Plant & Works Engineering
Accelerate your digital transformation
Published:  11 December, 2020

A digital transformation strategy that includes upgrading to a modern distributed control system can help producers improve productivity and reduce risk. Blair Wilson* and Lisa Ridgely* report.

Producers and manufacturers in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods, and food and beverage to mining and chemical are adept at navigating the complexities and challenges of staying competitive. You must protect profits and optimize production by expanding throughput, decreasing downtime, improving consistency, maintaining quality and keeping employees safe. You also must consider the life-cycle costs associated with engineering, inventory, and system maintenance and support.

Throw a worldwide pandemic into the mix, and it becomes clear just how important it is to be as productive and profitable as possible while reducing operational risk. So how does a process industry producer or manufacturer like you move beyond the status quo to keep up with industry and technological trends? How can you take operations to the next level of sophistication and innovation to help achieve success and growth in the short and long term?

A one-size-fits-all solution just won’t cut it anymore. It’s time to get surgical about solutions. Enter: Digital transformation enabled by the modern distributed control system (DCS).

Develop a digital transformation strategy

Digital transformation can be described as modernizing, upgrading or improving operations by integrating digital technology into all areas of your business. It’s a fundamental change that challenges the status quo and traditional operational thinking for any producer or manufacturer.

Fortunately, it’s an ongoing process and doesn’t have to be accomplished all at once, and ranges from starting with smart sensors to implementing multifacility enterprise systems. Digital transformation is a fundamental, cultural shift impacting how organizations work, how the plant floor operates and how value is delivered to customers. It’s about outcomes and meeting ever-changing customer needs. It’s a systemic change for any producer.

Those who have successfully executed a digital strategy at a plant or enterprise level are seeing major improvements in KPIs such as asset utilization, quality and on-time delivery.

Yet, many producers and manufacturers haven’t been able to develop an enterpriselevel digital transformation strategy, which is critical to proving its business value. Some may still be figuring it out. Others are stuck in the pilot phase without the ability to scale, while others lack the talent with right skills around IIoT, data analytics and cybersecurity. Lastly, leadership buy-in is critical.

Developing a strategy for your digital transformation means determining objectives and business goals, assessing the system needs to achieve those objectives, and planning the execution of your strategy. A good question to start with is, “Do I need an upgrade?”

Is an upgrade in your future?

A traditional DCS features a closed system design, is typically difficult to migrate and modernize, and has a higher total cost of ownership in most cases. The modern DCS can offer higher performance, site-wide availability, scalable system capabilities, the open technology stack and ease of integration.

A plant-wide control system using common automation technologies supports seamless integration for process control, discrete control, power control and safety control with plant-floor and business systems.

If you think your DCS has run its course, you’re not alone. The global DCS installed base nearing end of life totals about US$65 billion. And many of these systems are more than 25 years old and in dire need of updating.

Why is there such a backlog of outdated systems? Many are keeping a plant running, albeit not as well as it could. Often, organisations would rather live with the pain an obsolete system inflicts than be subjected to the perceived risks and costs of migrating to a modern system.

Some firms consider replacing their legacy DCS because they’re experiencing increased failure rate, higher incidence of off-spec product, accelerating maintenance costs, lack of legacy DCS expertise, capacity limitations, and inability to interface with contemporary systems.

Modern DCS and modern challenges

The latest DCS platforms have kept pace with technological developments. A modern DCS can help build a Connected Enterprise as part of a digital transformation strategy. These platforms can reduce the architectural footprint with fewer servers and more powerful controllers, support consistency with native process objects in the controller, streamline workflows with an improved design experience of system attributes, provide robust analytics for real-time decision-making, and align with international cybersecurity standards.

This means a modern DCS should help producers achieve plant-wide control and optimisation, maximise operations, achieve high availability, reduce costs and increase production. In essence, it makes life simpler. It’s also designed to address three major challenges faced almost universally by producers and manufacturers:

1. Increasing productivity: How can you best innovate when disparate systems throughout the enterprise create bottlenecks and inefficiencies? The sheer amount of information from supply chains, plant assets and business systems can overwhelm teams trying to function in real-time or create a new concept. Rapid improvements in technology allow producers to access more information than ever for decision-making purposes.

2. Doing more with less to help the bottom line: Production teams must do more with less to meet budget expectations throughout their plant’s life cycle. Your operators must find ways to gain the visibility and control needed to reduce unplanned downtime, prevent quality issues, and eliminate waste from production. Producers are looking for plant-wide automation that’s easily updated and supported, and technology must help the plant remain in continuous operation.

3. Reducing operational risk: Risk is everywhere and takes many forms respective to your network infrastructure, the backbone of your system. Even when contingencies are considered, unforeseen events can impact safe and reliable plant operations. As you identify factors that contribute to various risks, you need systems that can navigate dynamic conditions and that allow them to aggressively respond armed with information. And, as threats shift from operational risks to external actors, control systems need to be strong yet adaptable. Are you implementing a robust infrastructure for your system?

Examples of modern DCS at work

One pharmaceutical company used a modern DCS to automate its bioprocess equipment and access data by integrating with a manufacturing execution system (MES) application and electronic batch records. They’ve seen 10 to 20% increases in production throughput, availability and production-employee efficiency, and 5 to 30% decreases in energy use, scrap material, batch-release time, maintenance, and downtime investigations.

A firm in the food and beverage industry needed to scale operations and upgrade its automation system, and experienced a 20% increase in capacity in just one year after implementing a modern DCS. The real-time data now available provides constant access so staff can make immediate, informed decisions on the fly.

Foundation of digital transformation

Digital transformation isn’t going away — at some point, every manufacturer and producer will have to start their journey. For many manufacturers, it’s considered the new normal. At its highest level, digital transformation is a foundational and potentially radical evolution for industrial producers. Embracing new technologies will fundamentally change how you do business. Evaluate your legacy DCS to see if the latest DCS platform can help in your digital transformation journey.

*Blair Wilson, is PlantPAx marketing manager, and Lisa Ridgely is from Rockwell Automation Systems and Solutions Business