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ICS stands for Industrial Control Systems. At the most fundamental level, the name describes them well. ICS is used to control many forms of industrial operation, from sewage processing plants to beverage factories and power plants. But ICS systems are also used in other areas of key infrastructure, such as public transportation, airports, seaports and smart buildings. In fact, their influence reaches into every aspect of daily life.

Every ICS aims to provide tight control of one or many industrial processes, and they are specifically constructed to carry out these aims. By providing automated, regular operation and monitoring performance, ICS allows firms to save money and boost productivity. They can also allow manufacturers to make their production processes more flexible. As such, they have become increasingly vital to the economic success of many companies, and have also become a crucial part of public infrastructure across the world.

There are a number of different kinds of ICS.

One type of ICS is known as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). These systems will often be used to coordinate facilities that are geographically spread out, and will be controlled from a central location. Examples could include water processing plants, where many different measuring devices monitor water levels or the composition of water, and also operate machinery such as valves and pumps. SCADA systems are particularly useful in systems that include safety alarms.

Another type of ICS are distributed control systems (DCS). As the name suggests, in a DCS, the instruments used to control industrial systems are distributed across a network or facility instead of being centralised as in a SCADA system. However, often the differences are not that great, as DCS systems are also organized hierarchically..

What elements make up an ICS?

All ICS tend to include similar elements. Sensors are the eyes and ears of any ICS – constantly acquiring information about industrial processes and feeding this back to a central location for analysis. Then there are Actuators, which “act” upon physical materials to achieve a desired outcome. This could be the management of sewage levels, the shape of manufactured cakes or the shape of a car chassis.

Sensors and Actuators are connected via Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), which are found in both SCADA and DCS systems. PLCs often take the form of custom-made digital computer units which provide automated control of industrial processes on factory floors. They may be used for example, in automobile production or the aviation industry – where PLCs are designed to withstand high temperatures and noise caused by the operation of machinery.

The key is that everything, from Sensor to Actuator, operates in a closed loop, so that data is fed back to monitoring systems and industrial processes continue smoothly. These loops could be extremely simple (a saw cutting wood, for example), or very complex (as in a nuclear power plant). Some loops also permit human intervention, while others are wholly automated.

Where do we find ICS in the modern world?

ICS systems are distributed across the entire economy, and across the globe. In the petrochemical sector, refineries across the world now rely upon ICS to automate their operations. Nuclear power plants are also reliant on ICS (as shown by the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities).

Transport is another sector where ICS have become standard. Container ships use ICS to monitor their cargo and equipment. Mass transit systems coordinate their routes and ensure that commuters return home safely by using complex control systems. Aircraft and airports have some of the most sophisticated control systems, which are used to navigate planes and prevent collisions.

In the public sector, vital services such as the provision of clean drinking water have seen ICS become the norm, while most major manufacturing operations include various forms of ICS to ensure that they remain competitive.

A global phenomenon

Clearly, ICS has become a global phenomenon and a vital part of the world economy. They have made it easier to control complex industrial operations and facilities, enhancing productivity and efficiency in the process. But our reliance on ICS has led to a kind of dependence, which leaves industry vulnerable to cyber attacks, so it makes sense to do what we can to keep ourselves secure.