When you work in such fields as the oil and gas industry or the utilities industry, there’s a significant chance that you will encounter a SCADA system while on the job. These systems are essential for the monitoring and control of various pieces of equipment that are designed to handle time-sensitive and critical events. While there are many different types of SCADA software, each type comes with similar features. Whether you own an industrial company or are a key manager at one, you’ll likely want to know more about SCADA systems and how they work. While this software is designed to run in the background, there are times when a problem could develop with the software, which is why it’s important to understand what SCADA is and how it works.
What Does a SCADA System Refer To?
SCADA stands for supervisory control and data acquisition, which is a type of computer system that is meant to gather and quickly analyze real-time data. These systems are commonly used within production facilities and industrial plants. When put in use, a SCADA system is designed to help with the control and monitoring of an entire plant or equipment that deals specifically with time-sensitive and critical events. For instance, when a leak occurs in a pipeline, the SCADA system that’s in place will help to detect the leak and transfer the information pertaining to the leak back to a central location.
While it’s possible for this software to be simplistic, there are also many scenarios that require a complex SCADA system. An example of a simple SCADA system is when it’s being used to monitor the general conditions inside of a small office building. On the other hand, more complex systems are required for real-time monitoring of a municipal water system or nuclear power plant. While this type of software was initially used in the 1960’s, it has since become an essential component in nearly all production facilities and industrial plants.
There are many things that can be done with SCADA depending on the exact needs of the company using the system. This system provides organizations with the ability to control various processes locally or in a remote location. Real-time data can be gathered, monitored, and processed in an instant when using this software. The HMI (human-machine interface) software also allows employees or managers within the organization to directly interact with a wide variety of devices, which include valves, sensors, motors, and pumps. Any event that occurs can be recording by the system into a log file, which can be addressed immediately.
Primary Applications of SCADA Systems
SCADA is used in many different applications, most of which are specific to the type of business that’s using the system. When it comes to the oil and gas industry, the main applications that they use SCADA for include the monitoring and control of pipelines, the remote monitoring and control of pumping, storage, and production locations, the monitoring of offshore platforms, and the control of refineries. When looking specifically at utilities, the businesses in this industry typically use SCADA to control the distribution of electrical power from coal, nuclear, and gas-fired sources. These systems can also be used for the transmission of electrical power.
For water and wastewater plants, SCADA is typically utilized for the monitoring and control of water treatment centers and wastewater collection and treatment facilities. Some of the other industries that this software is commonly used in include agriculture and irrigation, transportation, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and manufacturing. While these systems are able to maintain equipment efficiency and process data for quicker and smarter decisions, a key benefit of this software is that the real-time communication of system issues helps to significantly reduce downtime.
How SCADA Works
The standard architecture for a SCADA system starts with PLCs or RTUs, which stand for programmable logic controllers and remote terminal units respectively. These are both considered to be microcomputers that are designed to interact and communicate with many different objects, which extend to sensors, HMIs, factory machines, and end devices. These communications and pieces of information are then routed from the objects in question to the computers that have been outfitted with SCADA software.
Once the SCADA software receives the information, the data is then processed, distributed, and displayed, which allows employees and operators to analyze this data and make decisions from it. One example of how SCADA works involves an oil pipeline that has a leak. Once the leaks occurs, SCADA will detect the exact location of the leak and then transfer this data back to a central location, which helps to alert employees about the leak. This data will also be analyzed by the system. For instance, SCADA will be able to determine if the leak is critical, which could require additional measures to be taken by any nearby staff. The information will then be displayed in a manner that’s organized and logical, which allows employees to read and interpret the information immediately. Being able to read this information quickly is essential for operators to make rapid decisions.
Another example of how SCADA works involves the manufacture of a certain product. An operator may be notified by the SCADA system that a specific batch of the product is displaying a high number of errors, which could lead to significant problems if the product is placed on the market before the errors have been corrected. With this notification, the operator can pause the operation momentarily while they take a look at the data received by the SCADA system through an HMI. This data allows the operator to determine what’s causing the problem. Once the problem has been identified, a correction can be made and future losses can be prevented. A standard SCADA system includes sensors or manual inputs that feed data to the PLC or RTU in the system. This data can then be sent to an operational terminal via an HMI or a workstation.
Costs Associated With SCADA Systems
The costs for a SCADA system depend mainly on how complex the system is. If the SCADA software that you need to purchase is designed for a small office setting, the costs will be low. However, if the SCADA software is going to be installed for the monitoring of a municipal water plant, the costs will be much higher. SCADA pricing also depends on the company that you purchase from, the bundle that you select, and the features that you want your software to have. Some companies offer custom solutions that are available for as low as $1,500-$2,000. Basic packages tend to cost upwards of $8,000-$10,000 and come with such features as alarm notification, the ability to store tag histories, and unlimited SQL access.
Some companies will offer additional packages and bundles that can range from $15,000-$40,000. The mid-tier package might include an extra layer of business analytics and data management, while the top-tier package could be outfitted with SMS functionality, voice notification, and sequential function charts. The package that’s right for you and your business largely depends on the needs of your company. Many businesses will also offer individual modules with their SCADA software that allows you to only purchase the features that you require. For instance, you might be able to obtain unlimited HMI visualization clients for around $5,000-$7,000 or a reporting module for a few thousand. The best SCADA providers will offer packages that bundle software features as well as individual modules, which means that even smaller companies would be able to afford the software.
Problems You Might Encounter With SCADA
Even the best SCADA systems can malfunction from time to time. The system may even appear to be working correctly during diagnostics only to malfunction at a later date, which can be problematic when you need to make sure that your office building or industrial plant is operating smoothly. One of the more common problems that you might encounter with SCADA involves a direct connection from external enterprise systems to SCADA. These systems are designed first and foremost to be data collection and visualization tools, which means that additional functionalities aren’t always readily supported.
While most SCADA software comes with quality storage systems, most are incapable of supporting hundreds or even thousands of external connections to the system from third parties. The performance of your SCADA system can quickly deteriorate if substantial amounts of data are being taken from SCADA storage systems. The better method for warehousing this data is to store the data directly in a process historian, which is isolated from the rest of the SCADA system and allows for a more controlled data stream. Other problems with the SCADA system might involve an application redundancy when you purchase individual modules, poor engineering, and an incorrect application or protocol stack, the latter of which primarily occurs when the SCADA software you own supports the “Sequence of Events” feature.
How to Secure SCADA Systems
Like all types of software, the security of your SCADA system can be breached if it’s not strong enough to account for various cyber threats. Most of this software has been designed to bolster efficiency, which means that the security of the software is usually weak. In the event that your security isn’t strong enough, your system will be open to such vulnerabilities as process redirection, disruption of service, or the manipulation of data. No matter the size of your SCADA network, it’s important that you increase the security of the system in question.
You should begin by identifying every connection to your SCADA network. Once you’ve identified these connections, a risk analysis should be performed to determine how necessary each connection is. Any connections that aren’t deemed necessary should be disconnected. The connections that you should check include dial-up connections, internet connections, wide area or local networks, connections to vendors and business partners, and wireless network devices. You can also evaluate how secure each connection is by conducting a vulnerability analysis for all remaining networks. For the less secure networks, it’s recommended that you implement intrusion detection systems and firewalls at each point of entry.
There are some older systems that don’t have any actual security features, which is dangerous if you want to keep your network secure. Even if you have an older system, you must request to your SCADA vendor that they provide you with security features via upgrades and patches. Even in modern systems, it’s common for the factory default security settings to be set for maximum usability, which means that security is low. You should change these settings to provide you with the maximum amount of security instead.
Some additional steps you should take to bolster security include establishing a team that can identify and evaluate potential attacks and system vulnerabilities, performing regular technical audits to highlight security concerns, and establishing incident monitoring that’s up and running 24/7. Your system administrators, managers, and other users of the SCADA system should all understand their roles and responsibilities for keeping the system secure. If ever a cyber attack occurs, system backups and recovery plans should be in place to allow for rapid recovery. By enhancing the strength of your system security and building a strong cyber security team, you should be able to mitigate the inherent risks that come with using a SCADA system.
Features of Modern SCADA Systems
SCADA systems have gone through many technological advancements in recent years, which has allowed for the introduction of some highly beneficial features and components. For instance, modern systems allow for real-time data to be accessed from any remote location in the world, which makes for better decision-making. Most of these systems are also equipped with rapid application development capabilities, which provides users with the ability to design applications with relative ease. The usage of modern IT standards has bolstered the security, reliability, efficiency, and productivity of most SCADA systems. The availability of wireless equipment for these systems has also helped to reduce costs and enhance reliability.
How SCADA Can Help Businesses
In essence, SCADA systems help with efficiency of various operations through the use of automation. With one of these systems installed, your business would be able to study the results of measured conditions and create an optimal response to these conditions, which could then be executed automatically whenever these conditions occur in the future. For example, if ever a critical leak is detected, the system could immediately close a nearby valve to get rid of the hazardous conditions.
When a business leaves their employees or managers to monitor equipment and the processes that occur with this equipment, human error is always a possibility. Using SCADA eliminates these human errors. This software also automates the routine and commonplace tasks that would otherwise take up far too much time when performed by an employee, which increases productivity. The presence of these systems allows for better management of critical failures with machines in real-time, which means that the successful recovery from a critical failure is more likely.
When an employee or operator is left to handle a case of equipment failure on their own, the stresses that come with making split-second decisions could lead to one or more mistakes being made, which could prove to be very costly. These systems are practically essential for any large business or industrial plants. Because of how large oil refineries and wastewater collection facilities are, using a SCADA system to monitor and control the equipment may be the only way to reduce costs and maintain profitability. Larger work sites require more manpower to handle such tasks, which is why it’s better to automate these tasks.
IndustLabs SCADA Systems
Here at IndustLabs we make a quality reliable SCADA System. We can provide a specifically designed for your operation’s specifications. If you would like to learn more about our SCADA System Solution, be sure to contact us today.