3 Control Services Trends to Modernize Manufacturing Operations

March 4, 2024 - Author: Andrew Harris - I&C MI Team Lead | Director of Business Development - Controls, Greg Larson - Equipment Project Manager

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Control services trends in manufacturing operations

Embracing Innovation: Adapting to Evolving Control Systems Trends

The scope of control services continues to expand to encompass a wider range of systems and processes with increasing interconnectivity and automation. With more complexity in managing and optimizing control systems, here are three current trends to keep in mind.

#1: Increased Use of Safety PLCs to Meet ISO Requirements

We’re seeing a significant increase in the use of safety PLCs, primarily driven by U.S. companies wanting to meet ISO standards. Previously, companies rarely specified Performance Level (PL) or Safety Integrated Level (SIL) classifications. Risk assessments were performed on many systems, but not in all situations where they were necessary.

When risk assessments were conducted, they determined the necessary safety measures and control systems to meet risk management expectations. However, these were rarely quantified according to specific performance levels or safety integrity requirements.

Now, there is a heightened emphasis on attaining PL and SIL ratings as benchmarks to ensure that safety systems meet internationally recognized standards and regulatory demands. Our customers receive directives stating that test cells must achieve specific minimum PL levels and SIL ratings. Yet, they’re often uncertain how to reach them.

The certified-driven process still starts with a thorough risk assessment to identify hazards and evaluate associated risks. Using safety PLCs with advanced safety features and functionalities enables companies to meet performance levels and integrity requirements needed to achieve desired safety ratings when coupled with appropriate architecture and hardware.

#2: AI Improves Benefits of Using Digital Twins

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is improving digital twin technology, making it a more valuable and accessible tool for more manufacturing environments.

AI-enhanced digital twins are narrowing the gap between virtual simulations and actual machines, enabling them to better replicate real-world decision-making processes. This advancement promotes faster development of more sophisticated robotics and conveyors, improves operational efficiency and troubleshooting, and reduces downtime.

The use of digital twin technology in manufacturing operations is also growing because the tools to generate and implement digital twins have become easier to use.

During the design phase, digital twins allow for rapid prototyping and more accurate testing of various configurations in a virtual environment. It allows for the cost-efficient process of remote commissioning.

New tools also make it easier to update digital twins as new processes or equipment need to come to the floor. Machine manufacturers now provide digital twin schematics that can be uploaded into a plant’s digital twin, so teams can quickly virtually test its configuration and operation within its virtual environment.

#3: New Cybersecurity Threats

A growing cyber threat for manufacturing plants is bad actors who use social engineering (“phishing”) tactics to get remote access to a facility or onsite where they can directly plug into a facility’s external network. Bad actors use onsite access to a building’s external network to hack into the local PLC network.

Once in control of the local PLC network, a hacker could potentially manipulate settings, disrupt operations, sabotage machinery, steal sensitive data, or cause physical harm by compromising control over critical equipment such as robots and conveyors.

The first line of defense is to harden physical access to the plant, limiting unauthorized entry and reducing the risk of onsite tampering. The next line is to add cybersecurity directly on the local PLC network. Most legacy systems don’t have security built into them, and new local PLC networks should have been built in from the start.

Installing Defense-in-Depth (DID) switches in PLC panels is an effective way to embed security into the PLC network. The DID switches should be configured to allow access only via specific ports within the local network with a known communication partner. By configuring the DID switches this way, they block access from any other devices, isolating the PLC local network from other building systems.

Staying Competitive with New Technologies

These trends underscore the ongoing advances that enhance the efficiency and security of control services. Adapting to new trends in technology is vital to ensuring the optimization, resiliency, and security of your control systems.