Apr 23, 2020

Modern SCADA Systems Address a Variety of Challenges for Utilities

Utilities look for solutions that balance ease of use with advanced features. 

The Ignition SCADA system by Inductive Automation helps the City of Lynchburg in Virginia quickly and easily design applications.

When he was SCADA manager for the City of Lynchburg in Virginia, Jason Hamlin was in search of the “Goldilocks” of SCADA systems. He needed a particular system that balanced ease of use with advanced features in order to quickly and easily design applications for the city.

“A powerful system that will do whatever you want can be exceptionally hard to work with,” says Hamlin, who went on to work for Corso Systems and InstruLogic. “Another system may be easy to use with drag-and-drop capabilities but also be extremely limiting.” 

Dee Brown, principal at Brown Engineers in Little Rock, Arkansas, faced similar challenges. He needed a powerful system that offered a wide range of tools and could be implemented quickly. Since staff at different utilities may use multiple software programs to manage their operations, Brown also needed a platform that could standardize their tools and data-tracking in one place.  

Combining Power with Ease of Use

To manage their projects, both Brown and Hamlin required a SCADA system that was fast and easy-to-use to meet their deliverables. They chose the modern SCADA system Ignition by Inductive Automation.

“(Ignition) is very easy to pick up and learn if you know nothing about it,” Hamlin says. “It also has a near unlimited amount of power once you want to dig in and dive deeper.” While users can start with drag-and-drop capabilities, they can also use expression language, SQL queries, Python scripting and build custom Java modules, he says. 

“It was a tremendous help because all the tools are there,” Brown adds. “It helps us in training to be able to standardize.”

Dee Brown
Dee Brown

Using a modern SCADA system has also allowed Brown to more quickly utilize historical data through data trending. By utilizing SQL databases, a modern SCADA system makes it easier to integrate into existing MES and ERP systems, allowing data to flow seamlessly through an entire organization. Historical data can also be logged in a SQL database.  

The ability to integrate historical data gets a strong reaction, Brown says. “The ability to display real-time trending and retrieve data from historical databases is extremely fast. We get a lot of wows over that,” he says. “People can visibly see and feel the difference in their day-to-day job.”

Benefits of a Web-Based Application 

Since traditional SCADA systems use proprietary technology to handle data, older technologies can create headaches for staff needing to upgrade or patch their system, according to Hamlin. HMI/SCADA software systems may cause issues such as individually installed clients, limited and proprietary connectivity, decentralized maintenance and limited security options. 

“If you have to go from Windows XP to Windows 7, it’s a nightmare because you need all-new licensing, and you have to handle the conversion and everything that goes along with it,” he says. 

A web-deployed solution can be easier and quicker to install. Because it does not require users to install a driver, the system can be set up on a local or computer network, and it can be launched to any device with a web browser. 

Brown says he started working with Ignition over a decade ago “because of its ease of use and the ability to really set up communications and begin using it very, very quickly.” 

Jason Hamlin
Jason Hamlin

Hamlin and his team at the City of Lynchburg were able to use their SCADA system to launch the first real-time public alerting system in the state of Virginia in half the allotted project time, which was two months. Hamlin says he was able to design a functioning prototype in a single day, and the project was completed in a month. 

Ignition also enabled Hamlin to complete a control room migration in early 2020 in under a week. 

“We had a full SCADA migration from one set of monitors to a new wall of bigger monitors in a remodeled control room in four days,” says Hamlin, who served as the senior systems engineer at Corso Systems during the project. “I was switching hardware, switching computers, but there was never a time I couldn’t handle what the customer needed.” 

Brown says the software’s versatility makes it easy to work with for his mechanical, electrical and automation firm. “If the question is, ‘Can Ignition do this?’ the answer is always yes,” Brown says. “The ability to pull data, to open databases for storing information, graphics, alarming – it’s all there.”

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