Steve Pflantz

Steve Pflantz on backup strategies for automation controls

Mar 4, 2020

Steve Pflantz, PE offers backup strategies and considerations in Food Engineering’s “How to ensure your automation system can be recovered.”

Downtime can be crippling. If your plant goes down, production and profits come to a grinding halt. Food and beverage manufacturers must carefully consider their backup strategies before a key system fails. Perform risk assessments now to determine which systems you can’t afford to lose.

What backup strategies do you currently have in place? Are they up to date? Do they address all your equipment, or are there parts of your process that may have slipped through the cracks?

CRB’s Steve Pflantz offers critical backup strategy considerations in Food Engineering’s “How to ensure your automation system can be recovered.”

“Review your system to understand what risks are present due to power outages, component failures, cyberattack, etc. and develop a backup strategy to provide safe and reliable protection of data.”

Planning for spikes and power outages

Have strategies in place to protect industrial controller data and process data from damage due to power outages and surges. Provide power sources/panels that are dedicated to control systems and refrain from adding electrical loads to those panels. Allowing other loads to share the panel, and even the transformer that feeds the panel, can bring in noise and power problems. If a panel is shared with motor loads, a power loss could create a power surge back from the motors, providing a voltage spike and corresponding current surge that may damage power supplies and sensitive control hardware. Use a transformer as a line of defense to separate and isolate sensitive controls from other components on your power system.

An often-favored, but more costly, solution is using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to provide needed segregation. A single, centralized UPS that provides power just for the control system hardware is ideal, separating the power and providing power backup. Though you may lose power to operate your equipment, you will keep “the brain” active, preventing the loss of data and power cycling control equipment and computers that can inherently cause problems. The vast majority of power outages or brown-outs are short duration. A UPS capable of backing-up the controls for 15-20 minutes will cover for most events other than extreme cases. A centralized UPS is also much easier to maintain.

“The above solutions are easiest and most economical to implement in a new installation,” explains Pflantz, whereas retrofits can be costly. “When retrofitting, a lower-cost solution tends to entail small, localized UPS units at each panel. The UPS provides some isolation and provides a backup to ride through most power blips. In some cases, you may need to provide power conditioners and isolation transformers up-stream of the UPS to protect the UPS from power issues. A downside with this approach can be that now you have several little UPS units spread around and they may be forgotten, resulting in an occasional failed battery and, thus, no UPS.”

“The bottom line is processors need to pay attention to and provide clean, quality power to your controls and backup power if data loss is an issue or concern.”

Preparing for cyberattacks

Cybersecurity is a vital component in creating more secure, resilient networks.

“Routinely creating a current backup is a big step that, surprisingly, is not done as well as it should be.”

“Once you have a backup, consider virus or ransomware situations and isolate backup files so they are protected from the propagation of a virus. An ‘air gap,’ or physically separated drive system, will serve that function and allow you to re-install everything once you get things cleaned up.”

Many systems have software integral to do automatic backups. Identify an individual who is responsible for understanding and managing all system backups. Once you have identified and are performing necessary backups, establish a procedure to store a copy of backup files remotely in addition to a local backup. The remote copy can be used to restore your system in the event of a cyber incident or physical damage as a result of a fire or natural disaster.

Backup strategies for oft-forgotten equipment

As manufacturers race to modify facilities for new products or fast-paced expansions, it’s easy to lose track of network devices. Consider backup strategies for forgotten firewalls, routers and switches before they’re corrupted through a cyberattack or unintentional reconfiguration errors.

“All the components in your automation system, including switches and routers, should have the same backup strategy as your PLC or SCADA backups,” says Pflantz. “If it is a configuration that can be saved, save it. That includes device configurations for instruments, VFDs, etc.”

Be proactive in your backup strategy approach

“Your automation system is critical to your operation, so give it the attention it deserves. Protect it, back it up and make sure you can recover from potential disasters. Automation is a design discipline, not a trade.”

Consider your automation system and design it into your facility. If your project has already progressed, consider engaging a competent automation professional to evaluate your system, assess the risks, identify the gaps and develop a plan.

Read “How to ensure your automation system can be recovered” for additional considerations on backup strategies for industrial controls.