The future of process automation was front and center of discussions last week at the Foxboro User Group—The Foxboro Company being the process automation arm of Schneider Electric.
During the week I was involved in quite animated discussions with SVP Chris Lyden and VP Peter Martin regarding the future of process automation. These executives are convinced that there is an inflexion point we are reaching where we are returning to the open architecture we started with years ago. The pendulum swung toward centralized, integrated systems. Technology has progressed to a point of realizing the old dream of distributed control, interoperable systems, systems of systems, and open systems based on standards.
Martin used his closing remarks to the group to talk about the Open Process Automation Forum, which is organized under The Open Group. You may recall I’ve written about this group following each of the last two ARC Industry Forums in Orlando.
The spark was provided by a group from ExxonMobil who saw a dire need to upgrade its systems. Leaders looked at the huge upfront cost of the control upgrade plus the likelihood of being locked into a single supplier and then facing huge lifecycle costs during the life of the equipment.
“When we released our first DCS 30 years ago, we tried to make it as open as possible,” said Martin. “We felt for future innovation, the system needed to be as open as possible. But the level of standards necessary just didn’t exist.”
When ExxonMobil said they wanted to build an open platform, “we jumped in” added Martin.
Foxboro’s Trevor Cusworth is co-chair of the OPAF. He asked attendees to consider the benefits of joining in the effort. “We need more end users,” he said, “since we have only about 11 right now.”
The key benefit noted was reducing lifecycle costs, while the key technology is a new type of I/O.
From the OPAF brochure:
Not only can you contribute to the creation and development of a new process automation system, you can also:
- Ensure your experience and requirements are included
- Advocate that your industry sector is represented
- Validate that existing standards important to you are used
- Sustain the benefits of the standard and subsequent certification programs
Takeaways: This is an ambitious undertaking. The last one of these I saw eventually fell apart due to a “vicious circle”—suppliers got into the discussion hoping for new sales or the ability to knock off the incumbent; end users failed to not only write the system into their specs even if they did they weren’t enforced; suppliers lost interest due to no sales.
One important thing: If this catches on, it will greatly shake up the process automation supplier market.