Modernize legacy distributed control systems for a competitive edge

Expiration dates on legacy distributed control systems (DCSs) lead to component failure, high replacement costs and downtime. New process control system infrastructure brings open communications, easier integration, faster responses, analytics, advanced controls, virtualization and simulation for next-generation engineers.

By Travis Giebler and Hayden Serio February 6, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Expired DCSs leads to component failure, high replacement costs and downtime.  
  • New process control systems bring open communications, easier integration and faster responses. 
  • New process control systems also bring analytics, advanced controls, virtualization and simulation for next-generation engineers. 

For many industrial facilities, time is running out to digitally transform and update or migrate legacy distributed control systems (DCSs). Shelf life on once stalwart DCSs is expiring. Status quo is no longer an option as manufacturers risk losing operational control of their processes. They face increased component failure, which leads to downtime and lost production. Compound these issues with the lack of available resources to maintain or repair older equipment and the potential for safety and environmental risks increase.

To stay competitive, manufacturers need to reevaluate existing operations and leverage the new technology found in a modern-day process control system infrastructure. A DCS upgrade or migration is daunting, but change is inevitable to keep pace with ever-evolving technology and consumer demands.

Today’s innovative technologies deliver the promise of greater interconnectivity and system visibility across the enterprise. The ease of system access and the ability for personnel to capture data helps improve operational efficiency and performance. Consider the following features and functions where a new and improved DCS can make a competitive impact now and in the future.

Open DCS communication

For many manufacturers, the underlying control strategies in the DCS haven’t changed much. Unlike the older technology, however, a modern DCS ensures open communication to smart field devices, subsystems, and higher-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MESs), making real-time data 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 available from a DCS workstation without the need for third-party asset management systems or communicators (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 to a system that can be used as a key component in managing corporate-level business.

Electrical substation control system integration

Today’s DCSs are able to communicate over the IEC 61850 protocol – the common standard used for network communications in electrical substations. This means personnel can access and operate a facility’s process controls and the electrical substation controls from one 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 many more capabilities from 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 navigate multiple menus required in legacy systems, modern high-performance HMIs call attention to a problem before it escalates, allowing operators to 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 continue production quickly and safely.

DCS alarm management, DCS analytics

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 to identify 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 activating the feature.

DCS 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.

DCS virtualization, simulation

Nearly all DCSs today can be run on virtual servers, which results 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 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.

DCS for the next-generation engineer

As many legacy DCSs were built on proprietary hardware and software platforms, young engineers will have little familiarity or experience with them. These engineers will have a much higher comfort level and better understanding of Microsoft Windows-based platforms that are the backbone of most modern DCSs.

Outdated DCSs presents a challenge for manufacturers trying to recruit and retain new engineers that won’t be interested in working on an aging infrastructure. These young engineers will better relate to a more integrated, modern environment where they can learn cutting-edge software and applications (such as augmented- and virtual reality-based simulation tools, mobile applications, cloud and edge computing, smart manufacturing tools and the latest digital thread/twin technologies) 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. The migration process requires an organized and planned approach with the help of third-party resources (such as a qualified system integrator) to overcome potential challenges. Manufacturers must maximize the benefits of this technology to stay ahead of the competition and keep systems and processes up and running.

Travis Giebler is a technology team manager, and Hayden Serio is a technology leader, both at Maverick Technologies, which is a CFE Media and Technologies Content Partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

KEYWORDS: Distributed control system, process control system


What new process control system advantages is your organization missing while nursing an expired DCS?

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Travis Giebler and Hayden Serio, Maverick Technologies