Even Siemens’ hardware is going software

Apr 23, 2024 | Hot Topics

Last month, I spent a few days with Siemens at its Karlsruhe facility, home to the Process Automation division (as well as a canteen, manufacturing plant, and I don’t know what else—it’s a massive complex where thousands of people work). Here’s what I learned during their Analyst Deep Dive.

Before I was a CAD person, I was a naval architect. I worked at a shipyard for a year, so I have some understanding of what it takes to make one really big thing at a time, but volume production, to my mind, goes something like this:

Of course, with much respect to the fabulous Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, it actually doesn’t happen this way. No one can make money doing things in the Lucy-style, and Siemens has been helping manufacturers do it right for over fifty years. (And a note: Paramount took down the official version of this clip after this article was written; as soon as it’s back, I’ll update. Wouldn’t want to violate anyone’s copyright. If you can’t see it, try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkQ58I53mjk)

Siemens (and others, to be fair) make control and automation systems — hardware and software — that drive production lines. These systems must be programmed, tuned, and monitored to ensure that raw materials and finished goods move smoothly through production, that quality remains high, and that energy and raw material use are within the intended parameters.

While the process controller experts may argue with me, I believe Siemens’ secret sauce is its software offerings. Siemens demonstrated how a process plant —the oil and water separator in the photo below— is designed and operated:

  • First, we define the chemical process, determine inputs, temperatures, pressures, etc., and identify necessary equipment. Siemens’ (software) solution here is gPROMS for steady state and dynamic process modeling. When we have the best possible process design,
  • That concept then moves into the detailed design of each element: the piping, structures, equipment, etc. Each discipline likely uses specialist software tools, often integrated via Siemens COMOS. It offers discipline-specific views of the same object, protecting consistency.
  • Alongside the design of the production plant is the design and engineering of the automation and control system that will drive the plant. Automation engineers use the output from COMOS to program Siemens’ SIMATIC PCS controller devices.
  • The output from COMOS is also used as input to Siemens SIMIT, which simulates the process’ behavior and that of the control system. SIMIT is used to virtually commission the production process (and to create operator training scenarios before physical operations begin).
  • Once the process plant is operational, gPROMS can be deployed again as a real-time model to tune the process model and the operating plant to one another. [Siemens also sells XHQ, an operational analytics toolset. We didn’t talk about it much, which is a shame because it’s really cool.]

Do you see a theme here? Data is reused and consistently applied throughout this chain, through many different types of users, apps and skill sets. And looping around from gPROMS back to gPROMS completes a cycle of design-validate-update.

As Bart Moors, head of Process Automation Software at Siemens Digital Industries, told us, Siemens’ goal is to increase plant reliability and effectiveness, with all assets fully operational. But even more importantly, it is helping customers build an efficient decision-making platform with real-time data seamlessly integrated into maintenance, asset information, and engineering data. (That’s not Bart, above.) This matters because, as Lucy and Ethel found out, production generally doesn’t go as planned, and having the data in hand to make important, time-critical decisions is all-important. We later during these session talked about cybersecurity; all the defensive measures technology can provide mean nothing if we can’t determine what’s at risk and how to recover quickly when an incident does occur.

Even the hardware/device-oriented parts of Siemens’ Process Automation business lean on software. Rebecca Vangenechten, head of the Automation and Engineering Segment within the Process Automation business, said her customers believe software-enabled automation will change their businesses for the better. Perhaps sooner than we think, the information technology (IT) used by the corporate functions (ERP, office apps, etc.) will no longer be separate from the operating technology (OT) used in the plant — the manufacturing execution systems (MES), control systems like SIMATIC PCS 7, and all of the sensors and other devices on the production floor. And that makes sense: the OT systems monitor a problem in the plant, and the IT systems adjust schedules — they need to work together as seamlessly as possible.

How is Siemens making this happen? Among other things, via SIMATIC PCS neo, a web-based process control system that allows engineers, operators, and suppliers to work together as needed to design and run their process automations. (To be clear: PCS neo can also operate offline, without internet access, which may be required in specific plant areas.) 

My software-centric brain is going, “Yes, yes, this makes so much sense!” but I know that PCS neo has been out for several years with a somewhat slow uptake — why aren’t customers flocking to neo? One thing COVID taught us is that remote operations is critical to keeping everything ticking over, so why aren’t more PCS customers using web-based tools for process automation? When I asked Ms. Vangerechten about this, she said that Siemens supports millions of devices using the older PCS 7 technology, and it will take time for them to pass through upgrade cycles. Too, PCS neo includes optimizations for specific industry processes, and it takes time to build and roll these out, so many potential users are waiting for particular capabilities to be added to PCS neo before they can consider adopting it. Interesting.

A couple of other tidbits:

  • Right now, a physical programmable logic controller (PLC) device is attached to almost every bit of machinery on a production line because that’s how it has always been. But what if we could replace that with software? Siemens is starting to bring out virtual PLCs, which are hardware-independent – meaning that no specific hardware is needed and that data can be more easily shared between IT systems. The virtual PLCs are managed via edge computers that can communicate with the outside world — which means that an automation engineer could sit in an office anywhere in the world and, with appropriate authority, reprogram PLCs in remote locations. This gets to the whole remote-work thing we learned about during the pandemic, but also would seem, to me, to foster consistency across production sites and lines, lead to better use of materials and other inputs and so on.
  • Siemens is going to introduce GenAI / Industrial Copilot offerings that will help design and operate specific types of process plants. One of the first releases will be for green hydrogen plants, which apparently use a fairly standard process that can be configured to suit the specific plant’s objectives. This will include pre-defined libraries, automation templates, and other assets. I think this is happening this week at Hannover Fair.
  • Of course, cybersecurity is top of mind at Siemens. The company has layers upon layers upon layers of offerings to secure access to hardware, software, and data, covering both production information and the facility itself. Some of this is basic common (digital) sense: upgrade to the latest version, be careful whom you credential and so on. But increased connectivity brings new risks, which increases what experts call the “attack surface” for IT and OT apps; talk to Siemens or your preferred partners about this. It sounds challenging to DIY.
  • One perspective on digital twins is that they’re a vendor-created buzzword without much “there” there. At Siemens, though, digital twins are much more than a marketing concept. The company gave examples of customers who are working with Siemens to co-create digital twins. BASF, for example, needed a more flexible plant that could better adapt to shifting external conditions, like high energy prices and fluctuating raw materials costs. They decided that a digital twin of the facility, its engineering, operations, and maintenance would enable it to continuously optimize production; together, they upgraded their distributed control system (DCS; unclear if it was SIIMATIC) and integrated it with COMOS, the plant engineering solution, and SIMIT (the simulation software). This enabled operators to analyze and optimize process design and operation, creating the real-time virtual plant. Digital twins can be marketing — or they can be much more.

TL;DR. That was really long, I know. Bottom line: Software is eating the world, even old-school hardware items like DCSs and PLCs. This is in part a reaction to fewer humans doing of many of these production processes (see Lucy, above) but more an indication of how much software can actually DO, if we let it. The Siemens Process Automation  World demo center is a very modern, spiffy, view into tomorrow’s production facility: where using data and technology to design, plan, create and run processes leads to competitive advantage. That simple, and that complex.

Note: Siemens graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The cover picture is one I took of the entry into Siemens’ Process Automation World facility and the inline photo is of the separator; I apologize for not getting the name of the human in the photo.