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Control Systems Remain Critical For Industry
Is your control system costing you money? This question although seldom asked is crucial to gaining the shortest possible return on investment (ROI) time on the introduction of a new automation system. To achieve the maximum benefits from a new automation system it is essential that all control systems from the simplest machine to the most complex systems employ proven software design methodologies. The use of such systems will reduce the cost of the project, make the maintenance of software easier and most importantly minimise downtime, and hence shorten the ROI period.
The impact that the quality of the control system design has on projects in terms of return on investment has to be better appreciated. The selection process unfortunately usually sees the cheapest price win out, yet there is no real consideration given of exactly what that control system will deliver. This practice of accepting lowest price does not consider the downside from poorly designed systems of lost production time due to slow startup, failure to identify faults, software hangups, and little or no recovery methods. This could lead to a low overall equipment efficiency (OEE) of the system over the whole life cycle of the project. It is important to remember that the control system software is absolutely crucial in determining the success or failure of any project even though it is usually a small proportion of the cost of the project. Any automation system that does not have a control system that works reliably 24 hours a day 7 days a week, identifies faults immediately, and is user friendly will destine the project to failure regardless of the quality of the rest of the civil, mechanical, or electrical work.
Historically PLC/SCADA software has been seen as a moderately complex task conducted by people where the level of software engineering training is usually low. This of course produces control systems that vary greatly in the quality of the software. The level of documentation on the system design also varies greatly and even when what looks like extensive documentation is provided it can still bear little relevance in describing exactly how the software works. The increasing complexity of automation projects demands the use of proven software design methodologies. The old adage that a person that fails to design is designing for failure has never been more apt.
To overcome these issues it is important to address the need for training for people involved in automation projects. This should include project engineers and management involved in the process of selecting equipment, putting out tenders and management of projects, and hopefully the programmers doing the actual software design. This would ensure that the people involved in selecting system integrators and equipment can recognise the quality of the control systems they are going to inherit. This would then raise the bar to the suppliers of automation systems to prove they are using software design methods throughout their control systems.
Training in automation systems is currently only based around understanding how to use the various hardware and software products sold by automation equipment suppliers. The current system of certification such as “Certified System Integrator” for particular hardware and software only reflects how much an integrator spends and how many projects they do with a particular suppliers equipment or software. This does not give any real indication of the quality of the control systems produced. What is also required is a more advanced higher level total system design course encompassing functional specifications, software design methodologies (such as “state machines” and “object-oriented design”) and detailed design specifications. Scomac Automation is one company hoping to raise the awareness of the benefits of software design methodologies by introducing a short course in advanced control system design. Some automation software suppliers have also indicated that they are considering introducing similar courses.
The reality is that the quality of the control system in a project is going to have a direct impact on the success or failure of a project. To ensure that the best possible outcome in terms of ROI for the project is achieved, all the people involved must appreciate and be able to recognise that best practice in terms of software design has been used throughout the entire, control system design process. Training and accreditation at an individual level in advanced control system design is imperative to achieve these goals in an increasingly competitive market.