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Advanced Control Methods as ‘Commodities’

Advanced Control Methods as ‘Commodities’

Advanced process control (APC) methods used to be so advanced as to be esoteric—too complex and unusable except by a few high-level experts. Today, however, it seems APC is little talked about for an entirely different reason: It’s become a commodity.

Today, however, it seems APC is little talked about for an entirely different reason: It’s become a commodity.

In the process industries, where APC got its start, this is certainly true. In my recent article, “Zeroing in on Advanced Process Control”, APC Product Marketing Manager John Caldwell of Emerson Process Control (www.emersonprocess.com) said, “A lot of the advanced process control [software] is becoming more of a commodity technology. For example, …we’ve implemented a lot of the system and status information into the DCS controller.”

In his debut “User View” column in this month’s Automation World (click here), Greg McMillan discusses proportional/integral/derivative (PID) control techniques. This retired Senior Fellow from Monsanto-Solutia and ISA Fellow describes how “PID solutions seem to require an expertise that is in the hands of a few,” and that model predictive control (MPC) is being used as a preferred solution for even PID applications “because [such] software automatically identifies and implements process models.”

Now it seems the same is true for factory automation. Valin Corporation (San Jose, Calif., www.valin.com) is a technical solutions provider for the technology, energy, life sciences, natural resources and transportation industries. Valin has been successful in taking customers from older control technologies with centralized control and replacing them with a more modern distributed architecture that includes intelligence at the remote nodes. The newer architecture allows better connectivity and visibility from the I/O level through the higher level plant management network. But, they don’t require knowledge of advanced control techniques.

“In the ‘90s it seemed there was a need for unique control algorithms such as fuzzy logic, predictive control or model based control, to name a few of which I am aware,” says Robin Slater, corporate vice president of sales at Valin. “Today, it seems these unique control advantages are no longer the lead in discussion or sales advantage when it comes to control. Controllers now have greater flexibility and unique adapters to handle most of these once-unique control techniques. It is as if these control methods have been commoditized within the controllers of today.”

What Slater is seeing from his customers is “more and more of a desire for a larger number, and more specifically more types, of combined inputs and outputs available in a single control architecture.”

The focus with distributed control has always been on speed of response and redundancy, says Slater. “The speed of updates and response between the controllers and the control devices has improved greatly through networking protocols, and [through] manufactures allowing for common standards across control platforms. Increased speeds of response have allowed the distributive control to remain, while allowing some of the critical control loops to be pushed into the field, closer to the applications.”

Commoditization occurs when goods lose differentiation, and it’s generally considered a bad thing for the maker of the goods, because the price goes down—think generic pharmaceuticals or DRAM chips. When it comes to automation, however, commoditization of advanced process control techniques is a good thing for users.  With increasingly smart programmable automation controller (PACs), users don’t need to know the details of advanced control because the controller handles it for them, with no extra cost or time invested. Automation professionals get all the benefits of optimized process control, without any of the work.

>> Renee Robbins Bassett, rbassett@automationworld.com, is Managing Editor of Automation World. 

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