Industrial Control Systems (ICS): System Types & Examples

Instructor: Erik Rodriguez

Erik has experience working in Cybersecurity and has a Master's of Science in Information Systems.

In this lesson, we will discuss what industrial control systems are and the types that are available. Additionally, we will review some real-world examples of industrial control systems providers.

The Conveniences of Life

''What a great workout!'' you say to your friend as you finish the cycling class you both signed up for. As you make your way through the gym, you stop by a water fountain to quench your thirst. The cold, crisp water instantly cools you as you gulp in a frenzy. The air conditioning inside the gym also offers relief from the heat you generated during your workout. As you leave the gym, chances are you gave little thought to the systems that allowed you to drink fresh water from the water fountain and provided the electricity to power the air conditioning and gym equipment. Today, many industries use industrial control systems in their operations. These systems play a crucial role in our electrical, chemical, and water treatment plants, among others.

Industrial Control Systems

An Industrial Control System, or simply ICS, refers to a collection of individual control systems and other hardware which work together to automate or operate industrial processes. Each industry, such as manufacturing, chemical processing, and food production, will utilize ICSs that are tailored for their specific processes. The goal of ICSs is to make daily operations more efficient and autonomous, with minimal input from human workers. Additionally, ICSs can come in various forms and types, such as supervisory control and data acquisition systems, distributed control systems, and process control systems.

Process Control Systems

Process Control Systems are those which are tasked with ensuring that processes throughout the production line operate within normal boundaries. This is accomplished by employing a variety of hardware and equipment that analyze the production process and then sending the analysis to personnel. This allows personnel to quickly resolve any issues that may be present in the production process. Additionally, process control systems may employ the use of human-machine interfaces that allows human workers to provide feedback and commands to the system.

An example of a process control system can be seen in nuclear processing plants. Various sensors around the reactor and the plant measure temperature, radiation levels, and other pertinent metrics. Should any of these metrics begin to reach unsafe levels, personnel can be alerted to quickly look into the cause of the abnormal readings. As a result, workplace accidents can be curtailed through the use of process control systems.

Some process control systems use human-machine interfaces that allow personnel to provide feedback and commands to the system

SCADA Systems

A subset of process control systems, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems, or simply SCADA systems, are tasked with providing centralized monitoring and control of a plant's field sites. This is done through the use of various hardware devices such as Programmable Logic Controllers that are installed in various locations or through the use of specialized software. SCADA systems allow for the automation of tasks that can be time-consuming for human workers to perform, especially if the tasks entail the workers to travel between field locations. These tasks can include monitoring environmental conditions, opening and closing valves, and collecting pertinent data from hardware sensors. According to Trend Micro, SCADA systems are commonly found in industries which require the continuous monitoring and control of pipelines.

An example application for a SCADA system can be seen in the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry relies on expansive tracks of pipelines which are used to transport the raw material from location to location. Along the way, the oil and gas may travel to various smaller plants to process the material before continuing on its journey. SCADA systems can be used to open and close valves to control how and where the material travels through the pipeline.

SCADA systems can be used to open and close valves in an oil and gas pipeline as the material travels through various sites

Distributed Control Systems

Distributed Control Systems, or DCS, are those systems which are tasked with controlling processes at a single location. In a DCS, a baseline for the desired processes is set and sent to the main controller in the system. This centralized controller can be viewed as the brain which then instructs other controls, or nodes, in the system to operate so that the baseline requirements are met and maintained. These nodes are distributed around the system and are tasked with gathering and storing data and controlling system processes. The data the nodes gather is then forwarded to the centralized controller which makes it available to personnel. DCSs are most often seen in the manufacturing, oil refinery, and electric power industries.

A great example of how distributed control systems are used can be seen in a wastewater treatment plant. Large wastewater treatment plants typically employ the use of various water holding tanks, pipes, and valves for each stage of the water treatment process. Everything must work in unison in order to keep the water moving efficiently throughout the plant. To accomplish this, a distributed control system can be utilized so that the central controller instructs all the various moving parts and processes throughout the treatment plant.

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