“New technologies are mainly a means to an end”

Control rooms of process engineering plants are usually as old as the plant itself, often 30 years and more. Today, digital transformation is placing new demands on automation. We talked to Professor Leon Urbas, holder of the Chair of Process Control Technology at Dresden University of Technology, and Eckard Eberle, CEO Siemens Process Automation, about concepts and technologies of the future.

Professor Urbas, Mr. Eberle, web-based applications are shaping technological development in the digital transformation. What does that mean for process control technology?


Prof. Leon Urbas: Web-based technologies are ready for productive use in process control technology. With the proper planning and use, they permit much greater flexibility than current client-server systems. However, we are still not entirely certain about what kind of information can be used to optimally organize collaboration, for example in distributed control rooms. That’s something we’re currently investigating as part of a project for DFG, the German Research Foundation.


Eckard Eberle: As manufacturers, we have completely re-thought the actual technology of process control systems. The result is our fully web-based process control system Simatic PCS neo. This provides direct and secure access to all the information required, regardless of location or time, and by using all standard devices, including mobile ones. Our customers’ know-how remains protected against unauthorized access at all times.

“Web-based technologies are ready for productive use in process control technology.”
Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Leon Urbas, holder of the Chair of Process Control Technology at Dresden University of Technology

Plant operators are still often hesitant when it comes to upgrading their process control systems. Why do you think that’s the case?


Urbas: Well, for plant operators, migrating a process control system means spending money, first and foremost. And new process control technology by itself won’t generate even one more gram of a marketable chemical product, nor make production more cost-efficient. That’s why I think it’s essential to analyze the potential of the next generation of process control systems carefully, along with the investments that would be needed to make full use of the potential offered by new functions with the systems that are already in place.


Eberle: Absolutely! The cost-benefit ratio has to be right from the customer’s perspective. That’s why we consider it very important to protect investments and know-how in equal measure. It’s also why both Simatic PCS neo and our proven distributed control system Simatic PCS 7 utilize the same innovative hardware platform and the same application architecture. It’s a unique approach on the market. We will continue refining Simatic PCS 7 in the future. Operators of existing systems can switch over to the new, web-based system quickly later on when they want to enjoy the benefits it offers – and the advantages of a future-proof system into the bargain.

“The cost-benefit ratio has to be right from the customer’s perspective. That’s why we consider it very important to protect investments and know-how in equal measure.”
Eckard Eberle, CEO Siemens Process Automation

Users appreciate intuitive, attractively designed software. How does that transfer to automation systems?


Urbas: Software for automation systems must be forgiving and capable of being mastered quickly and with minimum effort, and display the current system status at a glance. High-quality design plays an important part, since the system should also be a pleasure to use.


Eberle: That’s a good way of putting it. When we developed Simatic PCS neo we focused strongly on intuitive operation and providing a uniform workbench for all applications. It combines both engineering and monitoring & control for operation, so users can easily switch from one to the other at the push of a button. That speeds up the commissioning process and reduces the sources of error.

Voice control is becoming more and more popular from the perspective of user-friendliness. Is this technology also of interest for use in industrial plant?


Urbas: In principle, voice control is always an advantage if it means you can keep both hands free. But for the process industry I still think there are barriers to overcome. The background noise level of the plants' environment will impact on recognition rates, for example. And the vocabulary and grammar of the data-based digital twin are very different from our normal written or spoken language. It will be of interest when voice control has achieved the level of precision needed for industrial requirements – and with an acceptable cost-benefit ratio.


Eberle: In the field of automation we are currently putting a lot of effort into the concept of the “digital assistant.” Digital assistants are designed to make our day-to-day work easier, as well as filtering the information that’s relevant right now from the growing flood of incoming data. Initial projects looking at voice control in the control room or the utilization of chatbots in the field, where it’s usually pretty loud, give us a very positive view of what the future will offer.

Are there also benefits for plant operators in being able to access the distributed control system via a mobile device?

Urbas: Yes, as long as mobile terminals make communication between the control room and field easier. To make that happen, distributed control systems have to support the spatial migration of activities via mobile devices. Looking at the technologies available today, I’m thinking mainly about tablet computers. But smartphones, smart watches and data glasses will also gain importance as soon as it will become possible to integrate them into an all-encompassing operating strategy.


Eberle: That’s exactly why Simatic PCS neo is based on HTML5 technology. It can therefore run on mobile devices without limitation, and enables highly flexible access to the system via a secure Internet connection. So for international collaboration, in particular, this means that experts can get involved in a project quickly and easily – a browser link should be all they need. In the service area, it’s already common for our customers to use tablet computers. Thanks to the web-based system, this enables employees to have direct access to consistent information, for maintenance, commissioning or device swapping, for example.

“Software for automation systems must be capable of being mastered quickly and with minimum effort. High-quality design plays an important part, since the system should also be a pleasure to use.”
Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Leon Urbas, holder of the Chair of Process Control Technology at Dresden University of Technology

How important are future-oriented technologies like virtual, augmented, or mixed reality for use in process control systems?


Eberle: We have already seized on augmented reality in the service area in particular, and are working on initial concrete applications. These will enable additional information from all kinds of sources to be utilized throughout the plant using Tablets. In conjunction with special image-processing algorithms, the built-in camera recognizes its environment using defined points that are linked to real-world field devices. This means service technicians can orient themselves with the plant, call up step-by-step instructions, or engage in live discussion with a colleague via remote access. The future will offer additional and totally new opportunities in this regard. The open architecture of our new, web-based process control system already has the ideal conditions in place.

Urbas: I have a very similar view. These technologies will make their appearance in the areas of assembly and maintenance to begin with. As for the control room, I assume that process management will continue to take place in a functional, two-dimensional information space. To interactively evaluate high-dimensional status rooms, however, these technologies could offer entirely new approaches for data-assisted and simulation-assisted process management. The interface for this kind of distributed control system could have the appearance of a computer game, in which you have to work closely with an artificial intelligence (AI) system to find a reliable path through a multi-dimensional, constantly changing mine field.



While we’re on the subject, what potential does artificial intelligence offer for process control systems?


Eberle: We believe that AI will continue to improve the quality standards of process plants in the future, and will make manufacturing processes more flexible and cost-efficient. Simulation is already a key component of the digital twin. Thanks to the continuous exchange of information between the real-life plant and its digital representation, we can keep on improving the digital twin, and close the knowledge loop between the real and virtual worlds. At our AI lab, which we opened in 2017, we are strongly committed to R&D in this area. Thus, for example, we are working to get the digital assistant that we mentioned just now ready for the market.

“We believe that AI will continue to improve the quality standards of process plants in the future, and will make manufacturing processes more flexible and cost-efficient.”
Eckard Eberle, CEO Siemens Process Automation

Urbas: That sounds very interesting. From a scientific perspective, too, AI also raises a whole bunch of fascinating questions. For example, under the title “Conducive design of cyber-physical production systems,” we are investigating which skills operators working with smart equipment need, as part of an interdisciplinary graduate research program at DFG. We are also looking into how we need to design highly automated systems to enable the people in charge of plant security and product quality to question, analyze and, depending on the situation, understand suggestions made by an AI system. At the Center for Explainable and Efficient AI Technologies (CEEAI), we have created a network of powerful key players in the region to drive forward technologies, methods, and also the acceptance of AI as a “cognitive enhancer” for human performance in complex systems.

Last but not least, cloud-based applications require distributed control systems with an open structure. How do you assess this development, with one eye on the future?


Eberle: Openness is a core topic for both current and future systems. We are committed to working out the appropriate form for these concepts as part of our activities on a number of committees. For example, in NAMUR, the User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries. Using approaches like Namur Open Architecture (NOA), we are already working with partner entities to generate added value for our customers, using their data, via our cloud-based, open IoT operating system MindSphere.

And with our strategic partner Bentley Systems, we are marketing a cloud-based system called PlantSight that makes it possible to create up-to-date digital twins of systems that are currently in operation. This involves synchronizing the real plant with the associated engineering data to ensure more efficient plant operation. By drawing on a range of data sources, this generates an end-to-end digital context for the allocated digital components.

Urbas: Practical applications like that show the potential to be had from opening up process control systems even further. It is very gratifying to see that the process industry is finally dealing with one of the key elements of every digital transformation – the availability of data for further business processes – by calling for legacy systems to be opened up and made interoperable.

With their case-driven solutions, NOA, driven by the users organized within NAMUR, and the O-PAS standard initiated by The Open Group show the important contribution to innovations in the process industry that can be achieved by opening up distributed control systems.

But we also have to discuss the responsible handling of data from engineering and operations throughout the entire lifecycle, with regard to its utilization, storage, and distribution, for example. From the perspective of IT security, the importance of professionally run data centers can only keep on growing.


Ultimately, no matter how enthusiastic I am about technology, new technologies are mainly a means to an end. If, in the control center of the future, they help achieve access to industrial systems and their digital twins that is easy to master, is self-explanatory, robust, esthetic, and maybe even child’s play, then their validity will have been proven in practice.

• Fully web-based process control system

… for concurrent global collaboration in engineering and operation 

• Intuitive user interface and uniform workbench

… for all applications

• Object-oriented data management 

… for highest consistency of all plant information

• Highest scalability and flexibility

… for easy integration of modules and seamless expansion during operation

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