What’s needed in process automation?

A recent survey of end users provides an extensive wish list

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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As this month’s cover story on WirelessHART clearly underscores, process automation continues to evolve, giving plants increasing options to improve their operations. Groups like the HART Communication Foundation and Fieldbus Foundation as well as vendors conscientiously strive to add features and capabilities. Unlike consumer products, where enhancements too often are driven by what electronics allow rather than by what buyers want — resulting in, e.g., car audio systems that are confusing and difficult to use — process automation advances generally aim to satisfy actual market demands. Control system vendors welcome and, indeed, actively solicit suggestions. I attend their annual conferences and certainly can attest to the importance they place on end-user inputs in directing product development.

Vendors, of course, closely guard much of the information gathered at such user group meetings. So, I was drawn to a presentation — “The next generation of process automation, the users’ requirements” — in March at Interphex 2008 in Philadelphia. Scott Sommer, automation technology manager in the Conshohocken, Pa., office of the Jacobs Engineering Group described the results of some canvassing he’d done.

In an admittedly nonscientific survey of 400 end users, he asked only one question: “What single feature, capability, interface, application or other characteristic would you like to see added to future process control systems products offered in the industrial marketplace?” He received 110 responses. These identified about 30 unique features desired. I don’t have room to list them all, but I’ll highlight several in each of the five categories he sorted them into.

For field instrumentation:

  • disposable instrumentation for disposable process components;
  • Class 1 Division 1-rated I/O modules;
  • power-over-Ethernet instruments; and
  • built-in control module logic, including alarming.

For controllers:

  • built-in support for wireless instrumentation and wireless communication to remote I/O racks;
  • built-in IP security;
  • user-friendly fuzzy logic algorithm capability; and
  • relational database capability.

For the human/machine interface:

  • wireless portable “Mini-HMI” that don’t require development of an alternative set of operator screens;
  • use of biometrics or other security measures instead of passwords; and
  • smart alarming, with wireless alerts.

For control system platforms:

  • centralized and usable communications diagnostics;
  • a “program compare” feature for all SCADA and control applications;
  • universal development platform and data definitions for both process and building control; and
  • ability to configure from a download of design engineering data.

For batch execution and reporting:

  • standardized batch data format; and
  • configurable web-based tools for online batch review and release.

For interfacing with MES and business systems:

  • a user-funded consortium that supports a library of standard application code and solutions: and
  • longer life cycles for products.

Do you have a wish list of what you want next in process automation? It pays to develop one and make it known to your vendors.

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