Such systems can range from a few modular panel-mounted controllers to large interconnected and interactive distributed control systems with many thousands of field connections. All systems receive data received from remote sensors measuring process variables (PVs), compare these with desired set points (SPs) and derive command functions which are used to control a process through the final control elements (FCEs), such as control valves.
The larger systems are usually implemented by Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, or distributed control systems (DCS), and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), though SCADA and PLC systems are scalable down to small systems with few control loops. Such systems are extensively used in industries such as chemical processing, pulp and paper manufacture, power generation, oil and gas processing and telecommunications.
The simplest control systems are based around small discrete controllers with a single control loop each. These are usually panel mounted which allows direct viewing of the front panel and provides means of manual intervention by the operator, either to manually control the process or to change control setpoints. Originally these would be pneumatic controllers, a few of which are still in use, but nearly all are now electronic.
Quite complex systems can be created with networks of these controllers communicating using industry standard protocols. Networking allow the use of local or remote SCADA operator interfaces, and enables the cascading and interlocking of controllers. However, as the number of control loops increase for a system design there is a point where the use of a programmable logic controller (PLC) or distributed control system (DCS) is more manageable or cost-effective.
A distributed control system (DCS) is a digital processor control system for a process or plant, wherein controller functions and field connection modules are distributed throughout the system. They are used when the number of control loops makes DCS more cost effective than discrete controllers, and enable a supervisory view and management over large industrial processes. In a DCS, a hierarchy of controllers is connected by communication networks, allowing centralised control rooms and local on-plant monitoring and control.
A DCS enables easy configuration of plant controls such as cascaded loops and interlocks,[further explanation needed] and easy interfacing with other computer systems such as production control. It also enabled more sophisticated alarm handling, introduces automatic event logging, removes the need for physical records such as chart recorders and allows the control equipment to be networked and thereby located locally to equipment being controlled to reduce cabling.
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 peripheral components of the system.
The processors receive information from input modules, process the information and decide control actions to be performed by the output modules. The input modules receive information from sensing instruments in the process (or field) and the output modules transmit instructions to the final control elements, such as control valves.
Distributed control systems can normally also support Foundation Fieldbus, PROFIBUS, HART, Modbus and other digital communication buses that carry not only input and output signals but also advanced messages such as error diagnostics and status signals.
Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is a control system architecture that uses computers, networked data communications and graphical user interfaces for high-level process supervisory management, but uses other peripheral devices such as programmable logic controllers and discrete PID controllers to interface to the process plant or machinery. The operator interfaces which enable monitoring and the issuing of process commands, such as controller set point changes, are handled through the SCADA supervisory computer system. However, the real-time control logic or controller calculations are performed by networked modules which connect to the field sensors and actuators.
The SCADA concept was developed as a universal means of remote access to a variety of local control modules, which could be from different manufacturers allowing access through standard automation protocols. In practice, large SCADA systems have grown to become very similar to distributed control systems in function, but using multiple means of interfacing with the plant. They can control large-scale processes that can include multiple sites, and work over large distances. It is one of the most commonly-used types of industrial control systems, however there are concerns about SCADA systems being vulnerable to cyberwarfare/cyberterrorism attacks.
Referring to the functional hierarchy diagram in this article:
Level 1 contains the PLCs or RTUs
Level 2 contains the SCADA software and computing platform.
The SCADA software exists only at this supervisory level as control actions are performed automatically by RTUs or PLCs. SCADA control functions are usually restricted to basic overriding or supervisory level intervention. For example, a PLC may control the flow of cooling water through part of an industrial process to a set point level, but the SCADA system software will allow operators to change the set points for the flow. The SCADA also enables alarm conditions, such as loss of flow or high temperature, to be displayed and recorded. A feedback control loop is directly controlled by the RTU or PLC, but the SCADA software monitors the overall performance of the loop.
PLCs can range from small "building brick" devices with tens of I/O in a housing integral with the processor, to large rack-mounted modular devices with a count of thousands of I/O, and which are often networked to other PLC and SCADA systems.
They can be designed for multiple arrangements of digital and analog inputs and outputs (I/O), extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. Programs to control machine operation are typically stored in battery-backed-up or non-volatile memory.
It was in the automotive industry in the USA that the PLC was created. Before the PLC, the control, sequencing, and safety interlock logic for manufacturing automobiles was mainly composed of relays, cam timers, drum sequencers, and dedicated closed-loop controllers. Since these could number in the hundreds or even thousands, the process for updating such facilities for the yearly model change-over was very time consuming and expensive, as electricians needed to individually rewire the relays to change their operational characteristics.
When digital computers became available, being general-purpose programmable devices, they were soon applied to control sequential and combinatorial logic in industrial processes. However these early computers required specialist programmers, and stringent operating environmental control for temperature, cleanliness, and power quality. To meet these challenges the PLC was developed with several key attributes. It would tolerate the shop-floor environment, it would support discrete input and output, and it was easily maintained and programmed. Another option is the use of several small embedded controls attached to an industrial computer via a network. Examples are the Lantronix Xport and Digi/ME.
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 the 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.