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Distributed Control Systems – an Evolution

Today’s automation system or process control system, like virtually everything these days, is built from an array of special purpose microprocessors along with computers and networked servers. These systems are referred to as “DCS” systems, which translates to “Distributed Control System”.

Many years ago, there were big computers that were centralized, with thousands of wires going to and from them. All the program logic was centrally located within each of these large computers. These general-purpose computers did many things, from payroll and accounting to databases, so perhaps it seemed sensible to have them perform industrial automation as well.

An industrial control system servicing a big factory might be connected to several thousand sensors and actuators. This meant the costly situation of several thousand wires running up to several hundred miles. Figure 1 illustrates the congestion associated with just a few pieces of process equipment.

Figure 1: Illustration of an early industrial Central Processing Unit.

In the 1980s, a new approach emerged, which was a coordinated network of computers, distributed much closer to the equipment. This “Distributed” approach became very popular due to numerous advantages. For automation systems, the term “Distributed Control Systems” became ubiquitous in our industry. Other terms that are often used are “Process Control System,” “Process Automation System” or “Industrial Control System”, but none have gained common acceptance like “DCS”.

There is a wide variation between these categories. As technology advanced, so did control systems, evolving to incorporate a more distributed architecture, and a plethora of networks to support this distribution. This generally follows a ”client-server” architecture, such that most logic and control execution is performed at localized devices called controllers.

Figure 2: A typical Distributed Control System Controllers and I/O modules

In typical modern DCS systems, controllers are mounted in chassis racks, along with appropriate interface modules to process the field device signals. These racks are located closer to the process equipment, thus reducing the length of the hundreds of field device signal cables. Process data is consolidated into the controller for control functions and reporting over the network to the HMI and operator display graphics. There still is a central server, but its role is greatly diminished, relegated to being a central location for the system-wide database, used only to download into the controllers as needed, and for administrative functions. Figure 2 illustrates this typical DCS setup.

Figure 3 shows the architecture of an earlier phase in the development of the Distributed Control System, which we will refer to as “DCS version 1.0”. In this diagram illustrating “DCS version 1.0” there is physical and logical grouping within each control and I/O rack, so there needs to be thought about signal and I/O rack physical locations during the design phase of an installation.

Figure 3: Architecture of early era Distribution Control Systems (e.g. DCS version 1.0)

In Figure 4, we see the evolution to “DCS version 2.0”, which is specifically an illustration of an Emerson DeltaV system. This highlights developments that have been responsible for new, cost effective advancements in control systems. The signal processing and control calculation, logic and even sequencing is distributed, downloaded into completely autonomous controllers – controllers vastly more powerful than previous generation DCS systems possessed.

Figure 4: Architecture of a more modern Distributed Control Systems (DCS version 2.0)

Another common industry term is “PLC”, which stands for “Programmable Logic Controller”, again due to historical usage. In the modern context, the principal distinction between PLC and DCS controllers is that the PLC’s programming language is more visualized in sometimes complex relay connections, using the software equivalent of wires and open or closed contacts, referred to as “Ladder Logic”, while DCS system configuration is a more multi-faceted database and mathematical calculation driven, relying on functions with inputs and outputs wired together.

PLC systems are better suited to machinery control, especially servo motors, conveyors and robot systems due to their logic oriented structure, while DCS systems are better suited performing more elaborate process control and optimization, especially batch recipe management and sequencing. It should be said that either system can certainly manage any of theses functions, but it’s a question of which is best suited for which role. It is a question of time and effort to achieve the desired functionality.

When a technology is considered for a task, any kind of technology, the ease of use, ease of deployment and ease of maintenance all must be taken into account. An electrician working on a motor that won’t start will have much greater ease of use, and hence quicker results by looking at open or closed contacts, highlighted with their active status, than reading boolean expression consisting of “AND” and “OR” or “NAND” gates.

Manufacturers tend to be aligned with one or the other of these two control types (DCS vs. PLC), with the familiar names like: Emerson DeltaV, Honeywell Experion, ABB 800xA, Foxboro Invensys and Siemens PCS7 (now PCS Neo) being categorized as “DCS”. Rockwell Allen Bradley, Siemens (Step 7 family), Schneider Modicon, Omeron, Opto and Phoenix are representative of systems categorized as “PLC”s.  These are arbitrary distinctions in that these categorizations are more historical, since the automation systems of today quickly blur these boundaries with considerable overlap.

A most striking example of this is Emerson’s most recent development, the “PK” generation of controller which draws upon the sophistication, and network integration, and ease of use it inherits from the DCS environment, while simultaneously drawing in the autonomous nature and scalability (start small, grow big). An apparent goal, well achieved, was the almost native integration with other vendors PLC equipment, a very common circumstance with skid vendors who build their complete systems on PLC systems.  This is most often Rockwell, Siemens or Schneider, but other OEM vendors as well.

The easier an integration effort is to incorporate these systems into the larger plant automation architecture, the more quickly a project is successful. It would bare pointing out that Emerson “PK” controllers is but one solution of overall plant integration, since there also are other popular solutions from other vendors, notably Rockwell sophisticated FactoryTalk and PlantPAx products.

It should be pointed out that while DCS vendors have started offering scalable, downward compatible solutions to be competitive with PLCs, the PLC vendors have conversely been expanding their products upward, to embrace a more advanced features and sophistication to be quite competitive with systems from the DCS vendors.

A significant development within industrial control systems is that of “Electronic Marshaling”. Traditionally, marshaling referred to the field cabling signal data coming from the I/O devices being connected to marshaling termination strips as it enters the I/O cabinets. Then the signals data is connected via jumper wiring to the termination of the appropriate I/O modules. The physical location of the I/O modules within particular chassis automatically associate that module’s signals with the controller located within that chassis.

Figure 5 shows this traditional marshaling termination used in a DCS version 1.0 system. On the top left position, we see two controllers (redundant) for the chassis/racks. There are three chassis populated with I/O modules. The modules can process input or output signal types or either analog or discrete devices, as well as pulse counting, and thermocouple or RTDs.

The entire right hand side of this panel is occupied by the marshaling termination for 150 I/O signals. We see the field wiring cables coming in from the right hand side, then cable harness (hidden by the Panduit covers) transiting from there to the I/O modules on the left side.

Figure 5: DCS version 1.0 I/O rack

In the era of DCS version 2.0, “Electronic Marshaling” is not exactly new, having begun with the introduction of CHARMS I/O almost a decade ago. Such innovations, while compelling, often only make sense in new system implementations.

The electronic marshaling concept makes use of single channel, individual field devices, signal conditioning, digitizing, and termination all in one module, named “CHARMS”, for “CHARacterization ModuleS”.

In DCS 1.0 designs, a module contains the scaling and digitizing electronics to convert 8 or 16 channels of analog readings into digitally encoded words on a network. This conversion is performed on the individual channels, giving ultimate flexibility to mix and match signal types, and simplify ad-hoc changes.

This enhanced design allows for eliminating marshaling panels, increasing density within cabinets, simplifying engineering and accommodating I/O changes dynamically, and conveniently during installation and commissioning. As if this wasn’t enough, the CHARMS are “hot swappable”, meaning a failure can be addressed with a “pluck and replace” of an offending module without the slightest interruption of adjacent signal processing. This contrasts to older systems where a module replacement meant powering down of an entire chassis, or at minimum, of all the channels on a multi-channel module.

Figure 6: DCS version 2.0 I/O rack with CHARMS modules

What does this DCS 2.0, with its Electronic Marshaling, look like? Figure 6 depicts a DCS 2.0 I/O rack with CHARMS modules. It is much more consolidated and organized. There are still the controllers and communications support, but the chassis, full of I/O modules are gone.  Likewise, blocks of single channel signal processors, called CHARMS modules, have replaced the terminal strips, previously used for marshalling. 

Each column of these CHARMS modules (up to 96 modules) is serviced by network communications modules and are now accessible network-wide, not limited to the local chassis and controller.  This enhanced use of space now supports 300 I/O device signals, twice which was previously supported.

Figure 7: CHARMS modules installed on a base carrier.

Figure 7 illustrates how the Individual modules are inserted into a base carrier and connected together to communicate to the communication processors “CIOC” (short for “CHARMS I/O Communications”).

Using this approach, significant savings are realized in engineering design, drawings, wiring, and commissioning costs. The elimination of terminal strips, jumper wiring, simplified wiring termination diagrams, and reduced termination and commissioning times realize considerable cost savings. When considering a 5-10 minute installation time per termination point, including checkout & commissioning, the savings can be 350-700 hours for a 1,000 I/O sized system. This also results in fewer points to get “lost” or mislabeled, since every wire in a cabinet requires (or should have) a wire label on each end. Fewer errors mean faster startups with higher confidence and lower risk.

It’s easy to see why customers are embracing this new innovation. That outlines the history of DCS systems, but what’s next to come? The evolution is ongoing, and admittedly not limited to one vendor. However, there is certainly a lot of innovation emerging in the developments highlighted in this discussion.

Chromatography – an Automation Perspective


A variety of purification processes are used across many industries to produce numerous products used for daily consumption.

For instance, a typical glass of water is processed through many purification steps including sequential filtration, adsorption, chemical treatment, ion exchange chromatography, reverse osmosis, distillation, UV light, and ozone treatment. The exact methods used will vary depending on the quality of water being produced, and the corresponding degree of purity desired. Each type of purification unit operation is able to remove/reduce contaminants in the source water stream, and does so by exploiting different chemical/physical properties between the desired product and contaminating components in the starting material (raw feedstream).

Of many of the purification methods used in processing industries, chromatography is particularly powerful, and is widely used in the production of pharmaceuticals. Chromatography has wide-ranging utility, flexibility across application, and especially the degree to which it can produce compounds of very high purity for human consumption.

Chromatography Overview

While initially used in Russian scientific projects for plant pigment separation, this purification method designated “Chromatography”, quickly became recognized as a valuable chemical technique for many pharmaceutical purposes. A variety of different chromatographic techniques are used, each designed to provide differential separation conditions between the desired product and contaminants present in the source material. Source materials which contain the desired product may come from biological origin (eg: blood plasma, tissue organs) or expression systems like cell culture or fermentation, each of which will contain thousands of contaminating substances in addition to the desired product.

An Äkta Chromatography Column being prepared for production use, with its instrumentation skid and operator console for Unicorn software access.

While the details of the methods vary considerably, a large percentage of chromatography used in pharmaceutical manufacturing consists of a column configuration where a liquid stream containing the product, referred to as the “feedstream”, is passed through a stationary material (resin). This stationary material can attract and retain either the product or unwanted contaminants depending on the materials and conditions employed. Retaining the product is known as bind and elute chromatography while retaining contaminants is known as “flowthrough” chromatography. Bind and elute chromatography will be used as an example for further discussion.

The stationary material is typically supplied for use as a mechanical substrate, often a resin, which is covalently linked with an active material, or a “ligand”. Once the stationary material is packed inside the column, and the feedstream is pumped through the, the ligand attracts and retains the sought-after product contained within the feedstream. The attraction between ligand and product varies between methods, but may depend upon anionic/cationic, hydrophobic or affinity bonding.

The subsequent steps include an “elution”, which flows a buffer or solvent through the column and gradually causes the release of the product into the effluent stream. The addition of buffers of varying pH, ionic strength or related conditions eliminates the attraction between ligand and product, thus releasing (eluting) the product through the column.  Measurement techniques such as ultraviolet, conductivity and/or pH are used to monitor the liquid effluent stream to determine the presence and purity of product to determine timing of effluent collection during the elution phase. Often, a gradient of increasing buffer concentration is used modulate the rate of release of retained material.

Ligand affinity chromatography separation is based on unique interaction between the target product and a ligand, which is coupled covalently to a resin. It is a simple, rapid, selective, and efficient purification procedure of proteins providing tens of thousands fold purification in one step. (1)

The leverage that a purification factor of ten thousand-fold provides, makes the extra effort of chromatography (and considerable costs) worthwhile.

Production Chromatography Systems Architecture

The skid contains routing valves, pumps, instruments, controller electronics and an industrial PC, which directs automation functions. The local operator station operates the skid and column via the ÄKTA Unicorn software. The Unicorn software runs under a Windows OS, so network integration allows remote users the ability to see and operate the application, as well as allowing remote archiving of run logs and logging of historical data.

GE AKTA ready
A production ÄKTA Column shown with its skid and basic architecture diagram.

The software contains pre-programmed sequencing action and monitoring instructions, which is connected via Ethernet to the skid controller unit (CU-960). The controller has Profibus-SP and UniNet-1 links for communication with the instrumentation components. Measurement devices include UV, pH, conductivity, pressures, liquid flows, temperatures, air sensor and bubble trap level. Control devices include pump motors and valves connected via an AS-i bus gateway. In some configurations, a temperature control system is also integrated.

Unicorn Software Overview

While G.E. Healthcare ÄKTA Skids integrated with Unicorn software are not the only packaged chromatography solution on the market, it is one that continues to enjoy considerable popularity.  There are some instances where end users have developed their own solutions, however the level of complexity and ROI is unlikely to provide added benefit, especially considering the development time, delayed start-up, lost production and extent of validation efforts required.

To highlight features of the Unicorn software:

  • UNICORN is a control and analysis solution for any chromatography process on an ÄKTA
  • UNICORN is network integrated, so it allows real-time supervision and control from either a local or remote PC, and can store run log files in remote network-based archives as locked, read-only results files, ensuring data integrity.
  • To comply with FDA 21 CFR Part 11, individual user access permissions can be set, and individual users are password protected.
  • Automatic saving of methods, results, run logs and audit trail on local PC or on server (if networked) is possible.
  • UNICORN makes use of Windows infrastructure for Authentication and Authorization privileges.
  • OPC allows communication with other Control and Data Acquisition or archiving systems.

Integration of a DCS system with the Unicorn System

In addition to the UNICORN based automatic operations, there are frequently concurrent operator interactions or interventions needed in the performance of a Chromatography process run.  Traditionally, these non-automatic additional actions are performed under the direction of an SOP document and recorded on batch record forms, signed and dated in ink.

Instead, UNICORN software can be integrated into a Distributed Control System (DCS) such as a DeltaV system, as shown in the figure below.  Running a DCS driven batch recipe in synchronization with the UNICORN method execution allows for recipe driven, concise operator messaging. This provides greater guidance, and tracks verification of task completion, ensuring compliance with SOP requirements.

DeltaV control system integrated with AKTA automation architecture.

The result is that the need for manually entering and signing batch run data for GMP documentation is eliminated, as it is instead administered and recorded by the DeltaV system.  The batch history log now captures these verifications in the electronic record with the batch run data and subsequently the batch report.

When integrating UNICORN software with a DCS:

  • The DeltaV system is integrated with the UNICORN control system over the network communication infrastructure
  • Standard features of UNICORN remain unaltered:
    • Methods development and execution
    • Run results
    • Configuration
    • Network integration
  • Handshaking between DeltaV and UNICORN provide reciprocal exchanging of process data and alarm status
  • Reciprocal data exchange allows logic to halt or pause processing progress, dependent on fault severity evaluation
  • All process data read by the UNICORN system is accessed by DeltaV every 1-3 seconds, for timely updates and responsive displays
  • This integration provides effective and flexible operator instructions (SOPs) and acknowledgement of task messaging which is then logged in the batch history
  • Batch Recipe Management of sequences of operations and managed timing of process flow enhance quality control and execution accuracy
  • DeltaV management of Recipe Formula Parameters provides convenient download by product requirement or experimental run
  • Alarm management and bi-directional Watchdog status monitoring with orderly degradation of ancillary processes upon stoppages is provided

System Architecture – Unit Level

Each Chromatography System is comprised of a Windows workstation, running the UNICORN control software, interfaced via Ethernet to a CU-960 Control Unit for integration to the UNICORN Network (when multiple AKTA units are integrated).

The detailed system architecture is depicted in the diagram below.  The typical unit architecture includes an individual column and its skid under the control of the CU-960 from which communication emanates over Ethernet, Profibus-DP and UniNet-1. Additionally, valve control is managed over AS-I bus, which is converted through a gateway device connected to the Profibus-DP leg.

The DeltaV system accesses the UNICORN skid data via Ethernet based OPC method, which is convenient as variables are referenced by path and variable name, not channel specification.

This process data is measured as Analog Inputs: flow rates, pressures, levels, valve statuses.  All control output responsibility remains within the UNICORN system.  Additionally, discrete signals are exchanged between DeltaV and UNICORN to indicate statuses/fault conditions, as well as program control; start, stop, pause, abort, and resume processing.

System Architecture –The Instrumentation Skid

The G.E. Healthcare ÄKTA Columns’ valving is controlled by the Unicorn software in conjunction with the system’s instrumentation, all of which is contained in the skid.  The skid enclosure contains the system computer and communications infrastructure, by which it controls the instruments.


Integration of a production chromatography system in a plant’s overall automation architecture is more than just having network access, although that is important to provide access to a central server for archiving and license verification.  There is also much to be gained to allow systems integration for data exchange with the rest of the plant automation systems, in addition to historian access to real time data, batch system recipe synchronization of steps, operator instructions, SOPs and sign-off on completion of manual operations based on transition conditions.

In addition, the data flow from and to an MES system allows for higher-level functions, notably yield calculations. The improved visibility is beneficial to plant floor operations and supervision personnel to see statuses on the same screen as other production data, for engineering personnel for optimization and troubleshooting, and for production management to monitor operations.

GE AKTA ready integrated with a DeltaV Distributed Control System


1) Novick D., Rubinstein M. (2012) Ligand Affinity Chromatography, an Indispensable Method for the Purification of Soluble Cytokine Receptors and Binding Proteins. In: De Ley M. (eds) Cytokine Protocols. Methods in Molecular Biology (Methods and Protocols), vol 820. Humana Press, Totowa, NJ