The changing role of the industrial control engineer

Industrial control technology has evolved at a manageable pace over last twenty years, but that time has come to an end. Producers recognising the benefits of new technologies want to capitalise on new forms of digitisation. IIot exemplifies the changing role of the industrial control engineer in support of these development.

The entire field of industrial control engineering is expanding to encompass new and broader skills requirements, and more is coming. It is no longer enough to be a PLC expert or an expert in one or two specialisms.  The responsibility of the control engineer is moving to one of operational technologist (OT). The need to combines the knowledge of all hardware and software for controlling and monitoring processes through physical devices.

They now have greater responsibility for integrating mixed assets like shop floor and edge computing, Big Data and cloud-based systems. Digitisation and connectivity of equipment within IIoT ismanaged using hish speed Ethernet networks, wireless devices and mobile devices and apps. And in the wings we have the increased use of cobots and more recently artificial intelligence and changing legislation.

Automation and IT networks tend currently not to coexist on the same platforms but may do so in the future. There is already some IT convergence as OTs become involved with servers, routers, switches and edge computing. The increased use of open technologies and interconnectivity increases the risk of cyber security incursions.

The changing role of the industrial control engineer

In a paper Controlling the IIoT, Schneider Electric considers the changing role of the industrial control engineers to benefit their companies’. Behind these developments are the drives to improve productivity and reduce power consumption.

For the industrial control engineer, the best way to address this rising complexity is to adopt a change in thinking. It is no longer enough to be capable of programming PLCs or configuring SCADA. Rather than think about trying to control the entire process, focus on controlling the assets, but what are these assets?

Information technology (IT) programmers once faced similar problems as they attempted to integrate an entire enterprise’s business information. The was overcome using structured analysis, or breaking the complexity into a few small functional entities, solving each entity, and combining all into an overall solution.

In industry, the equivalent functional entities are operating assets (equipment, units, areas, plants, and enterprises). Start by building a comprehensive strategy for each equipment asset (pump, motor, compressor, evaporator, etc.). This is quite simple due to the small number of I/O associated with each asset.

Once controlled, moving each piece of equipment to the unit level is an incremental control and communications issue. Control strategies for each equipment asset are already in place. Rather than addressing process control and manufacturing control as different, new industrial control engineers will focus on real-time asset control.

IIoT driving business value

For the industrial control engineer, IIoT presents a different challenge. They’ve always been asset-centric, applying PLC running ladder logic to solve control algorithms asset by asset, thus controlling pumps, motors, compressors, evaporators, and so on. But now, we expect these assets to do more and to take on a broader scope of work. The critical challenge is controlling them within the context of how other assets and variables are performing. This means balancing safety/environmental risk, reliability, efficiency, and profitability.

Modern control systems drive business value by improving operational profitability and safety. They improve productivity and operational visibility; help achieve efficient energy management and reduce time to market.

Digitisation drives customer expectations for everything from faster delivery and more customisation to higher quality and lower prices. It’s surprising how much help even modest automation upgrades can be in satisfying these demands. For example, making significant improvements in the speed of production usually requires eliminating steps in the manufacturing process. Once, this may have demanded a major process, but optimising modern control schemes is much simpler.

 

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