How might we expect emerging technologies to play out in the world of process control? Successfully predicting the future is difficult at best, so we sought out and consulted with industry visionaries and long-term planners to see where there is consensus about how rapidly developing operator interface, computing, data analytics and virtual reality will change our craft. Their informed speculation indicates these emerging technologies and others will be impacting our industries at an increasing, even amazing, rate.
Our list is by no means exhaustive, as many technologies are just now emerging out of their cocoons, and there’s no telling what else might be lurking out there, in companies big and small, and in the garages of the DIY’ers.
Of course, the process industries are notoriously conservative, with a large installed base of equipment that ranges from pneumatic to sophisticated digital control systems, all of which are currently making money. So while we will see rapid changes in commercial technology, adaptation by the process industries will be on a value-added basis, and always dependent on the cultural acceptance of the involved personnel.
Current Trends Are Safe Bets
First, we can expect continued incremental improvements in our currently available control systems technology. Many of our DCS systems are underutilized, and their future may already be lurking within them or with the DCS vendor’s current offerings.
Moore’s Law, “the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years,” is expected to continue into the next decade or so, but may slow from doubling every two years to doubling every three years. Coming developments in carbon nanotube field-effect transistors, junctionless transistors, single-electron transistors and memistors may well extend Moore’s Law’s life. So we will continue to see improvements in computing and memory, which will support the emerging technologies. We’ll get larger operator screens with higher resolutions, and control hardware platforms will run faster, smarter and with more memory.
Network capacity will have to expand to meet demand, placing pressure on the existing infrastructure. Process control algorithms will advance in sophistication, but the next generation of systems will see self-aware controllers and sensors incorporating artificial intelligence (defined as capable of cognitive and memory functions, resilience, awareness of its environment and its place in the process context, etc.) to develop advanced control strategies to achieve the controller goals. Cloud computing will play a part in the next generation of DCS/SCADA, but the extent and balance between the virtual and the hardware/software world is unknown and controversial.
Control Rooms Center on the Operator
The trend of centralization of the control room remote from the process area is likely to continue, says Pierre Skonnegard of CGM in Sweden, a partner with ABB in designing the control rooms of the future. Skonnegard also felt that operator attentiveness, awareness and health would be given greater consideration.
The video arcade environment, with the operators sitting during a substantial portion of their shifts looking at video screens, can lead to operator health concerns. Chairs are being developed that will automatically adjust to the operator’s physique using biometric sensing, and in the future, will be able to monitor the operator’s health and attention level. DCS consoles are already available that have two positions to accommodate the operator sitting down or standing up, with an easy transition between the configurations. Biometric sensing will be used to support security, and to allow the control room to adapt to the people currently in it. Ambient intelligence, where electronic systems and environments are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people, will be given greater attention.