Process control of large industrial plants has evolved through many stages. Initially, control would be from panels local to the process plant. However this required a large manpower resource to attend to these dispersed panels, and there was no overall view of the process. The next logical development was the transmission of all plant measurements to a permanently-manned central control room. Effectively this was the centralisation of all the localised panels, with the advantages of lower manning levels and easier overview of the process. Often the controllers were behind the control room panels, and all automatic and manual control outputs were individually transmitted back to plant in the form of pneumatic or electrical signals.
However, whilst providing a central control focus, this arrangement was inflexible as each control loop had its own controller hardware so system changes required reconfiguration of signals by re-piping or re-wiring. It also required continual operator movement within a large control room in order to monitor the whole process. With coming of electronic processors, high speed electronic signalling networks and electronic graphic displays it became possible to replace these discrete controllers with computer-based algorithms, hosted on a network of input/output racks with their own control processors. These could be distributed around the plant and would communicate with the graphic displays in the control room. The concept of "distributed control" was realised.
The introduction of distributed control allowed flexible interconnection and re-configuration of plant controls such as cascaded loops and interlocks, and easy interfacing with other production computer systems. It enabled sophisticated alarm handling, introduced automatic event logging, removed the need for physical records such as chart recorders, allowed the control racks to be networked and thereby located locally to plant to reduce cabling runs, and provided high level overviews of plant status and production levels. For large control systems, the general commercial name "Distributed Control System" (DCS) was coined to refer to proprietary modular systems from many manufacturers which had high speed networking and a full suite of displays and control racks which all seamlessly integrated.
Whilst the DCS was tailored to meet the needs of large industrial continuous processes, in industries where combinatoric and sequential logic was the primary requirement, the PLC (programmable logic controller) evolved out of a need to replace racks of relays and timers used for event-driven control. The old controls were difficult to re-configure and fault-find, and PLC control enabled networking of signals to a central control area with electronic displays. PLC were first developed for the automotive industry on vehicle production lines, where sequential logic was becoming very complex. It was soon adopted in a large number of other event-driven applications as varied as printing presses and water treatment plants.
SCADA's history is rooted in distribution applications, such as power, natural gas, and water pipelines, where there is a need to gather remote data through potentially unreliable or intermittent low-bandwidth and high-latency links. SCADA systems use open-loop control with sites that are widely separated geographically. A SCADA system uses RTUs (remote terminal units, also referred to as remote telemetry units) to send supervisory data back to a control center. Most RTU systems always did have some limited capacity to handle local controls while the master station is not available. However, over the years RTU systems have grown more and more capable of handling local controls.
The boundaries between DCS and SCADA/PLC systems are blurring as time goes on.The technical limits that drove the designs of these various systems are no longer as much of an issue. Many PLC platforms can now perform quite well as a small DCS, using remote I/O and are sufficiently reliable that some SCADA systems actually manage closed loop control over long distances. With the increasing speed of today's processors, many DCS products have a full line of PLC-like subsystems that weren't offered when they were initially developed.
This led to the concept and realisation of a PAC - programmable automation controller - which is programmed in a modern programming language such as C or C++, - that is an amalgamation of these three concepts.
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