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What is Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)?

What is Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)?


SCADA: The Big Picture

UltimateAccess SCADA

As businesses grow in size and complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to keep track of all the moving pieces. In an industrial application, there may be hundreds or even thousands of separate components, all operating together in real-time. The ability to monitor, control, and analyze each component is essential for maintaining safety and efficiency. To accomplish this, many businesses use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to keep track of their workflow.

While programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can automate predictable processes, there are still many tasks that are too complex for a PLC to handle. Imagine that you want to increase factory output “when the market is doing well”. A business analyst (or a very advanced machine learning program) might be able to make sense of such a request, but this would be virtually impossible using ladder logic alone. While a PLC can be programmed to change its behavior based on user inputs, determining such input is often a complicated process and may require real-time monitoring for maximum efficiency.

To accommodate the constantly changing requirements of the real world, automation systems must be able to respond to human decisions. In turn, human decisions (good ones, at least) require as much data as possible. This means looking not only at the instantaneous output of machines and sensors but also at how these values change over time. On top of that, carrying out decisions should be as simple and effective as possible. Operators need access to fine details, but should also be able to execute high-level controls, all without specialized training.

SCADA was invented for this exact purpose. Through a SCADA system, a network of industrial devices can all be monitored and controlled from a central location. Most SCADA options also provide a customizable user interface (UI) for visualizing information and inputting commands. But unlike human-machine interfaces (HMIs), which require in-person operation, SCADA software is run on a PC or server. This allows entire facilities to be operated remotely, without the need for on-site visits. SCADA can also be integrated with other software tools including databases, APIs, ERP software, and more. With the right configuration, entire production pipelines can be automated and controlled from a single device.

Uses for SCADA

So what does a typical SCADA implementation look like? As may be expected, SCADA systems vary widely depending on the application. A project’s scope can be as complex as managing multiple factories across several countries, or as simple as controlling the lighting and air conditioning for a single building. Part of what makes SCADA so powerful is that it can be molded to meet the needs of different users.

A few core components make this possible. Virtually all modern SCADA software can do the following:

  • Read and write data from connected network devices
  • Display data via graphs, charts, and other visualization tools
  • Allow users to create and execute custom programs via a UI

There are many additional features for different brands, but the functions listed above are what allow SCADA to merge separate processes into a cohesive whole. Altogether, SCADA helps organizations make better-informed decisions, avoid safety issues and downtime, and more effectively automate workflows. As a result, SCADA has been adopted worldwide for many different applications.

Here are just a few common uses for SCADA:

SCADA Over Time

Univac Console

The “supervisory control” in “SCADA” refers to the ability to check the state of a system and output commands accordingly. Before computers were invented, this was handled by simple relays and timers connected to a control panel. Operators could monitor the status of machines based on gauges and other indicators, then interact with switches and dials to perform different functions. This method offered some degree of automation, but was still bound by the limitations of relay wiring. Creating such a system required large racks with complicated cable management, and making changes was a difficult and time-consuming task.

Digital computation was the natural answer to this problem. Beginning in the 1950s, and with increasingly compact machines in the 60s and 70s, some companies started using general-purpose computers to replace hard-wired relay circuits. Although this still required separate wires for each component, control panels could now be reprogrammed without rewiring. Operators were no longer limited to static functionality, and could automate complex tasks more efficiently.

As industrial companies continued to grow in size and scope, operations also spread out across larger areas. As a result, the demand for coordination between sites rose significantly. Early solutions used radio and landline networks for basic telemetry. Later, companies began using LAN networks and eventually internet connections. However, most of the protocols used were proprietary, meaning that often, modifications could only be made by a single engineer or contractor.

Although this was sufficient for connecting devices from the same manufacturer, communication between sites—and especially between different companies—remained highly impractical. To account for this need, SCADA vendors gradually began to adopt open-source protocols and architectures. This not only allowed more devices to be connected to a given network, but also made it easier to connect multiple, distant networks together. The ongoing improvement of standards allowed these “networked SCADA systems” to evolve into their current-day counterparts.

Modern SCADA

A key component of any modern SCADA system is its design software, which is used to create and edit runtime projects. A good editor will let users fine-tune specific elements without the need for extensive training, while also making common actions easy to perform. Nowadays, most packages use a visual editor with drag-and-drop functionality. Also helpful are visualization tools like graphs and charts, straightforward management of connected I/O devices, and simple creation of pages, buttons, and other UI elements.

Depending on the project, SCADA systems can be configured to store data locally, at a central location, on the cloud, or using a combination of methods. Even if a SCADA program does not provide a particular interface, an intermediary program or protocol (such as a SQL server or Modbus TCP connection) can usually provide a connection. However, implementing additional software can easily become more expensive than just buying a more robust SCADA package (both from licensing costs and engineering time). For this reason, flexibility and ease of use are key factors when choosing a SCADA solution.

As internet connections become faster and more convenient, the possibilities of real-time data continue to expand. Now, data from a SCADA network can be accessed from anywhere in the world, sometimes with less than a second of delay. Moreover, database and API technology have largely bridged the gap between industrial and enterprise software. For example, production statistics from a SCADA system can be quickly analyzed to drive business decisions. Inversely, sales orders can be automatically sent to a production facility, where machines can immediately build any needed components.

operation chart with SCADA

As increasingly robust standards are developed, data access becomes less and less of an obstacle. This paves the way for enhanced automation and brings different parts of businesses closer together. While this means there are more options for SCADA than ever, it also means choosing the right package can be a difficult decision.

CIMON UltimateAccess SCADA

UltimateAccess SCADA

For a comprehensive, easy-to-use SCADA solution, choose CIMON UltimateAccess. Built by leading experts with over 20 years of industry experience, UltimateAccess provides the flexibility you need to scale and adapt in a changing world.

With affordable pricing, an intuitive interface, and a free 4-hour runtime trial, businesses of any size can quickly get their projects up and running. UltimateAccess is equipped with a versatile set of tools to meet challenging industrial requirements:

  • A large collection of built-in I/O drivers to connect with nearly any device
  • Web server functionality and a mobile client for unlimited access from anywhere in the world
  • ODBC compatibility for rapid integration with SQL databases
  • A powerful scripting engine for advanced customization
  • Alarms, trends, reports, a library of smart objects, and much more

Getting started with any SCADA software can be challenging, but with CIMON you are never alone. Customer support is always free, friendly, and accessible so that you can accomplish your goals as easily as possible. Whether you are a system integrator, independent business, or government contractor, UltimateAccess has everything you need to build a seamless monitoring and control system.