Automation vendors solve integration with capable systems

Integration is the big story in the realm of plant-floor systems. Thanks to advances such as standards-based programming interfaces, SOA-based middleware platforms, and portal technology, plant-floor automation vendors are making it much easier for users to deploy broad-based solutions that perform multiple functions.

By Malcolm Wheatley, senior contributing editor July 1, 2007

Integration is the big story in the realm of plant-floor systems. Thanks to advances such as standards-based programming interfaces, SOA-based middleware platforms, and portal technology, plant-floor automation vendors are making it much easier for users to deploy broad-based solutions that perform multiple functions.

Consider the plantwide control system recently implemented at a Vacaville, Calif.-based facility operated by Genentech , a San Francisco-based biotechnology company. This system satisfied Genentech’s desire to reduce product variability and create a single tool for tracking all plant operations. These goals were integral to Genentech maintaining consistent product quality as well as ensuring compliance with governmental reporting requirements.

The Vacaville plant runs a variety of Honeywell systems—including the POMSnet manufacturing executions system (MES), which was built for managing product specifications in pharmaceutical and biotech plants; and the Experion Process Knowledge System, which supports the company’s efforts to comply with federal regulations for electronic record keeping and sign-off on biotech manufacturing processes. But these systems were not working in concert until Honeywell created an architecture that allowed seamless passing of data between them.

This architecture, built around programming interfaces that comply with the S95 standard for linking MES with ERP systems, also allowed Genentech to incorporate its batch processing and plant data historian solutions—both of which are offered by Honeywell—into its new plantwide control network.

The result is an integrated set of tools that have boosted overall plant efficiency while ensuring the creation of accurate records on each batch of drugs produced.

Disparate natures

Genentech may have had an advantage in bridging the gap between its systems because they were all developed by a single vendor, even if they weren’t integrated from the outset. But plant-floor vendors also are enabling links to disparate systems. In many cases, vendors are codeveloping solutions that meet specific user needs.

Rockwell Software , for example, has embedded a data collection and analysis solution from OSIsoft inside the Rockwell FactoryTalk suite, which contains applications for everything from designing production processes to measuring how well those processes are performing. The integration between FactoryTalk and the OSIsoft PI [plant intelligence] system was accomplished via SOA, which gives the applications something akin to “plug-and-play” functionality.

“Connect to a Rockwell system [containing the OSIsoft functionality], and it will automatically configure itself, recognize the devices you’ve got out there in the plant, and take a guess at what you’d like to historize,” says Kevin Roach, a Rockwell Software VP. “Integrating the two companies’ products provides value by eliminating engineering time, cost, and complexity.”

Roach also notes that the OSIsoft connection is part of a larger Rockwell strategy for delivering broader-based solutions. “We have a very robust R&D, partner, and acquisition pipeline,” he says.

Supplying a superset

Invensys Process Systems also has been working to connect its varied inventory of products to a single technology platform. The InFusion platform brings together capabilities that span the Invensys brand—including Foxboro’s process control capabilities; Wonderware’s HMI, plant intelligence, and device integration capabilities; Avantis ‘ real–time condition monitoring and enterprise asset management; SimSci–Esscor ‘s simulation and process optimization; and safety and critical control features offered by Triconex.

“It’s a superset of everything we sell,” explains Peter Martin, VP of strategic ventures at Invensys. “We’re not a holding company anymore. We’re Invensys—and not Wonderware, Foxboro, Triconex, SimSci-Esscor and Avantis.”

While this horizontal plant-level integration is proving extremely valuable, many manufacturers have been eyeing an even bigger prize: vertical application integration—”shop-floor to top-floor,” as the saying goes. And vendors are responding to this call as well.

OSIsoft President Patrick Kennedy says companies that want to push plant-floor data to enterprise-level systems generally want that transfer to happen in real time. The idea is to get this data in front of people in time for them to uncover and react to any potential problems ahead of time rather than after the fact.

Kennedy says OSIsoft responded to these demands by developing a “high availability” version of its flagship PI System, featuring fault-tolerant software that delivers interface failover, buffering, and server replication, “so that data will always be on-line, and always ready for use.”

But the technical barriers to shop-floor-to-top-floor integration aren’t the only hurdles to overcome. There are organizational and cultural barriers to bridge, too.

Kevin Tock, VP of MES with the Wonderware unit of Invensys Process Systems, says IT people are taking a greater interest in what’s happening on the plant floor. “Go back a few years, and it was very, very unusual for us to have to talk with IT people,” Tock says. This new emphasis on bringing IT staff into the discussion of implementing—and integrating—shop-floor systems prompted a partnership between Rockwell and networking equipment giant Cisco Systems . Rockwell’s Roach says this collaboration was necessary because too many Rockwell customers felt they were getting conflicting messages about the best way to approach moving plant-floor data through enterprise-wide networks. The conflict stemmed from Cisco talking almost exclusively to the IT staff while Rockwell spent most its time working with the manufacturing group, Roach says.

The vendors are planning an educational seminar series to develop best practices for establishing clear lines of communications between IT and manufacturing. This should create a better understanding of potential risks facing both IT and manufacturing on specific projects, and ultimately lead to more successful network integration projects.

“Customers want linked reference architectures supporting the office network environment and the factory floor,” says Dan Knight, Cisco industry solution manager. “Both plant and IT managers need secure, real-time visibility between the production floor and ERP, CRM, and supply chain systems.”