Consider the view looking back from 2020. Will the current
decade be the decade of process automation? This may seem a
puzzling way to frame the question. We have been automating for
several decades. To understand the question, we must define the
distinctions between modernization, automation and
In investigating the net effects in how the process industry
does business and operates facilities today, one conclusion is
that the process-control business has been involved primarily
in modernization, to some degree optimization, and least of all
automation. That is surprising, since automation was the
What came first?
Modernization and its prodigious offspring, information,
have been several fold. Control-system success has often meant
just keeping pace with technological changecompletely
separate from automation and optimization. Control systems have
evolved from pneumatic to analog, digital, distributed and,
now, open systems. Safety systems and field devices have
undergone similar evolutions. Business pressures compel
adopting each successive technology. Most people are only too
familiar with the pace and demands of modernization.
It would be nice if, like information, automation sprang
naturally from modernization. But that is not at all the case.
It is quite possible to keep pace through multiple
modernization cycles without ever making headway in automation.
Indeed, this is the present condition for many companies.
Processing plants are more modernized, but the difficult
challenges of sustaining reliable operation still remain.
What is modern control?
For example, modern control systems are digital and not
pneumatic. However, are there fewer operators in the field,
fewer process upsets, and fewer equipment trips? Are more
valves in automatic mode, with less frequent reliance on manual
mode? Are board operators less alarm-driven and more
procedure-driven? Are more procedures and sequential operations
automated? While the answer to these questions may be a
tentative yes, in most cases, the improvement has
been incremental and stems from modernization, not automation. The
answer that we wish to see is that process industries have
achieved the same transformational level of automation as many
Lets define automation as automatic control that takes
place in the control system domain. This fits the traditional
concept of automation involving direct control of equipment or
machinery. This includes, most notably, advanced regulatory
control (ARC), multivariable control (MPC) and sequential
control. But it really includes all automatic
distributed-control system (DCS), safety instrumented system
(SIS) and other base-layer functions.
Lets define optimization as activities that take place
in the business domain. They have the objective of arriving at
optimal operating targets, or making optimal business decisions
that are implemented across the organization. Optimization has
been sustained by constant improvement on information flows.
Many resources participate in this task across an organization.
In many ways, the entire business is plugged into
this mission; the automation domain is just one aspect. However
financially winning optimization can be, plant reliability is not one of its usual
Little such carefree collaboration characterizes the
automation domain, where equipment and procedures often defy
automation solutions; implementation is laborious; mistakes are
painful; and critical skills are scarce. This is one hurdle to
automation. The control domain is not a very hospitable environment.
Modernization vs. automation
With these definitions in hand, it becomes clear that
continued modernization and greater automation are the
challenges before us. Modernization will continue to bring reliability and efficiency gains,
such as centralized monitoring, remote control, lower cost and
less nuisance trips, if not exactly automation. Greater
automation, while harder to come by, can ultimately be expected
to bring the same transformational improvements in safety,
reliability and quality as in many manufacturing
The single biggest challenge facing process plants today is
reliability. And automation is the
single best answer. Will this decade become the automation
decade? The situation is unfolding slowly, with manufacturers
still engaged in modernization, broadly tackling the
optimization puzzle and, when it comes to automation, still
focused primarily on MPC, which is only one piece of
automation. Perhaps, the 2020s will eventually unfold as the
decade of automation. Those companies who start the automation
process early may find themselves leading the industry over the
next decade. HP
Allan Kern has 30 years of process
control experience and has authored numerous papers
on advanced process control with emphasis on
operation and practical process control
effectiveness. Mr. Kern is a professional engineer, a
senior member of ISA, and a graduate of the
University of Wyoming.