New Trends in Control Engineering

 In General

It has often been noted that not much has changed in the last few years in the way control engineers code PLCs, neither in coding for functionality nor for safety.  But with the arrival of younger engineers with experience in technology and software, and the possibilities for using web and cloud-based tools, this may be on the verge of change.

Young engineers will help spread new ideas and new ways of working.

The new generation of control engineers brings new ideas and openness to change.

New Dimensions

As new ideas enter an old-fashioned discipline, they bring with them the advanced capabilities of a more computerized world. These capabilities are in fact aggressively working their way into industrial automation and industrial control systems.  The spread of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) concept and the ‘Industrial Internet of Things‘ (IIoT) subset, has opened many new possibilities.  Trends like the combination of traditional manufacturing practices with technology, such as Industry 4.0, and the creation of merged philosophies like DevOps– combining IT and OT functions–forcing  the creation of the fully connected enterprise  in traditional disciplines. 

Program for Safety

As industrial control systems become more connected, Systems Integrators are discovering the need to be open to new ideas and new methods:

  • Risk Assessment:  Methodologies such as Hazard and Operability Analysis (HAZOP) can help identify potential hazards within a system.  These hazards can be used in PLC coding to maximize safety based on systematic and documented risks.

  • Learning from Other Disciplines:  System Integrators should include software considerations when considering the code needed as PLCs lend themselves more to software than electrical engineering.  Taking lessons from the world of software engineers, an SI can build a safer system.

Taking Steps to Improve Process Safety

Choosing a process safety strategy, and implementing the solution, should follow some clear common-sense steps:

  • Follow a Methodology: Using a proven methodology forces programmers to work in repeatable and documented ways.  The result will yield higher quality code and more predictable–and safer–behavior within the system.

  • Update Without Disruption: With a strongly enforced methodology in place, codes can easily be updated without “breaking” anything.  Again, the result is a safer, repeatable process for updating code that doesn’t disrupt the system with accidents or downtime.

  • Update Safely: Changes should be minimized, but to some extent they are inevitable. Traditionally, PLC coding has been “patch heavy”, placing patches one upon another. Bad coding led to faults causing downtime or waste, and in some cases, to safety incidents. Following established methodology for modular design allows isolated changes with a low chance of affecting other parts of the code. 

  • Get the ‘Big Picture’: Another aspect is ensuring that programmers have a better understanding of the big picture. By allowing the programmer to face questions, answer them and even test them before getting to the site, helps to assureminimal changes onsite and make the change process quicker and safer.

Control Engineering – Evolving for Tomorrow

As the Boomers retire, a new generations of control engineers brings with them new ideas and habits. This presents a tremendous opportunity to finally disrupt the status quo with innovative and even disruptive approaches. And as these newcomers mature in their profession and work their way into key positions within development and management these new ideas and methodologies will follow and become the new standard. 

But the battle of old versus new in terms of staffing may not be the aspect of the equation that sets the speed for change.  The availability of more advanced technological tools and the explosion of the realization of Industry 4.0 and of truly connected enterprises may accelerate the evolution.  Such an acceleration will not only pull everyone along with it, it will also open the door for using other sophisticated tools for better and safer coding.

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Improving PLC control system programming