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Overcoming process deadtime with

a Smith Predictor
A controller equipped with an accurate process
model can ignore deadtime. Deadtime generally
occurs when material is transported from the
actuator site to the sensor measurement
location. Until the material reaches the sensor,
the sensor cannot measure any changes
effected by the actuator.
Vance VanDoren, PhD, PE

the purposes of feedback control, deadtime is the delay between the
application of a control effort and its first effect on the process
variable. During that interval, the process does not respond to the

controller's activity at all, and any attempt to manipulate the process

variable before the deadtime has elapsed inevitably fails.
Deadtime generally occurs when material is transported from the site
of the actuator to another location where the sensor takes its reading.
Not until the material has reached the sensor can any changes
effected by the actuator be detected.
Consider, for example, the rolling mill shown in the "Simplified
Deadtime Example" which produces a continuous sheet of some
material at a rate of V (inches per second). A feedback controller
uses a piston to modify the gap between a pair of reducing rollers
that squeeze the material into the desired thickness. The deadtime in
this process is caused by the separation S between the rollers and
the thickness gage.
The controller in this example can compare the current thickness of
the sheet (the process variable, PV) with the desired thickness (the
setpoint, SP) and generate an output (CO), but it must wait at least D
= S/V seconds for the thickness to change. If it expects a result any
sooner, it will determine that its last control effort had no effect and
will continue to apply ever-larger corrections to the rollers until the
sensor begins to see the thickness changing in the desired direction.
By that time, however, it will be too late. The controller will have
already overcompensated for the original thickness error, perhaps to
the point of causing an even larger error in the opposite direction.

How badly the controller overcompensates depends on how

aggressively it is tuned and on the difference between the actual and
the assumed deadtime. That is, if the controller assumes that the
deadtime is much shorter than is actually the case, it will spend a

much longer time increasing its output before successfully effecting a

change in the process variable. If the controller is tuned to be
particularly aggressive, the rate at which it increases its output during
that interval will be especially high, and the resulting
overcompensation will be particularly severe.
Detuning the controller
The preferred method for curing a deadtime problem is to physically
modify the process to reduce deadtime. In the rolling mill example,
this could be accomplished by moving the thickness gage closer to
the rollers or by running the sheet at a higher velocity.
But if deadtime cannot be cured by relocating the sensor or speeding
up the process, its symptoms can still be addressed by modifying the
control algorithm. The simplest method is to de-tune the controller to
slow its response rate. A de-tuned controller will not have time to
overcompensate unless deadtime is particularly long.
The integrator in a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller is
particularly sensitive to deadtime. By design, its function is to
continue ramping up the controller's output so long as there is an
error between the setpoint and the process variable. In the presence
of deadtime, the integrator works overtime. Ziegler and Nichols
determined that the best way to de-tune a PID controller to handle a
deadtime of D seconds is to reduce the integral tuning constant by a
factor of D2. They also found that the proportional tuning constant
should be reduced by a factor of D. The derivative term is unaffected
by deadtime since it only comes in to play after the process variable
has begun to move.

De-tuning can restore stability to a control loop that suffers from

chronic overcompensation, but it would not even be necessary if the
controller could first be made aware of the deadtime, and then
endowed with the patience to wait it out. That is essentially what
happens in the famous Smith Predictor control strategy proposed by
Otto Smith in 1957.
Removing deadtime from the loop
Smith's strategy is shown in the "Smith Predictor" block diagram. It
consists of an ordinary feedback loop plus an inner loop that
introduces two extra terms directly into the feedback path. The first
term is an estimate of what the process variable would look like in the
absence of any disturbances. It is generated by running the controller
output through a process model that intentionally ignores the effects
of disturbances. If the model is otherwise accurate in representing
the behavior of the process, its output will be a disturbance-free
version of the actual process variable.
The mathematical model used to generate the disturbance-free
process variable consists of two elements hooked up in series. The
first element represents all of the process behavior not attributable to
deadtime. The second element represents nothing but the deadtime.
The deadtime-free element is generally implemented as an ordinary
differential or difference equation that includes estimates of all the
process gains and time constants. The second element of the model
is simply a time delay. The signal that goes in to it comes out
delayed, but otherwise unchanged.

The second term that Smith's strategy introduces into the feedback
path is an estimate of what the process variable would look like in the
absence of both disturbances and deadtime. It is generated by
running the controller output through the first element of the process
model (the gains and time constants), but not through the time delay
element. It thus predicts what the disturbance-free process variable
will eventually look like once the deadtime has elapsed, hence the
expression Smith Predictor.
Subtracting the disturbance-free process variable from the actual
process variable yields an estimate of the disturbances. By adding
this difference to the predicted process variable, Smith created a
feedback variable that includes the disturbances, but not the
So what?
The purpose of all these mathematical manipulations is best
illustrated by the "Smith Predictor Rearranged" block diagram. It
shows the Smith Predictor with the same blocks arranged to yield the
same mathematical results, only computed in a different order. This
arrangement makes it easier to see that the Smith Predictor
effectively estimates the process variable (including both
disturbances and deadtime) by adding the estimated disturbances
back into the disturbance-free process variable. The result is a
feedback control system with the deadtime outside of the loop.

The Smith Predictor works to control the modified feedback variable

(the predicted process variable with disturbances included) rather
than the actual process variable. If it is successful in doing so, and if
the process model does indeed match the process, then the

controller will simultaneously drive the actual process variable

towards the setpoint, whether the setpoint changes or a load disturbs
the process. The deadtime becomes irrelevant.
Unfortunately, in the real world, those are big ifs. It is certainly easier
for the controller to meet its objectives without having to deal with the
deadtime, but it is not always a simple matter to generate the process
models required to make this strategy work. Even the slightest
mismatch between the process and the model can cause the
controller to generate an output that successfully manipulates the
modified feedback variable, but drives off the actual process variable
into oblivion. There have been several fixes proposed to improve on
the basic Smith Predictor, but deadtime remains a particularly difficult
control problem.
Vance VanDoren, PhD, PE, is a contributing content specialist
for Control Engineering.
Key concepts:
Deadtime in a process can cause a controller to overreact to a
disturbance or setpoint change.
If it isn't practical to wait for a time interval to pass, there are
techniques designed to make changes more quickly.
Read more on control strategy and loop tuning below.
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