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by Chris Hoey, Managing Director, Bürkert Fluid Control Systems Australia

Early in any innovation wave, there tends to be a lot of hype and even more buzz words. This leads to wild interpretations and claims with growing confusion in the market. That said, as this technology has not passed the maturity curve, there remains debate on definitions between institutions, vendors and even countries.

Digitisation and digitalisation we can take directly from the Gartner IT Glossary¹, whereas digital transformation is more subjective.

Digitisation is the process of changing from analogue to digital form, also known as digital enablement. Said another way, digitisation takes an analogue process and changes it to a digital form without any different in-kind changes to the process itself.

Digitalisation is the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

Digital transformation is understood as the transition stage between these two, however it offers much more than that. It is where digital data and processes are combined and new models can be created that can substantially change the entire business.

A ‘non-automation industry’ example

There was a time that music media was distributed on vinyl disks through bricks and mortar retail stores. We saw advancement into cassette tapes and eventually compact disks. It was not until music was widely available in mp3 that you could say that the process was digitised.

Then the big “A Company” applied this digitised media to their business processes and developed an end-to-end digital system that included marketing, purchasing, payment and delivery of media and hardware to enjoy it. You could call this a fully digitalised system.

The digital transformation came about when other companies were able to analyse this process along with new developments, and design new business models that transformed their own companies and disrupted the entire industry.

This of course was on-demand music streaming. Whilst still an end-to-end digitalised system, the real value was created in the transformation.

Now let us go back to process control

Effectively digitisation took place from way back in the 1980s, where PLC or DCS systems were implemented. However, like the example above, the traditional signals were converted from analogue to digital, and after processing, returned back to analogue for the final control element.

We saved on individual controllers or relay logic, and we were now able to collect and log data in our SCADA systems and even generate reports.

Over the next thirty-five years or so, not a lot changed. The controllers became more powerful, networks developed savings on cabling and installation time, and some devices could even be set up in a digital manner. But under the surface, we were still performing digital control on converted analogue signals.

Whether the application is chlorine dosing, filling level control or flow control, fundamentally the process is the same. Below is a series of examples that explain this evolution using temperature, steam and a shutoff valve with feedback.

Figure 1 shows the automation of a single heat exchanger including a temperature sensor, a modulating steam valve and a shutoff valve with feedback. These are connected to a modern PLC and SCADA system.

This example is not one from our history books; it still represents around 70 per cent of today’s installations. To bring this ‘digitised’ system to a fully ‘digitalised’ system, we start with digital field equipment that no longer needs to be converted, and we connect via a single distributed Ethernet cable right back to the PLC. This is shown in Figure 2.

As is clearly visible, the wiring complexity is drastically simplified and there is no distributed IO panel required at all. The entire system can be wired without any terminations at all or even the need for a screwdriver. Reverting to our digitalisation definition, value is created through design simplicity and increased accuracy, as well as the savings in installation and running cost.

Whilst the above example is a strong enough argument on its own to generate a change in industry, we are yet to consider the ‘transformation’ part. A fully digitalised installation offers a lot more than just upfront cost savings.

The new wave of digital field equipment is also compliant with the latest demands of Industry 4.0 or IIoT. As well as the process signals needed for control (cyclic data) they offer bi-directional device management information (acyclic data) including asset management and advanced diagnostics (Figure 3). This data seamlessly integrates into your control system, engineering workstation, or even directly to cloud-based systems.

System capabilities

Continuing with the above application example, let us consider just the shutoff valve. In the original system, we would know what signal we were sending to it and, thanks to integrated feedback, we would know whether it is open or closed. If we send it a signal and it doesn’t transition in the allotted time, we generate an alarm.

Consider now a digitally connected valve which has been included in a diagnostic page in the site SCADA system (Figure 4). Immediately the service engineer can see the valve number and type, the voltage supply, temperature, the stroke length, cycle time and number of operations performed, as well as how long the valve has been installed and how many operations it has performed. In addition, if replacements are required, he has the ID number, hardware and software versions at hand.

Eventually the market will move towards digital twins or cyber physical systems. In these systems you will have complete status and diagnostic information on components and even complete systems constantly available in the cloud.

Is this digital transformation?

Technically, only you can answer this question, as it relates particularly to your own business and the daily operational issues that are relevant to you. Perhaps you have 2,000 such valves and sensors on site, perhaps you have limited service personnel, and perhaps you are operating this site from 3,000km away.

The digitalised system simply delivers a set of tools along with advanced capabilities; it is really up to you how these tools are used to solve your particular business challenges.

¹Gartner IT Glossary, https://www.gartner.com/en/information-technology/glossary, accessed 22/02/2021

This sponsored editorial is brought to you by Bürkert Fluid Control Systems. For more information, visit www.burkert.com.au.

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