Information and Time Advantages
Both, the extent and depth of information that a process control system like Simatic PCS 7 can offer today are greater than ever. But even with all the operating ergonomics and visualization optimization, some information can still not be accessed with just one or two mouse clicks. “As soon as the tasks become more complex, our assistant becomes superior to a mouse and keyboard,” Vorsamer explains. “The voice command ‘Show all operating messages from yesterday between eleven and twelve o’clock’ delivers results much faster than calling up and filtering the corresponding lists, that users do not know the location of in the system off-hand.” This time and information advantage becomes even more significant in the event of exceptional situations: in an emergency, an operator can use the assistant to access information and still keep the attention on critical operating displays as well as perform manual mouse actions.
This also generates various advantages for plants in which plant operators do not spend all their time in the control room. Since the assistant is platform-independent, warnings including initial cause determination can also be accessed via smartphone. For example, by the time the plant operator has returned from the field or lab to the control room, the assistant has already informed them of the status of the plant, delivered an error analysis, and provided initial suggestions for remedying the error. In none of the scenarios does the digital companion generate new information or require additional engineering effort: “Our solution simply offers an additional means of access to information that already exists,” Schreier points out.
The Many Aspects of Security
Even if the new development is explicitly not to be used for process operations because it does not want to compete with coupled systems, data security is of course a central feature. In contrast to Alexa, Siri, and Co. the Siemens assistant is not always listening but is activated in a targeted manner. While the system is also cloud-compatible for future applications, it is generally installed and used locally. “All the data remains 100 % in the user’s network,” graduated computer scientist Hetterich assures.
In addition to data security and increased plant safety due to the application possibilities described above, the engineers want, above all, to provide users with more security. “We very much focus on a positive user experience,” says Schreier. “We basically add our assistant to the current functionalities of Simatic PCS 7 or Win CC, as an interactive manual. Instead of having to leaf through pages, the user can simply ask questions about functions or get to know the system easily and intuitively through tutorials.”
Will Digital Natives Expect Assistants in Process Control?
The developers assume that assistance systems like this will not just establish themselves in the private sector in years to come, but that customers who use a control system will simply expect such functionalities in near future. The next milestone is already in sight with a pilot deployment at a large chemical company in the summer of 2019. By then, the range of functions of the digital assistant will be expanded and it will be prepared for use with the recently launched web-based process control system Simatic PCS neo.
* * The author is Project Manager with Siemens AG.