Increased Span and Reduced Complexity in Process Automation

Pipeline magazine has an interesting article, The evolution of automation, which describes some of the ways automation technologies are changing plant environments. The article provides perspectives from several automation suppliers, including Emerson’s Phillip Bond.

One trend highlighted in the article is the increasing variety and lowering cost of sensing devices to measure the process. This dynamic allows more applications to become part of the process automation architecture and in turn, these applications drive more measurements.

Given this increasing span, the role of automation has moved beyond automated control to include workflow management and expert guidance. Phillip noted the trend toward:

…user-relevant task-based information in the same format regardless of measurement type, communications protocol (or delivery methodology).

Process manufacturers are pressed to look for ways to contain costs to remain profitable, and as a result:

…do more, faster, with fewer people. This requires measurement and control devices to have more intelligence, and for automation systems to be able to deliver the results of that intelligence to the right place (or person) in time to take action.

As the scope of process automation grows, so does the need to reduce complexity. Phillip highlighted one area where this is happening—in separating the underlying digital communications protocols from the presentation of the information to the operators and maintenance staff. He shared:

…an operator does not care how a process value came to the system – he just needs to know if he can trust it. Similarly, a technician should not need to figure out protocols in order to fix a faulty device.

I’ve touched in many Electronic Device Description Language (EDDL)-related posts, how this standard helps separate the view of the information from the underlying HART, WirelessHART, Foundation fieldbus, and Profibus protocols.

Phillip sums up his thoughts on these trends going forward:

…the next level of innovation is not about the devices and the systems, but about how people interact with them… The step-change in productivity that is required this decade will result from removing complexity.

Process automation technology seems to have taken a page from consumer electronics and its trend toward simplicity and intuitive, human-centered design.

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