Should We Make a Smart Upgrade?

What are the challenges and benefits of upgrading plastics processing machines instruments from 4-20 mA to smart instruments with digital communications?

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We measure a few process variables on our plastics processing machines including temperature and pressure. We use these variables for both real-time control and for monitoring. What are the challenges and benefits of upgrading these instruments from 4-20 mA to smart instruments with digital communications? Is there a benefit I can promote to customers? Is support another learning curve for us?

—from August ‘07 CONTROL DESIGN


Weigh the Costs
Smart transmitters will give you transmitter diagnostics, the ability to read additional variables, and the ability to reconfigure the transmitter remotely. Also, smart transmitters usually offer high-end performance.
Additional benefits of Profibus and Foundation fieldbus installations include less wiring, better management of instrument resources, direct digital communication which eliminates digital-to-analog conversion and its error contribution, and reduced maintenance cost. HART also can offer some of these benefits.

The main challenges are the learning curve for installation and configuration of Profibus or Foundation fieldbus networks and higher instrument costs. However, after gaining installation experience, your savings in wiring, installation, and maintenance should outweigh the increased instrument and learning curve cost.

MATT MOREN, director, sales support
Moore Industries,

The Slope of the Learning Curve
In recent years we’ve seen a huge growth in industrial communications and smart devices. Although many factors influence this growth, two things remain common: Smart devices save time and money. When implemented correctly, smart devices typically will save the user time and money,  and increase efficiency because they can remotely diagnose problems in real-time.

The downside to upgrading to smart instruments is bearing the brunt of the initial cost. This upgrade cost is dissolved quickly once the benefits are observed. These benefits include online local/remote diagnostics, online status, and multiple variable readings with one transmitter. In this application, a single multi-variable transmitter could provide both pressure and temperature readings.

As with anything new, there’s going to be a learning curve. The slope of the curve will vary greatly depending on what steps the selected vendor takes to make the product easy to use and depending on the end user’s openness to using something new.

CHRIS HINES, level III support engineer
ProSoft Technology

Put Down the Screwdriver
Upgrading instruments from 4-20 mA to smart instruments with digital communications allows users to track important production variables like temperature and pressure and potentially save the time that is wasted when equipment fails.

Prior to the advent of digital communications and capable smart instruments, transmitter calibration required an operator to manually tweak 0 and span with a screwdriver. When a new transmitter was installed, it had to be calibrated to match the specifications of the transmitter before it. There were no diagnostics available, so failures such as blown transmitters were a surprise.

Today, smart protocols such as the HART protocol facilitate the encryption of a message packet into the 4-20 mA signal wire. These messages include status and control, setting the 0 and span, and digital signals. All of these capabilities can yield substantial time savings.

Status and control messages offer diagnostics from the control room for remote transmitters. These smart diagnostics capabilities allow scaling the 0 and span from the control room, so  personnel no longer need to go into the field for instrument calibration. Additionally, with digital and analog signal values, it is possible to directly compare 4-20 mA signals to digital messages, enhancing diagnostics capabilities.

Of course, the main benefit relates to economy of motion because increased productivity and efficiency create the potential for additional profitability.

Currently, the main challenge facing smart instrument implementations is ensuring all instruments have the same communications specs. For example, employing HART means that all instruments would need to be rated at 4-20 mA and include HART communication capability.

Economy of motion is vital to machine builders because this directly impacts the bottom line. Given the advances in automation technology, it’s time to put down the screwdriver and get smart by integrating smart instruments into process control machinery.

MARK DECRAMER, product manager

Tap the Intelligence
There certainly is value in having smart instruments. The key to success is to include a system that takes advantage of the added intelligence. Over the long term, the advantage will be in asset management. The smart way to connect and access smart instruments is with a fieldbus. This is the summary we use in our one-day training classes on Profibus and ProfiNet on the benefits of a fieldbus.

Engineering and Documentation

  • Easier configuration
  • Easier to use and up-to-date documentation


  • Less Hardware:  I/O, terminal blocks, enclosures, barriers, wire


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