Orchestrating the Modular Plant One Step Closer towards Connecting the Building Blocks

| Editor: Dominik Stephan

A construction kit with unprecedented flexibility: Modular engineering shall enable operators to simply assemble a plant from pre-configured modules, connect them to a common process control and adapt the production process to changing requirements by simply adding additional building blocks.

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This vision of a Lego-like engineering is considered to be one of the key drivers for the sector — but so far, the desired plug-and-produce capability often ends at the interface. While functional modules or process skids are making their way into engineering, the modularization of the automation system has a long way to go: The integration of skids into a higher-level plant wide control system often proves to be difficult.

Only recently, the introduction of the Module Type Packages (MTP), a technology-independent standard description of the properties and interfaces of a process module provided a much needed impetus for the concept. The MTP structures the automation architecture into an orchestration layer on top (provided by the process control system) and a module layer consisting of the integrated MTPs below. Based on the Automation Markup Language (AML) technology, each MTP provides the opportunity to export the significant information of a process module for integration with a plant-wide automation system.

Now, this also includes so-called services, i.e. functions like e.g. filling, emptying, heating or agitating. Meanwhile, automation suppliers are busy working on the integration of MTPs into the process control systems. Their vision: The MTP shall provide the required information and visualization needed to operate a skid or module, Like a driver software enables a computer to work with a specific device, the developers explain.

At Achema 2018, several exiting exhibits already provide a brief glimpse into the new world of modular engineering and operation — among them a stirred reactor or a filtration module. They also demonstrate common HMI-functionalities that enable a uniform handling of process modules from different manufacturers. But much remains to be done:

The management and visualization of alarm conditions as well as an approach to address diagnosis and maintenance issues need common standards while the communication via OPC UA (the de-facto standard protocol for Industry 4.0) has to be included in both module and orchestration layers, experts agree. In fact, modularisation is not only a matter of engineering — just like an orchestra is more than the sum of its individual musicians.