Generation X, Y, Z: Today, we group age cohorts in sections of about 15 years. Generation X grew up with the home computers of the 1980s, Generation Y with the Internet, Generation Z with smartphones. The world is changing and how we live, work and communicate today was not foreseeable a good 20 years ago. What the work of operators in process plants will look like in 20 years is just as difficult to predict – but we are already setting the course today.
Like many others of my generation, I took my first cautious steps in the world of computers in the realms of such immortal home computer legends as Commodore 64, Amiga 500 or Atari ST. Do you remember? Datasette, floppy disks (5¼” with front and back side!) and acoustic couplers instead of a modem; in addition (from today’s point of view) tedious installations, awkward program starts, unbelievable loading times… And today? When I look at my children’s playful use of smartphone and tablet: Learning, chatting or gambling – for most tasks an app and the web are enough. The spectrum of web applications ranges from small help tools to web spin-offs of well-known programs and browser games. What is so special about them? Here are the three most important aspects from my point of view:
- No installation and no visit to the App Store required
- Software can be used from anywhere via the web
- Uniform access via all end devices with the same user
As much as I like to reminisce about ‘LOAD”*”,8,1’: Log in and get started (without changing floppy disks) – this is what I appreciate most about today’s web applications.
Our new SIMATIC PCS neo process control system for industrial plants enables similarly uncomplicated work! The system software is based entirely on web technologies and uses a consistently object-oriented data model. The system is operated entirely via web browser. The installation of operator, engineering or maintenance systems on workstations is thus a thing of the past. The future brings flexibility and freedom: Workstation? Tablet? Smartphone? Every terminal device that complies with security requirements and has a current browser that can interpret HTML5 becomes the workplace of plant operators, project managers or maintenance specialists.
For e. g. operator interventions, setpoint changes or acknowledgements, the browsers of such web clients communicate via a secure connection with the central application server, on which all data is managed and stored. Freely selectable end devices and any workstations? This will certainly not mean that control rooms will become superfluous in the future. But with SIMATIC PCS neo, the basis has been laid for an enormously increased degree of freedom for working models of the future.
The consistent use of web technologies promotes another trend: Collaboration! Planning projects have always been an overall achievement of many disciplines: process engineers, automation specialists, electrical planners, etc. The consistent, object-oriented data handling with central data storage of SIMATIC PCS neo ensures that all participants always have access to current data – even when working simultaneously. The basis for smooth multi-user access is a clear session management: Each engineer works in his own session and changes will be released after completion. This also ensures that all data is always available without contradiction. If several users access the central dataset, it is clearly visible which changes the logged-on user has made himself and which areas are edited by others. The system automatically locks the appropriate data objects, no one has to check them out manually. Publishing brings changed data into the system in a consistent and controlled manner. Worldwide access and parallel working without any data chaos – that is the formula for efficient engineering!
Working today and tomorrow
Let me give you an example to illustrate how work processes can be simplified and accelerated in the future. Let’s think of an everyday situation in engineering: the process expert sits at the headquarters somewhere in Europe and finds that he urgently needs additional function modules for his work. These are created in an engineering office in India. The colleagues there are sent the link to the project, and then they can work in the session via web browser. Explanations are given quickly via a parallel video conference, all participants access the same data stock in real time and changes can be followed live. Task completed, check mark, next, please!
IT security comprehensively implemented
A browser-based process control system? This of course also raises the question of cyber security measures. When developing SIMATIC PCS neo, the focus was therefore on strict compliance with the “Security by Design” principle. This protection concept offers inherent security and serves as an additional security level: Each component of a system is equipped with security features of its own accord – on the hardware and software side. These implemented security functions then take effect in the actual application. It goes without saying that modern encryption methods via SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) are used to establish secure communication between the web server and web browser on the web clients. The encrypted communication is based on certificates: Before a web client can access the system, it must identify itself using a stored digital certificate. For this purpose, the new control system fits into the Defense-in-Depth concept that Siemens has been using and promoting for years based on the recommendations of IEC 62443. This defense-in-depth concept combines plant and network security with aspects of system integrity to form a comprehensive protection concept.
With SIMATIC PCS neo, we have technologically rethought or reinterpreted the control technology. In particular, the system architecture based on web technology represents a completely new approach that will replace the classic desktop design. The intuitive user interface and the consistent object-oriented data model increase efficiency in engineering and operations. The architecture and simplicity of our new process control system allow a high degree of flexibility. With these aspects we contribute to ensuring the sustainability of process plants. We are already looking forward to the operators of Generation Alpha, i.e. the birth cohorts starting from 2010!