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Difference between DCS

& PLC Systems

DCS stands for Distributed Control System and PLC stands
for Programmable Logic Controller. Do you know the Difference
between DCS and PLC Systems ?

Difference between DCS & PLC Systems

DCS stands for “Distributed Control System”

DCS’s were designed to control processes, not discrete operations. As
such, a large number of the inputs and outputs are analog like a 4-20mA
signal or 0-10V signal.

In Literary meaning, a Distributed Control System (DCS) refers to a

control system usually of a process or manufacturing system, in which the
controller elements are not central in location (like the brain) but are
distributed throughout the system with each component sub-system
controlled by one or more controllers.  Process plants used to have long
series of panel mounted Single Loop Controllers (Analog/PID controllers).

 PLC stands for “Programmable Logic Controller”

Historically a PLC was in discrete control of manufacturing processes.
Whole discrete logic used to be implemented with relay circuitry. Most of
the inputs and outputs for discrete control are binary, meaning they have
only two states: On and Off.
What are attributes and characteristics which differentiate the PLC
system from the DCS. There have been claims and counter claims from
different manufacturers that their system is DCS or PLC.

The topic has remained under debate for long, and especially today when
we have already entered into new era of Hybrid Distributed Control
Systems, it has become increasingly difficult to select and differentiate the
advantages and drawbacks one can get from different systems.

 There are few similarities and dissimilarities which  I would like to

mention here:
1) DCS are designed or made available to the user in a way that only
configuration in form of a Functional Block has to be carried out unlike
PLC, where complete programming has to be implemented using any one
of the different languages available in the system. Now, Functional Blocks
are also available in the PLC systems, which really makes it comparable
to DCS.

2) When DCS started emerging in the market, idea was to supply DCS
with whole bunch of hardware and software packages including for
Human Interface, necessary for the complete automation of the plant,
thus facilitating Single Point Configuration in terms of database and
communication possible in  general.

Additionally, Human Interface does not need separate communication

package i.e DDE server, to communicate with the controller. DCS
includes higher levels of application software for regulatory and batch

 In case of PLC systems, PLC were not suppose to be in packages but
competition with DCS vendors forced the PLC manufacturers to offer
necessary all other softwares and packages.

3) Many DCS are designed such that it is possible to configure cycle time
for each Functional Block. Thus DCS system takes care of cycle time
scheduling of the Functional Blocks which are the basic execution units.

This is one of the reason that overall scan time of the DCS is
comparatively higher than the PLC system.This functionality has been
introduced in PLC systems(s) in some form as well.

4) A DCS has inherently multiple processor capability thus making the

functionality distributed across a network.
In a typical multi-processors (multi-node) DCS architecture, Engineer has
to put in less efforts for inter-communication of the processors or one
controller can easily access the Tag(s) from the database of the other .i.e
the input of FB in one controller can be output of FB of the other
controller. This is possible now in PLC but more efforts have to be put in.

5) DCS programming is centered around configuration of Functional

Blocks and discrete logic is implemented in DCS using FBs, thus making
the DCS inherently an analog control system (although ladder
programming is also possible in some of the DCS also).

PLCs were programmed using Ladder/Relay language , before arrival of

IEC 1131-3 standard and Analog control was incorporated inside Ladder
inside Ladder Logic using special FBs. This is probably the reason we
look at some of the process plants that process  (Analog) control is done
by the DCS, while emergency control (Discrete Control) is implemented
by PLC based systems.

6) PLCs are still being used at RTU stations because of their simple,
small and cheaper architecture as well as engineering (typically the RTU
application) instead of big DCS.

DCS have been used as the central system in a SCADA network. In a

typical SCADA scenario, one DCS is connected to many PLCs systems.

7) Being Discrete in nature, PLC was natural choice of manufacturer and

end-user to apply it for safety system. This led to production of
specialized safety system conforming to SIL3 certification in accordance
with ANSI / ISA 84.00.01-2004.

Today,  a lot has changed, it is difficult to distinguish between two

systems in terms of its main features. Differences between the two has
virtually vanished due to Programming / Configuration language standard

The functionality of the PLC has evolved over the years to include
sequential relay control, motion control, process control, distributed
control systems and networking.

However, in major industrial areas and structure markets, it is practice to

deploy DCS for process control and PLC based system for safety control.
Perhaps, for a large install base like more than 1000 I/Os system, cost of
installation, addition and maintenance per I/O is less in case of DCS

Now, more important is cost, application, system integrity, reliability,

maintainability, historical logging / intelligent statistics and learning /
training. How much support is available from the vendor for the operation
matters most to the operator now.

This has resulted into ‘Solutions Packages’ by vendors to their customers

instead of simply offering individual products. It is DCS or PLC, must
come in a solution package.

More and improved System functionalities have made these system more
complex which require strong integration between the operator /user  and
the manufacturer.

Also Read : Differences of DCS, PLC or RTU

Few vendors also introduced Hybrid DCS / PLC system or transformed
their PLC based system into DCS by incorporating similar features.

DCS vendors have now introduced packages for Asset Optimization and
management which seamlessly integrate with their systems. is it difficult
to say which system to select ? It varies from user to user as discussed
above. The End-User who has to have all knowledge and courage to take
responsibility of his system in totality.


DCS stands for Distributed Control System. A DCS typically covers an
entire process, and is capable of covering an entire plant.

A DCS combines one or more PLCs with an HMI, and allows the
integrator to build both together. The project is often developed with the
entire DCS in mind so that all aspects of the system are developed
together – instead of developing the PLC first, then the HMI, followed by
alarms, historian, etc.

A DCS takes the PLC/HMI combo and combines several other features
into an integrated package:

 Servers and clients. The servers gather tag data from the PLC(s),
contain the graphics, and serve both out to clients for operators to
 Redundant servers, controllers and/or networks.
 Synchronized alarming and security.
 Historical data logging and trending.
 Batch management.
What Are The Benefits of Each?

Now, onto the other major differences between the two. I’d like to preface
this section by saying that there are always going to be exceptions. These
are general differences and advantages, and are not meant to be

What Are the Benefits of a PLC/HMI Combo?

The biggest benefit I’ve seen to a PLC is that it is easier for plant
personnel to implement and configure internally than a DCS.

There are many technicians and engineers that have experience with
ladder logic, and if you have one or more on your staff, you may decide to
take care of your processes in-house.

Also, if the PLC will be controlling a machine that requires very fast
response times, a PLC is the best choice. A DCS controller can have a
fast response time, but that’s not what it’s intended for.

Furthermore, purchasing a PLC allows you to buy only the software with
the features you need. If you have a simple application or a standalone
skid system, a PLC (with a small HMI) might be all you need. If you were
to buy a DCS, you might shell out a lot of money for features you don’t

Finally, in a pinch, a PLC can be installed, programmed and ready to go

very quickly.

PLCs are often used in:

 Machine automation (quicker processing time).

 Skids, stand-alone systems (doesn’t need to be part of plant-wide
system, or is developed by an OEM).
 Utilities (lower in cost).
What Are The Benefits of a DCS?
In addition to combining one or more PLCs with one or more HMIs, a
DCS offers:
 High availability via:
 Controllers Redundant
 operator system servers Redundant
 Redundant networks.
 Server-client relationships.
 Reduced engineering time.
 Shorter start-ups.
 Minimal troubleshooting of included features.
 Controller code built with entire system in mind. Code includes
settings for:
 HMI graphics and faceplates.
 Historical data and trending.
 Alarms.
 Operator features and security.
 Lends itself to better organization and consistency than a PLC/HMI
 Easily integrated with:
 Batch management.
 Process Historian.
 OPC server.
PLC vs. DCS: Which is Right for Your Operation?
Over the past decade, the functionality of different control systems has
been merging.

Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) now have capabilities once found

only in distributed control systems (DCSs), while a DCS can handle many
functions previously thought more appropriate for PLCs.

So what’s the difference between the two control approaches, where’s the
dividing line and are there still reasons to choose one over the other?

PLCs grew up as replacements for multiple relays and are used primarily
for controlling discrete manufacturing processes and standalone
equipment. If integration with other equipment is required, the user or his
system integrator typically has to do it, connecting human-machine
interfaces (HMIs) and other control devices as needed.

The DCS, on the other hand, was developed to replace PID controllers
and is found most often in batch and continuous production processes,
especially those that require advanced control measures. The vendor
handles system integration, and HMIs are integral.
As users demanded more production information, PLCs gained
processing power and networking became common. PLC-based control
systems began to function like a mini-DCS.

At the same time, the DCS hybridized to incorporate PLCs and PCs to
control certain functions and to provide reporting services. The DCS
supervises the entire process, much like the conductor in an orchestra.
Protocols, like OPC, have eased interactions between the two control

Also Read : DCS Architecture Vs PLC Architecture

Since PLCs are less expensive and can now perform much like a DCS,
wouldn’t it make sense to convert everything to PLCs? The answer, like
most things in the world of automation, is that it depends on the needs of
your application. Here are six key factors to consider:

1. Response time
PLCs are fast, no doubt about it. Response times of one-tenth of a
second make the PLC an ideal controller for near real-time actions such
as a safety shutdown or firing control.

A DCS takes much longer to process data, so it’s not the right solution
when response times are critical. In fact, safety systems require a
separate controller.

2. Scalability
A PLC can only handle a few thousand I/O points or less. It’s just not as
scalable as a DCS, which can handle many thousands of I/O points and
more easily accommodate new equipment, process enhancements and
data integration.

If you require advanced process control, and have a large facility or a

process that’s spread out over a wide geographic area with thousands of
I/O points, a DCS makes more sense.

3. Redundancy
Another problem with PLCs is redundancy. If you need power or fault
tolerant I/O, don’t try to force those requirements into a PLC-based
control system. You’ll just end up raising the costs to equal or exceed
those of a DCS.

4. Complexity
The complex nature of many continuous production processes, such as
oil and gas, water treatment and chemical processing, continue to require
the advanced process control capabilities of the DCS.

Others, such as pulp and paper, are trending toward PLC-based control.

5. Frequent process changes

PLCs are best applied to a dedicated process that doesn’t change often.
If your process is complex and requires frequent adjustments or must
aggregate and analyze a large amount of data, a DCS is typically the
better solution.

Of course, the very flexibility of a DCS system also makes it much more
vulnerable to “meddling” by operators that can cause spurious

6. Vendor support
DCS vendors typically require users to employ them to provide integration
services and implement process changes.

System integrators perform similar functions for PLC-based systems. It

has also become common for PLC vendors to offer support services
through their network of system integrator partners.

Process control has become increasing complex. It’s difficult for any
individual to know everything about these sophisticated systems,
increasing the need for vendor support.

Manufacturers also continue to reduce factory staff and a generation of

experienced process control personnel has begun to retire. As a result,
the quality of support has become a critical factor in vendor selection.

So, How Do I Choose Which One I Need?

What’s the long term plan for the facility? If you have any intent of tying it
all together into a DCS, and the process you’re currently looking at has a
part in it, there’s no time like the present to start your DCS migration.

Is the process a stand-alone, supporting or skid system? If so, a PLC and

HMI could be all you need, and if you decide to migrate the rest of the
plant to a DCS in the future, this system could stay a PLC/HMI combo.

Do you want to configure, build and commission the system yourself? If

so, and you don’t have formal DCS training, you should put in a PLC and
HMI combo. Most DCS packages are so complex that they require formal
training, and without it, you could get into trouble.

Do you need a high availability system? What if the controller dies, or

your HMI goes down? You might need redundancy for your controllers
and/or OS (operator system) servers. If so, consider a DCS.

Are you going to need a historian, multiple clients, a trend package, batch
system, and other DCS features? Granted, there are HMI packages that
provide all these features, but keep in mind that a DCS provides them as

Is it a large system that you will have an integrator build and commission?
If so, I strongly recommend a DCS. It will save you time and money in the
long run.