Distributed control system

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A Distributed Control System (DCS) is a control system for a process or plant, wherein control elements (controllers) are distributed throughout the system. This is in contrast to non-distributed systems that use a single controller at a central location. In a DCS, a hierarchy of controllers is connected by communication networks for command and monitoring.

Example scenarios where a DCS might be used include:

  • Chemical plants
  • Petrochemical (oil) and refineries
  • Pulp and Paper Mills
  • Boiler controls and power plant systems
  • Nuclear power plants
  • Environmental control systems
  • Water management systems
  • Water treatment plants
  • Sewage treatment plants
  • Food and food processing
  • Agro chemical and fertilizer
  • Metal and mines
  • Automobile manufacturing
  • Metallurgical process plants
  • Pharmaceutical manufacturing
  • Sugar refining plants
  • Dry cargo and bulk oil carrier ships
  • Formation control of multi-agent systems


Functional levels of a typical Distributed Control System.

A DCS typically uses custom designed processors as controllers and uses either proprietary interconnections or standard protocols for communication. Input and output modules form the perpheri components of the system. The processors receive information from input modules, process the information and decide actions to be performed by the output modules. The input modules receive information from input instruments in the process (or field) mainly via sensors and the output modules transmit instructions to the actuators in the field for initiating actions mainly via final control elements. The inputs and outputs can either be continuously changing analog signals e.g. 4~20mA dc current or 2 state discrete signals that switch either "on" or "off" e.g. relay contacts, the signals can also be transmitted values via a communication link such as foundation fieldbus, profibus, HART, Modbus, PC Link and other digital communication bus that carries not only input and output signals but also advanced messages such as error diagnostics and status signals.


Distributed Control Systems (DCS) are dedicated systems used to orchestrate manufacturing processes that are continuous or batch-oriented, such as oil refining, petrochemicals, central station power generation, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage manufacturing, cement production, steelmaking, and papermaking.

DCS are connected to sensors and actuators and use setpoint control to control the flow of material through the plant. The most common example is a setpoint control loop consisting of a pressure sensor, a controller, and a control valve. The DCS sends the pressure setpoint required by the process to the controller. The pressure measurements are transmitted to the controller, usually through the aid of a signal conditioning input device. The controller instructs a valve or an actuator to operate so that the process reaches and keeps at the the desired setpoint. Large oil refineries have several thousand I/O points and employ very large DCS. Processes are not limited to fluidic flow through pipes, however, and can also include things like paper machines and their associated quality controls (see quality control system QCS), variable speed drives and motor control centers, cement kilns, mining operations, ore processing facilities, and many others.

A typical DCS consists of functionally and/or geographically distributed digital controllers capable of executing from regulatory control loops in one control box. The input/output devices (I/O) can be integral with the controller or located remotely via a field network. Today’s controllers have extensive computational capabilities and, in addition to proportional, integral, and derivative (PID) control, can generally perform logic and sequential control. Modern DCSs also support neural networks and fuzzy application. Recent research focuses on the synthesis of optimal distributed controllers, which optimizes a certain H-infinity or H-2 criterion.[1][2]

DCSs are usually designed with redundant processors to enhance the reliability of the control system. Most systems come with displays and configuration software that enable the end-user to configure the control system without the need for performing low-level programming, allowing the user also to better focus on the application rather than the equipment. However, considerable system knowledge and skill is required to properly deploy the hardware, software, and applications. Many plants have dedicated personnel who focus on these tasks, augmented by vendor support that may include maintenance support contracts.

DCSs may employ one or more workstations and can be configured at the workstation or by an off-line personal computer. Local communication is handled by a control network with transmission over twisted -pair, coaxial, or fiber-optic cable. A server and/or applications processor may be included in the system for extra computational, data collection, and reporting capability.


Manual controls in 1958 industry, photo by Paolo Monti

Early minicomputers were used in the control of industrial processes since the beginning of the 1960s. The IBM 1800, for example, was an early computer that had input/output hardware to gather process signals in a plant for conversion from field contact levels (for digital points) and analog signals to the digital domain.

The first industrial control computer system was built 1959 at the Texaco Port Arthur, Texas, refinery with an RW-300 of the Ramo-Wooldridge Company[3]

In 1975, both Honeywell and Japanese electrical engineering firm Yokogawa introduced their own independently produced DCS's with Yokogawa introducing and successfully installing before Honeywell, with the TDC 2000 and CENTUM[4] systems, respectively. US-based Bristol also introduced their UCS 3000 universal controller in 1975. In 1978 Valmet introduced their own DCS system called Damatic (latest generation named Valmet DNA[5]). In 1980, Bailey (now part of ABB[6]) introduced the NETWORK 90 system, Fisher Controls (now part of Emerson Electric) introduced the PROVoX system, Fischer & Porter Company (now also part of ABB[7]) introduced DCI-4000 (DCI stands for Distributed Control Instrumentation).

The DCS largely came about due to the increased availability of microcomputers and the proliferation of microprocessors in the world of process control. Computers had already been applied to process automation for some time in the form of both direct digital control (DDC) and set point control. In the early 1970s Taylor Instrument Company, (now part of ABB) developed the 1010 system, Foxboro the FOX1 system, Fisher Controls the DC2 system and Bailey Controls the 1055 systems. All of these were DDC applications implemented within minicomputers (DEC PDP-11, Varian Data Machines, MODCOMP etc.) and connected to proprietary Input/Output hardware. Sophisticated (for the time) continuous as well as batch control was implemented in this way. A more conservative approach was set point control, where process computers supervised clusters of analog process controllers. A CRT-based workstation provided visibility into the process using text and crude character graphics. Availability of a fully functional graphical user interface was a way away.

Central to the DCS model was the inclusion of control function blocks. Function blocks evolved from early, more primitive DDC concepts of "Table Driven" software. One of the first embodiments of object-oriented software, function blocks were self-contained "blocks" of code that emulated analog hardware control components and performed tasks that were essential to process control, such as execution of PID algorithms. Function blocks continue to endure as the predominant method of control for DCS suppliers, and are supported by key technologies such as Foundation Fieldbus[8] today.

Midac Systems, of Sydney, Australia, developed an objected-oriented distributed direct digital control system in 1982. The central system ran 11 microprocessors sharing tasks and common memory and connected to a serial communication network of distributed controllers each running two Z80s. The system was installed at the University of Melbourne.[citation needed]

Digital communication between distributed controllers, workstations and other computing elements (peer to peer access) was one of the primary advantages of the DCS. Attention was duly focused on the networks, which provided the all-important lines of communication that, for process applications, had to incorporate specific functions such as determinism and redundancy. As a result, many suppliers embraced the IEEE 802.4 networking standard. This decision set the stage for the wave of migrations necessary when information technology moved into process automation and IEEE 802.3 rather than IEEE 802.4 prevailed as the control LAN.

The network-centric era of the 1980s[edit]

In the 1980s, users began to look at DCSs as more than just basic process control. A very early example of a Direct Digital Control DCS was completed by the Australian business Midac in 1981–82 using R-Tec Australian designed hardware. The system installed at the University of Melbourne used a serial communications network, connecting campus buildings back to a control room "front end". Each remote unit ran two Z80 microprocessors, while the front end ran eleven Z80s in a parallel processing configuration with paged common memory to share tasks and that could run up to 20,000 concurrent control objects.

It was believed that if openness could be achieved and greater amounts of data could be shared throughout the enterprise that even greater things could be achieved. The first attempts to increase the openness of DCSs resulted in the adoption of the predominant operating system of the day: UNIX. UNIX and its companion networking technology TCP-IP were developed by the US Department of Defense for openness, which was precisely the issue the process industries were looking to resolve.

As a result, suppliers also began to adopt Ethernet-based networks with their own proprietary protocol layers. The full TCP/IP standard was not implemented, but the use of Ethernet made it possible to implement the first instances of object management and global data access technology. The 1980s also witnessed the first PLCs integrated into the DCS infrastructure. Plant-wide historians also emerged to capitalize on the extended reach of automation systems. The first DCS supplier to adopt UNIX and Ethernet networking technologies was Foxboro, who introduced the I/A Series[9] system in 1987.

The application-centric era of the 1990s[edit]

The drive toward openness in the 1980s gained momentum through the 1990s with the increased adoption of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components and IT standards. Probably the biggest transition undertaken during this time was the move from the UNIX operating system to the Windows environment. While the realm of the real time operating system (RTOS) for control applications remains dominated by real time commercial variants of UNIX or proprietary operating systems, everything above real-time control has made the transition to Windows.

The introduction of Microsoft at the desktop and server layers resulted in the development of technologies such as OLE for process control (OPC), which is now a de facto industry connectivity standard. Internet technology also began to make its mark in automation and the DCS world, with most DCS HMI supporting Internet connectivity. The 1990s were also known for the "Fieldbus Wars", where rival organizations competed to define what would become the IEC fieldbus standard for digital communication with field instrumentation instead of 4–20 milliamp analog communications. The first fieldbus installations occurred in the 1990s. Towards the end of the decade, the technology began to develop significant momentum, with the market consolidated around Ethernet I/P, Foundation Fieldbus and Profibus PA for process automation applications. Some suppliers built new systems from the ground up to maximize functionality with fieldbus, such as Rockwell PlantPAX System, Honeywell with Experion & Plantscape SCADA systems, ABB with System 800xA,[10] Emerson Process Management[11] with the Emerson Process Management DeltaV control system, Siemens with the SPPA-T3000[12] or Simatic PCS 7,[13] Forbes Marshall[14] with the Microcon+ control system and Azbil Corporation[15] with the Harmonas-DEO system. Fieldbus technics have been used to integrate machine, drives, quality and condition monitoring applications to one DCS with Valmet DNA system.[5]

The impact of COTS, however, was most pronounced at the hardware layer. For years, the primary business of DCS suppliers had been the supply of large amounts of hardware, particularly I/O and controllers. The initial proliferation of DCSs required the installation of prodigious amounts of this hardware, most of it manufactured from the bottom up by DCS suppliers. Standard computer components from manufacturers such as Intel and Motorola, however, made it cost prohibitive for DCS suppliers to continue making their own components, workstations, and networking hardware.

As the suppliers made the transition to COTS components, they also discovered that the hardware market was shrinking fast. COTS not only resulted in lower manufacturing costs for the supplier, but also steadily decreasing prices for the end users, who were also becoming increasingly vocal over what they perceived to be unduly high hardware costs. Some suppliers that were previously stronger in the PLC business, such as Rockwell Automation and Siemens, were able to leverage their expertise in manufacturing control hardware to enter the DCS marketplace with cost effective offerings, while the stability/scalability/reliability and functionality of these emerging systems are still improving. The traditional DCS suppliers introduced new generation DCS System based on the latest Communication and IEC Standards, which resulting in a trend of combining the traditional concepts/functionalities for PLC and DCS into a one for all solution—named "Process Automation System". The gaps among the various systems remain at the areas such as: the database integrity, pre-engineering functionality, system maturity, communication transparency and reliability. While it is expected the cost ratio is relatively the same (the more powerful the systems are, the more expensive they will be), the reality of the automation business is often operating strategically case by case. The current next evolution step is called Collaborative Process Automation Systems.

To compound the issue, suppliers were also realizing that the hardware market was becoming saturated. The life cycle of hardware components such as I/O and wiring is also typically in the range of 15 to over 20 years, making for a challenging replacement market. Many of the older systems that were installed in the 1970s and 1980s are still in use today, and there is a considerable installed base of systems in the market that are approaching the end of their useful life. Developed industrial economies in North America, Europe, and Japan already had many thousands of DCSs installed, and with few if any new plants being built, the market for new hardware was shifting rapidly to smaller, albeit faster growing regions such as China, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.

Because of the shrinking hardware business, suppliers began to make the challenging transition from a hardware-based business model to one based on software and value-added services. It is a transition that is still being made today. The applications portfolio offered by suppliers expanded considerably in the '90s to include areas such as production management, model-based control, real-time optimization, plant asset management (PAM), Real-time performance management (RPM) tools, alarm management, and many others. To obtain the true value from these applications, however, often requires a considerable service content, which the suppliers also provide.

Modern systems (2010 onwards)[edit]

The latest developments in DCS include the following new technologies:

  1. Wireless systems and protocols
  2. Remote transmission, logging and data historian
  3. Mobile interfaces and controls
  4. Embedded web-servers

Increasingly, and ironically, DCS are becoming centralised at plant level, with the ability to log in to the remote equipment. This enables operator to control both at enterprise level ( macro ) and at the equipment level (micro) both within and outside the plant as physical location due to interconnectivity primarily due to wireless and remote access has shrunk.

As wireless protocols are developed and refined, DCS increasingly includes wireless communication. DCS controllers are now often equipped with embedded servers and provide on-the-go web access. Whether DCS will lead IIOT or borrow key elements from remains to be established.

Many vendors provide the option of a mobile HMI, ready for both Android and iOS. With these interfaces, the threat of security breaches and possible damage to plant and process are now very real.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ D'Andrea, Raffaello (9 September 2003). "Distributed Control Design for Spatially Interconnected Systems". IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control. 
  2. ^ Massiaoni, Paolo (1 January 2009). "Distributed Control for Identical Dynamically Coupled Systems: A Decomposition Approach". IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control. 
  3. ^ Stout, T. M.; Williams, T. J. (1995). "Pioneering Work in the Field of Computer Process Control". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 17 (1): 6–18. doi:10.1109/85.366507. 
  4. ^ [1] CENTUM
  5. ^ a b [2] Valmet DNA
  6. ^ [3] INFI 90
  7. ^ [4] DCI-4000
  8. ^ [5] Foundation Fieldbus
  9. ^ [6] Foxboro I/A Series Distributed Control System
  10. ^ ABB System 800xA
  11. ^ [7] Emerson Process Management
  12. ^ [8] SPPA-T3000
  13. ^ [9] Simatic PCS 7
  14. ^ [10] Forbes Marshall
  15. ^ [11] Azbil Corporation