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Distributed control systems (DCS) have been used to help control manufacturing and production processes since the late 1970s. The primary function of these systems has been the automatic feedback control of the various process loops across the plants and the human interfacing with plant operators guiding the production from control rooms. Although these systems have proven to be very successful at improving the efficiency of industrial operations as compared with earlier control technologies, the DCS has not grown significantly since its inception. Most plants still operate exactly as they did 40 years ago.
Considerable research and development has been invested in expanding the functionality of DCSs in the areas of advanced controls and advanced manufacturing execution software. Numerous industrial plants have started to employ advanced controls in critical or high-value process operations, with some venturing into the use of advanced application software packages, each typically designed to address a specific issue or challenge within the industrial operations. Entrepreneurial software companies typically developed the software at this level of operation, essentially between the automation and business levels, often referred to as the manufacturing execution software (MES).
Although some industrial operations implemented advanced control and advanced MES software, the vast majority of processes are still controlled by simple automatic feedback control. The efficiency and effectiveness of most plants is a function of the installed feedback control systems. As a result, many industrial managers have expressed concerns that, in spite of the huge investments made in automation systems and software, plants do not appear to be operating better than they had been 30 years ago. In some cases, the plants actually appear to be operating less efficiently, possibly due to the reduced and inexperienced work forces and aging equipment.