Modernize Legacy Distributed Control Systems and Stay Competitive

Modernize Legacy Distributed Control Systems and Stay Competitive
Modernize Legacy Distributed Control Systems and Stay Competitive

For many industrial manufacturers, time is running out to digitally transform and update or migrate their legacy distributed control systems (DCSs). The shelf life on these systems is expiring and taking a wait-and-see approach is no longer a viable option. These systems are overwhelmingly fragmented and fraught with challenges. Manufacturers risk losing operational control of their processes.

Compound these issues with the lack of available resources to maintain or repair older equipment and the potential for cybersecurity attacks, safety and environmental risks increase. Manufacturers must change to keep pace with ever-evolving technology and consumer demands; otherwise, they risk becoming uncompetitive in their markets.

Opportunity abounds for those who want improved asset utilization, access to real-time data, improved control and enhanced connectivity. Manufacturers need to reevaluate existing operations and leverage innovative technologies that deliver the promise of greater interconnectivity and system visibility across the enterprise. Consider the following features and functions where a new and improved DCS can make a competitive impact now and in the future.

Open communication

For many manufacturers, the underlying control strategies in the DCS haven’t really changed much. A modern DCS, however, ensures open communication to smart field devices, subsystems and higher-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MESs), making real-time data easily accessible across the enterprise as it comes directly from the system controlling the facility.

Diagnostic information about–and calibration of–the facility’s instruments, for example, is often now directly available from a DCS workstation without the need for third-party asset management systems or communicators (e.g., HART). This feature can result in a large cost savings for manufacturers in implementation and maintenance. The ease of integration into MES and ERP systems elevates the DCS from being a system that not only operates the facility but also can be used as a key component in managing the business at the corporate level.

Electrical Substation Control System Integration

Today’s DCSs are increasingly able to communicate over the IEC 61850 protocol – the common standard used for network communications in electrical substations. This means that personnel can access and operate a facility’s process controls and the electrical substation controls from a single DCS portal, rather than having separate points of entry for process and electrical controls. This also means there can be tighter integration between process and electrical controls, such as load shedding based on process upsets, without the need for sometimes unreliable communications between distinct electrical and process control systems.

Faster response to abnormal situations

The modern DCS has much more capabilities when it comes to human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and graphics techniques where only the most critical information is provided. Operators can more effectively facilitate, identify and respond to abnormal situations. Rather than having to understand and tediously navigate multiple menus required in legacy systems, modern high-performance HMIs call attention to a problem before it escalates, allowing operators to easily jump to where they need to be as process problems arise. Some DCSs have tools to automatically generate visualization of logic, providing operators with more troubleshooting tools to resolve problems and safely continue production.

Alarm management/analysis

Many of today’s DCSs have built-in or add-on alarm management and analysis packages. These systems help suppress alarm floods or nuisance alarms and let personnel measure the health of an alarm management system in terms of identifying top bad actor alarms, frequency of alarms, etc. Where this capability did exist in the past, it required integrating the DCS with a third-party alarm management package. A modern system requires little setup beyond simply activating the feature.

Advanced controls

Many DCSs today have various forms of multivariable, advanced control built directly into them. This allows manufacturers to do small-scale advanced process control with the DCS they already have rather than requiring a separate and expensive model predictive control platform.


Nearly all DCSs today can be run on virtual servers, resulting in better reliability, portability and disaster recovery. Live migration of virtual machines will move the facility’s servers to a new physical host in the case of catastrophic hardware failure without any noticeable impact to operations.

Simulation tools and software help personnel gain hands-on, practical training in a controlled environment, mitigating safety risks. Virtualization technology makes it easier and cheaper to maintain a stand-alone virtual DCS used for simulated operations training and program development.

The next-generation engineer

As many legacy DCSs were built on proprietary hardware and software platforms, up-and-coming engineers will have little familiarity or experience with them. These engineers will better understand the Windows-based platforms that are the backbone of nearly all modern DCSs.

This presents a challenge for manufacturers trying to recruit and retain new engineers that won’t want to work on an aging infrastructure. These engineers will better relate to a more integrated, modern environment where they can learn cutting-edge software and applications (e.g., simulation tools, cloud and edge computing, smart manufacturing tools and so on) to help them move forward in their career.

The DCS road ahead

The road to a more modern DCS may not be easy but the features and functionality gained far outweigh any issues. In today’s competitive world, it’s time for manufacturers to rethink what capabilities they want and expect from a modern DCS (e.g., Rockwell Automation’s PlantPAx):

  • Enables plant-wide control and optimization for lower total cost of ownership (TCO)
  • Is reliable, smart and provides built-in scalability and modularity for engineering flexibility and faster time to market (e.g., can automatically diagnose and modify systems when changes or upgrades are required)
  • Is an open, interoperable platform with remote security and support capabilities that can continuously optimize, maintain and sustain system operations
  • Enables new technologies that improve production operation and integration enterprise-wide
  • Provides predictive maintenance capabilities (e.g., has built-in software that continually diagnoses and troubleshoots potential issues)
  • Provides the ability to use simulation as a training platform for potential safety risks, which helps lower operations and maintenance training costs

The migration process requires an organized and planned approach leveraging a proven methodology (e.g., DCSNext) and best practices. When resource bandwidth is an issue, a third-party partner with industry knowledge in a wide variety of platforms can help overcome potential challenges. Manufacturers must maximize the benefits of a modern DCS to stay ahead of the competition and keep their facilities up and running.

About The Author

Travis Giebler is an Advanced Process Control Project Engineer at Rockwell Automation. Hayden Serio is a technology leader at MAVERICK Technologies.

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