details needed to address them.

For example, take the case of the operators at a chemical plant with eight processing lines. About once a month, one of the lines would trip. Due to the shortcomings of the plant’s legacy DCS, operators had no visibility into the root cause of the trip and spent 20 to 30 minutes each time locating and resolving the issue. Once the facility was upgraded to a modern DCS, the next time it happened, the team received immediate diagnostic information at the operator display indicating the cause of the trip. That enabled the team to focus troubleshooting efforts and fix the issue within minutes.

That is just one of many examples of how a modern DCS significantly eases troubleshooting and lowers MTTR, as well as lowers the risk of potential safety incidents while minimizing downtime and maximizing fixed-asset utilization.

Lowering acquisition costs and total cost of ownership (TCO)

Significant gains in processing power and capacity mark another major benefit of a modern DCS, because chemical producers can manage more control strategies and architectures with fewer controllers, which reduces the footprint, complexity and related life-cycle costs. A modern DCS also enables “report-by-exception,” which can significantly reduce architecture stress caused by alarm and event polling. For many systems, this means fewer data servers are needed.

With native process instructions embedded in the modern DCS controller firmware, project teams can adopt approaches to control strategies that drive consistency for individual projects or multi-site deployments. And, having standard libraries streamlines project deployment across the enterprise as teams modernize their automation systems. This drives down acquisition costs and lowers the TCO by simplifying the life-cycle management of deployed systems. Embedded objects also automatically migrate when new DCS versions become available, making future upgrades simpler.

Because of the standard libraries and adherence to ISA standards, a modern DCS provides a common look and feel, making it easier for operators to cross-train on different units, which shortens the training timeframe and requires less overhead. This helps mitigate knowledge gaps as longtime, trusted operations and maintenance personnel retire.

Looking ahead

Digital transformation is a fundamental change in how chemical processors operate and deliver value to customers. But the chemical processing industry is lagging behind other industries — including steel, oil and gas, and pulp and paper — that are already implementing smart digital technology to create a connected enterprise from the plant floor to corporate headquarters. For lagging chemical producers, the first step is to invest in a modern DCS as part of their digital transformation strategy. This enables organizations to manage and optimize all aspects of their production processes and supply chain and gain access to real-time data and insights that enable smarter, faster business decisions across all functions.

With a modern DCS, chemical processors can achieve plant-wide control and optimization, maximize fixed-asset utilization, minimize unplanned downtime, reduce operating costs and increase EHS performance. By enabling their digital transformation journey, chemical producers can confidently leap forward to drive the efficiency and profitability of their entire enterprise.

As a global chemical industry technical consultant for Rockwell Automation, Ramon Farach is responsible for providing industry and technical insights to help understand and solve customer challenges, develop product and service messaging, and support product development. Farach has 20 years of chemical industry experience in process engineering, operations support, process design, installation and commissioning, research and development, process control and environmental health and safety. He holds a degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech and is a certified ISA/IEC 61511 SIS Fundamentals Specialist. 

Rockwell Automation

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