Understanding SCADA Systems

-Estera Cioroch, Danbury, CT

SCADAs are used anywhere there is a need to regulate automated functions, including manufacturing, power generation, water treatment and distribution, food production and refrigeration, oil and gas refining, mass transit and traffic regulation, and so much more. Given their broad use and application, understanding what they are and what they do is key to grasping the importance and value of these automated systems. But what exactly is a SCADA?

SCADA stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition and can be thought of as the “brain and nervous system” of an industrial plant. It is a type of control system architecture composed of five main parts: Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), Remote Terminal Units (RTUs), communication infrastructures, a supervisory system, and a Human Machine Interface (HMI). The PLCs and RTUs connect to sensors in the field, gathering and sending data via the communication infrastructure to the supervisory system. The supervisory system, which is typically what is referred to as the SCADA in discussions, then transfers data to the HMI (essentially the program displayed on the monitor of the SCADA computer.) An operator can then use the HMI to read and monitor data from tags, respond to alarms, and run commands that streamline and control plant operations. Typically, a SCADA system will also include alarming, as well as a historian that supports trending or reporting—both useful analytical tools.

There are many reasons that SCADAs are so commonly used in a variety of industries. For one, SCADAs provide a clear visual of what is happening inside a plant in real time, allowing operators to respond quickly to critical situations and prevent potential accidents. Additionally, SCADA systems record and store data, which can then be analyzed to reveal operational vulnerabilities and help drive informed decisions to increase plant efficiency, profit margins, plant safety, or even the life of equipment within a plant. Finally, SCADA systems also provide remote control of devices and operations on the field, automating many system functions that would otherwise have to be performed manually. In short, SCADA systems provide incredible value to a wide range of industries, driving plant efficiency and helping to streamline automated processes.

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