Control Engineering Software eNewsletter for September 2002

By Gary Mintchell September 12, 2002

CONNECT THE CORNER OFFICE TO THE FACTORY FLOOR WITH INFOAGENT. infoAgent is Intellution’s brand new web-based application for accessing, analyzing and visualizing production information – in a format that’s meaningful to you – from virtually anywhere in the world. Improve productivity. Improve profitability. Improve your business with infoAgent.
For a FREE online demo, visit:
  • Leadership
  • Schneider, XML, and PLC Open
  • Users groups
  • Instant messaging
  • Why software is so bad
  • Developing interest in Linux
  • Control Engineering looks at manufacturing productivity

Leadership With manufacturing in a prolonged state of the doldrums, it is essential that engineers in controls and automation become leaders and promoters of what we can do to increase manufacturing productivity. Leadership comes not from formal position, but from anyone who understands what needs to be done and uses skills and personality to convince others of its importance.
Harlan Cleveland writing in the September-October issue of ‘The Futurist,’ journal of the World Future Society, notes eight attitudes he deems ‘indispensable to the management of complexity.’ These are:

  • Lively intellectual curiosity

  • Genuine interest in what other people think and why they think that way

  • Feeling of special responsibility for envisioning a future that’s different from a straight line projection of the present

  • Hunch that most risks are there not to be avoided but to be taken

  • Mind-set that crises are normal, tensions can be promising, and complexity is fun

  • Realization that paranoia and self-pity are reserved for people who don’t want to be leaders

  • Sense of personal responsibility for the general outcome of your efforts

  • Quality of ‘unwarranted optimism.’

Have you had any leadership success stories? What obstacles are in your way today?
Let me know about this or anything else on your mind at

Schneider, XML, and PLC Open
There were a couple of interesting news items in June regarding Schneider Electric and XML. One reported that the company had donated some XML technology to PLCopen for consideration as part of the IEC 61131 programming standard. The other item reported that the company had applied for a patent for a function block in a PLC program to transfer information using XML. I wondered if these announcements had any relationship.
Well, I found out that these are really two different things. Michael Mellish, vp of industrial applications at Schneider explains the donation. ‘The XML Specifications donated to PLCopen cover storage of IEC Programs (for example Ladder Diagram) as an XML document as opposed to any other file format which every vendor has created for themselves today. This translates how each contact, timer, counter, coil, etc. are represented in the file to include instruction type, variable(s) associated, and connections to other ladder logic elements so that the logic structure can be displayed (viewed) as, for example, a ladder diagram, as well as compiled into target machine code (i.e. the vendor specific PLC run time).’
The patent application regards using XML function blocks in PLC programming.
Information about the PLCopen XML technical committee kick off meeting can be found on Control Engineering Online
The news item is in the June issue of Control Engineering

Users groups Do you participate in any software users groups? Are there any for the software that you are using? John Dvorak, writing in the September 3 issue of ‘PC Magazine,’ talks about the value of users groups. Remember the Boston Users Group that was very influential in the early PC days? Where is it now? He points out that perhaps the best users groups going in the PC industry right now are Microsoft’s.
I agree that the folks from Redmond sponsor a lot of very useful group meetings. Before becoming an editor, I was loosely affiliated with the Microsoft Developers Network and still receive mailings from the Great Lakes area users groups. I’ve gone to some quite informative meetings.
Last month I was at National Instruments’ NI Week in Austin, Texas. I suppose in many ways this event constitutes a users group. Engineers developing systems using NI products converge to discuss applications, take some classes, and learn about new products and applications.
Do any of you take advantage of users groups? Which ones? Are they valuable? Are they better than a trade show and conference? What could your suppliers do to help you do a better job?
Let me know what you think at

Instant messaging
I’ve discovered a little more about Instant Messaging (IM) for business. That technology so popular with youth as they chat with friends, seems to be invading business. While IM introduces security risks for an organization’s systems, many find it a great communication tool.
Stowe Boyd, writing for the Cutter Consortium consulting firm states, ‘In many recent surveys, computer-literate customers have expressed a preference for IM-based customer support over telephone and e-mail mechanisms. Deploying IM in this context can lead to real hard cost savings, well worth the effort involved. In almost every industry, there are examples of extremely time-critical issues where fast response has high payback.’ One application he singles out is manufacturing companies dealing with supply chain or logistics snafus.
Consider IM with care so that you don’t open up holes in security and create major problems for your friends in IT.
For more, visit Cutter Consortium

Why software is so bad
‘Software quality has been so bad for so long, some engineers argue, that the only solutions are litigation and legislation.’ Quote from Dilbert? Actually, this statement is from ‘Why Software is so Bad’ by Charles C. Mann in the July-August ‘Technology Review.’
Applying this article to automation engineers, I can see two points of view. First, software you buy; second, software you write. How is the software you buy? Is it getting better? Or, is it so full of fantastic new features that it’s buggy? How is support?
On the other hand, how is the software that you write? Does it take a long time to debug and commission? Once installed, is it easy to troubleshoot?
In a sidebar titled ‘First Aid for Faulty Code,’ Mr. Mann suggests practices like considering the perspectives of all who will be using the software, having a clear understanding of what the software must accomplish, and tracking revisions. I can think of another one for control software. Documentation. Adding clear comments along with clearly defined tag names makes your code look professional as well as aiding troubleshooting or future adapting. What tips would you recommend?
For more, visit Technology Review

Developing interest in Linux Linux is becoming increasingly popular as a server operating system, but it has made only a little inroad into control and automation. For example, check out the Mat PLC project reported in July Control Engineering .
Metrowerks has released a series of tool suites for Linux developers, who have traditionally used command-line tools. Hosted on Microsoft Windows platforms, CodeWarrior Development Studio, Embedded Linux Edition, is a graphical development environment for creating complex applications that run on embedded Linux operating systems across a range of multiple processor architectures. The product includes a debugger, a GNU compiler, linker, and assembler.
For more, visit Metrowerks
After a recent newsletter, a reader wrote to tell me about Vista Control Systems Vsystem process control software. This product is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP with OPC and ODBC, Solaris, Open VMS, Wind Rivers’ VxWorks, and more.
For more, visit Vista Control Systems

Control Engineering looks at manufacturing productivity Control Engineering is working with four participants to do two webcasts focused on manufacturing productivity. The events are part of the SupplyChainLinkExpo, a free two-day online conference and tradeshow from Reed Business Information taking place on your desktop Oct. 16 and 17.
To find out more, learn about the participants, see other webcasts, or register to view them, go to Control Engineering or visit the SupplyChainLinkExpo .