Network and Control System Audits Drive Optimization and Reliability

Network and Control System Audits Drive Optimization and Reliability

The old maxim ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is the principle at the heart of the auditing process. For process industries, audits produce a valuable inventory and assessment of existing control system infrastructure, software, industrial processes and networking equipment. The data gathered during the initial stage of an audit process can be analyzed to identify deficiencies, prioritize necessary replacements and upgrades, and ultimately create a path to digitalizing industrial processes, helping teams figure out where technology can be applied to improve the way a business operates.  

The benefits? Control system audits help operators reduce risks, improve operability through new or enhanced automation and maximize the output of processes and equipment. They’re also an important budgeting tool because they identify outdated systems or equipment, which helps avoid costly, unexpected breakdowns to critical processes when there might not be the time to research the best options or get quotes for replacement parts.  

Companies typically seek a control systems audit when they have bought a new facility and need to find out exactly what is in place, or what is ‘under the hood.’ In some cases, they might be trying to understand and resolve network failures that cause expensive outages and impact output. Or they may want to improve operability, reduce waste or energy use, or increase capability in the case of expansion. Many turn to auditing specialists who can help them figure out how to optimize the performance of an industrial process to advance this program.  

What does the audit process look like?   

Step 1:

Once a scope has been determined, the first step is off-site data collection. Audit teams collect documentation about programs, software, hardware and networking equipment. This information can also cover procedures and management practices, as well as human resources, technical support, spare part inventories and lifecycles.   

Step 2:

The second step is a site visit, where auditors do a site walkthrough, inspecting and documenting what is on-site. They download additional information from the network or control systems. They also do interviews with management and staff.  

Step 3:

The auditors consolidate available information. They may reach out to subject matter experts or conduct additional interviews. The data is consolidated. Lists of actionable deficiencies are compiled and prioritized in a report. Recommendations can include adding redundancies, upgrading software, replacing aging hardware or calling for better standards documentation.  

The most common challenge faced by auditors is an inadequate documentation control process. This can happen in older facilities, where paper documentation for legacy systems or equipment has not been digitized. In some cases, critical ‘documentation’ might only reside in the head of a key staff member who knows where all the junction boxes are or the dates when different equipment was installed or modified. These issues can impede data collection and may limit the scope of the report’s recommendations. It can be a good time for help from an outside auditing specialist, who can assist with the legwork needed to source and gather this documentation.  

Another of the issues auditors often uncover in brownfield facilities is the combining of analog and digital processes over the years. The integration of legacy and new systems often introduces incompatibilities that can threaten a plant’s productivity and long-term integrity. Identifying the source and nature of the risks associated with these incompatibilities is a fundamental part of the audit process. These and all the other deficiencies assessed and addressed through audits lay the foundation for any mitigation or improvement processes. They are the first steps in implementing the upgrades and exciting new automation technologies that will create the levels of operability and reliability sought by owners and operators alike.  

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