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The path to seamless instrument integration in chemical processes

Aug. 11, 2023
The possibilities for greater integration are being transformed by innovations in Ethernet technology.

Finding ways to remove the time, cost and complexity of achieving true end-to-end integration of instrumentation and control systems to enable the collection and utilization of valuable process and diagnostics data has been an ongoing quest for plant operators, particularly those in the chemical space.

The proliferation of different standards and communications protocols has historically made it difficult to find a uniformly available and accessible way of retrieving and processing data from instruments and sensors. Consequently, much of the valuable data that could be used throughout production processes to facilitate real-time data analysis, proactive decision-making, and optimized performance through predictive maintenance has been locked away within their devices.

However, advances in technology, particularly in the realms of Ethernet and cloud computing, are now helping to overcome this, bringing closer the realization of end-to-end integration in instrumentation.

The evolution of integration

Digital instruments first emerged 25 years ago, offering adjustable parameters to control their behavior and diagnostics to identify faults. However, these capabilities were often underutilized due to the complexities involved in accessing and interpreting the data. It was only about six years ago that the potential of Ethernet, as a physical layer, started to gain attention for field-level integration. The introduction of Ethernet into industrial applications has opened new possibilities, such as remote access to devices and improved communication between instruments.

This paradigm shift has triggered a re-evaluation of integration strategies among various industries, including chemicals and oil-and-gas, as well as automation vendors. With Ethernet, the focus shifted toward enhanced speed and data transmission, while simultaneously grappling with the challenges of ensuring security in an interconnected landscape.

End-to-end integration and the role of edge and cloud computing

End-to-end integration involves the seamless integration of devices within a PLC or control system. While this concept is not entirely novel, recent developments in edge and cloud computing have brought a fresh perspective to the table. The NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA), conceived from the plant-operator's viewpoint, played a pivotal role in separating process control from other functions like asset and plant optimization. This separation paved the way for a network-centric architecture, enabling devices to connect to a unified network while ensuring that conflicts are resolved and fostering interconnectivity regardless of geographical location.

This departure from the traditional automation pyramid, with its model of top-down commands from the control system to devices, has given rise to a client/server model where the server represents the device, and the client denotes the control system. This shift, facilitated by IT mechanisms, has enabled real-time access to data, extending beyond mere measured values to encompass diagnostics, calibration schedules, and other derived measurements.

Access to this data provides a new dimension for plant operators in terms of being able to ensure that processes are operating at their optimum and—where they are not—being able to immediately ascertain both the root cause and the potential solution.

It can also provide the valuable raw data needed for compliance reporting, which is particularly important in chemical processes that are subject to increasingly stringent legislation around areas such as safety and environmental emissions.

New possibilities

Communication protocols play a crucial role in achieving seamless integration. Ethernet, being an agnostic physical layer, serves as a transport mechanism for various protocols. This offers the advantage of greater flexibility over previous communications technologies and enables greater freedom in choosing the most suitable protocol. PROFINET, for instance, employs an application profile that defines standardized data parameters for different devices, simplifying the interface and data-retrieval process.

In contrast, protocols like Modbus or HART require prior knowledge of the device's specifics in order to access measurement values, diagnostic information or parameters. OPC UA, an increasingly popular link technology, has gained traction due to its compatibility with network-centric architecture and Ethernet-based communications. It serves as a secure and versatile method for data transportation, applicable to field devices, industrial equipment, servers, and cloud-based systems. OPC UA enhances integration by eliminating the need for extensive device-specific programming and providing a more user-friendly interface. It also incorporates features to ensure security through measures like user authentication and security certificates that facilitate authorized access while safeguarding against unauthorized intrusions.

Ensuring security and trust in integrated systems

While the benefits of seamless integration are evident, security concerns loom large. As more devices become accessible through networks, the risk of unauthorized access increases exponentially. Additionally, with multiple field devices installed, the potential for inadvertently connecting to the wrong device necessitates robust user authentication and precise instrument identification.

Secure provisioning, alongside user authentication and identification measures, addresses these challenges and bolsters trust in the system. Trust must flow in both directions, with devices trusting that authorized clients are accessing them and clients verifying that they are communicating with the intended devices. These efforts align with a broader range of innovations aimed at enhancing security throughout the integrated ecosystem.

Overcoming barriers and embracing innovations

Traditional barriers to achieving seamless integration primarily revolved around security and complexity. The previous reliance on different protocols between the different levels of the automation-pyramid model necessitated costly and complex data translations and conversions. Technological advancements, such as the Field Device Integration (FDI) standard, have enabled seamless translation between devices, reducing complexity and implementation costs.

The widespread adoption of Ethernet and the growing ubiquity of mobile devices have paved the way for easier access and integration. Ethernet, despite being at the initial stages of technology adoption in process automation, is poised to revolutionize the transfer and collection of data in industrial applications. In particular, the arrival of Ethernet APL (Advanced Physical Layer) technology promises extended cable runs, two-wire communications, and intrinsic safety compliance. By addressing the specific requirements of the process industry, Ethernet APL holds the potential to bridge the remaining gaps and facilitate end-to-end integration on a broader scale.

Applying Ethernet APL in the chemical industry

While Ethernet APL is still a nascent technology, its potential is already being explored by industrial operators keen to realize its benefits in their operations. One example is BASF, which is looking to apply Ethernet APL as part of a new smart-manufacturing project across its greenfield Verbund facility at Donghai Island in China.

Developed to serve a range of industries including automotive, consumer goods, electronics and new energy vehicles, the integrated chemicals complex is expected to produce one million metric tons of ethylene annually. All operations across the nine clusters and 21 plants that will make up the gigantic complex will be connected and unified by ABB’s Ability System 800xA distributed control system, with Ethernet APL being used to enable high speed relay of data from devices in the field while limiting current and voltage to ensure an intrinsically safe solution.


The pursuit of seamless integration in instrumentation has seen significant progress over the years, driven by technological advancements and the evolving demands of chemical companies to be able to optimize plant performance and ensure regulatory compliance using their production data. Ethernet's emergence as a viable physical layer for communication, alongside the increasing popularity of protocols like OPC UA, has paved the way for improved integration possibilities.

While challenges such as security and complexity persist, they are being addressed through innovative measures and the collective efforts of industry stakeholders. As the vision of end-to-end integration comes closer to reality, the benefits in terms of real-time data access, analytics, predictive maintenance, and regulatory compliance are poised to revolutionize industrial automation, enabling safer and more efficient operations, optimized asset management, and enhanced productivity both in the chemical industry and beyond.

About the Author

Tilo Merlin

Platform manager with ABB Instrumentation