The Benefits Of A Modular Control System Design Approach

Do more, faster, and with fewer resources: this seems to be the current mandate for the manufacturing world. To help meet this challenge, many producers in the food and beverage industry have embraced the concepts of modular process-skid design. By integrating process skids with purpose-built equipment, producers have created cohesive processes at a reduced cost and improved time to market.

Unfortunately, modular design hasn’t had the same effect on automation. Manufacturers of batch systems haven’t been able to leverage FAT testing for validation, or quickly integrate skids with process controls, plant information or batch systems without taking on the costly tasks of developing and revising automation following installation. However, new technology developments and standards in coding and communications have the potential to drive the next wave of productivity and efficiency gains.

The Good Old Days?

Before the days of IT/OT convergence, cloud computing, big data, and system-wide analytics, there wasn’t a driving need for consistency from product to product. In fact, equipment builders embraced the uniqueness of complex designs as part of their intellectual property. They gained a level of security and ownership as customization increased.

Each piece of equipment was different, but that wasn’t all. Processes designed with different control platforms, different coding and custom-built automation, were also very individualized. On the upside, custom solutions often stood the test of time, but it came at a price.

After years of owning a custom platform, the downside often became apparent. First, these systems were difficult to own and maintain. It was difficult to find qualified staff to support the many layers of customization. Second, training was also a challenge with multiple solutions because each system needed to be learned independently. Third, if training to operate unique equipment was a challenge, the ability to modify it added another layer of complexity. This is why changes to legacy equipment is often slow and costly. Integration can be just as difficult and is often avoided completely, because each custom system needs a custom interface and custom solution to be incorporated it into a higher-level system.

The compound challenges of custom solutions, left them stuck in the past, and left the facilities they operate in unable to capitalize on new advancements and capabilities.

The Variability of Standardization

In an industry full of customization and propriety systems, it’s no wonder a push for standardization followed closely behind. Over the past 30 years, standards agencies have taken up the noble cause of standards development with the goal of reducing variation in deployment and aid in reusable engineering. To a degree, standards have made a difference for equipment design and accompanying documentation, including URS, FRS, DDS.

However, current standards are designed to align with philosophy and structure, which proves well in theory, but leaves plenty of room for variation in implementation. Just as many producers work to eliminate customization, they must also look to reduce variability when connecting systems into larger process trains. At this intersection of reduced customization, standards and implementation, technology has the opportunity to take the lead and create uniform, plug-and-play solutions that will continue to move the needle for manufacturers.

A Modern Batch Approach

Simply put, modern automation systems embrace the modular design needed to assemble large process trains. Producers can view each individual system as a building block that can be easily plugged into the larger design. Systems that have connectivity built into the upfront design are easier to integrate, while systems using default capabilities of the control system are even better.

End users will enjoy more than just easy integration. As the converse of a custom system, a modern approach built on uniform standards for design and implementation, helps ensure systems provided by multiple vendors will have consistent delivery and engineering standards. End users can more easily locate support resources, and experience a reduction in the variability of tools and expertise.

Consistent and synergistic data, however, is the most important reason for standardized engineering in the future. Connected systems equal connected data. Smart systems provide a view of the present – and even the future - through good data analysis and quality measurement. And, along with strong operation excellence procedures, they can maximize effectiveness and productivity.

Validation and Documentation

The technology behind the modern batch approach combines distributed control that integrates seamlessly into a batch management system. This combination allows for reduced startup time, as end users can more thoroughly vet criteria before accepting delivery. It prevents end users from re-engineering controls onsite following installation, and minimizes overall project risk.

The modern approach also eases regulatory compliance and audit response, which is more easily completed when leveraging the uniform and easy-to-understand documentation of a modern batch system built with standard testing methods. Currently, end users may struggle with modular design in this regard because different skid vendors include their own validation documentation services. This problem compounds when the underlying technologies vary or custom designs deviate from S88 structure, making testing procedures and methodologies different and hard to decipher for the end user.

Quality Control Impact

Furthermore, the modern batch approach adds uniformity to data and consistency to design, allowing end users to more easily develop data analytics tools for product and process quality. By enabling a standard methodology for looking at the process, end users can correctly identify process issues and improve overall efficiency and yield. Product testing and release can be expedited by thorough and consistent data.

When combined, the improvements enabled by a modern batch approach allow better product to get to market faster, which has always been the goal of end users. Today, repeatable, reusable, open design is the easiest way for food and beverage producers to ultimately be more competitive. By implementing automation engineering standards at the equipment level, and leveraging embedded project capabilities, users can finally take the next steps towards being able to do more, faster, and with fewer resources.


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