Information at Internet Speed

A healthy manufacturing sector is essential to the health of all of the world's economies. Yet, manufacturing ended 2001 in the U.S. with its 17th straight month of decline, although signs of a recovery in 2002 are popping up. Forecasters predict that when this essential market rebounds, it will do so with fewer people employed.

By Gary A. Mintchell, CONTROL ENGINEERING February 1, 2002
  • Software for control

  • Human-machine interface software

  • Information systems

  • Information technology

  • Internet

Microsoft.Net Framework offers tools for manufacturing
Great Dane runs with the web
Intellution releases infoAgent

A healthy manufacturing sector is essential to the health of all of the world’s economies. Yet, manufacturing ended 2001 in the U.S. with its 17th straight month of decline, although signs of a recovery in 2002 are popping up. Forecasters predict that when this essential market rebounds, it will do so with fewer people employed. Managers realize that one key to increased productivity is the tight integration of the manufacturing process with all other aspects of their businesses.

Analysts and consultants have rushed to coin new phrases to define this model. The latest key word is “collaborative,” as in “c-manufacturing.” (See “Control, MES Partner for C-Manufacturing Solutions,” Control Engineering , May ’01, p.53.)

Control engineers must not only solve control problems, learn networking to support distributed control architectures, and build manufacturing information databases for various HMI/SCADA purposes, they must also collaborate with management, other plants, suppliers and customers. The job is growing even if the numbers aren’t.

A survey of software suppliers reveals a variety of technologies and solutions, a result of fierce competition in the industry. Embedded web servers are prevalent, using either HTML (hypertext markup language) or XML (eXtensible markup language) as an information platform with HTTP (hypertext transport protocol) and SOAP (simple object access protocol) as the transport mechanisms.

Industry is also beginning to see fruition of long-promised “hosted” solutions using the Internet as a platform. In this method, manufacturers can hire another company to build and maintain the servers and databases required for manufacturing collaboration.

Both of these methods use browsers as clients. Since Microsoft supplies Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system and Netscape is freely downloadable, web browsers are essentially free, an attractive option for cash-strapped companies. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for suppliers, who have embraced rather than fought it.

Paul LeMert, Wonderware’s (Irvine, Calif.) director of programs and strategic marketing, says, “Our building a portal to work with Internet Explorer is in response to customers who need to obtain a high-level view of manufacturing, which often means looking at multiple plants in multiple locations.”

Steve Weinrich, lead architect for next generation products, adds, “We want to make sure that information is both available and secure. So, we build on Internet standards like TCP/IP, XML, and HTTP, plus use SSL for security.”

Control engineers must determine the business goal, and then find the technologies, products and solutions that accomplish that goal.

Determine priorities

Glenn Graney, GE Fanuc’s (Charlottesville, Va.) marketing manager, notes, “When we advise a company what architectures to choose, we can point to our experience within GE. We like to focus on what’s going to benefit the business the most. We apply Six Sigma to everything, so we end with a process map and methodology that drives continuous process improvement. Specifically, we see many customers that need remote diagnostics, which is a natural solution for web technologies.”

Using Internet technologies doesn’t necessarily mean opening processes to the public Internet. Bob Nelson, manager of product marketing at Siemens Energy & Automation (Princeton, N.J.), reports, “Customers’ most prevalent demand is for leveraging existing infrastructure, primarily for viewing process information for ‘casual’ users. Prime operators will still want more depth and control capability. These users will most likely be on a local intranet rather than connected to the Internet. Then, as software becomes bigger and more expensive, the opportunity will be to make the engineering server a web server, and enable a collaborative engineering environment.”

Not only is there a challenge for HMI/SCADA software suppliers, manufacturing execution system (MES) suppliers have also been scrambling to keep up with changing technologies and provide a useful solution. Camstar’s (Campbell, Calif.) vp, Greg Sowles, notes, “The face of MES is changing since manufacturing is much more distributed. Many companies must now coordinate production among many plants to assure maximum efficiency. We use technologies like XML and Microsoft Biztalk server to enable an overview of production at several sites.”

Dial-up for information

Obtaining manufacturing information over the web via cellular phone is no longer a Starship Enterprise fantasy. Benson Hougland, Opto 22’s (Temecula, Calif.) director of technical marketing, dials up a factory and displays current manufacturing information over his web-enabled phone. “Using SVG [scalable vector graphics, an XML-based display technology] enables graphics scalable from platform to platform. Users then use XML to connect information from the I/O platform to a Microsoft Access database. Adding low-cost, XML-enabled I/O modules to existing equipment is a good way to get the benefits of information access without having to modify existing control programs and platforms.”

Jeff Schmelzel, Kepware’s (Yarmouth, Me.) marketing manager, says, “We have an Ethernet Encapsulation mode for our serial drivers that allow use of terminal servers to access serial devices remotely across the Internet. This is currently used on applications like pipelines. We also use it internally to test drivers developed by our partners in Europe.”

“Web technologies,” states Mike Kmetz, capability manager, remote monitoring for Rockwell Automation (Cincinnati, O.), “will enable Rockwell to leverage our analysts who can stay in one location and help many customers, rather than spend time traveling. We are increasingly focused on helping customers manage assets including machine uptime, extending equipment life, and condition monitoring, even from remote locations. One product allows plant personnel to periodically upload information into the system over the Internet using portable, handheld data collectors. For situations requiring very frequent updates, a permanent connection to a remote server is used. All data is accumulated in a PC at a Rockwell FTP site, where analysts can also post reports and recommendations for the customer.”

This application is one example of an incipient trend—hosted applications. Existing in different forms, hosted applications allow users to move server-intensive applications to a supplier site, rather than investing in expensive infrastructure and personnel themselves.

Hosted applications

As EI3’s(Montvale, N.J.) chief technology officer, Spencer Cramer, puts it, “Various programming or data gathering ports bring data to our data center, which is built around fault-tolerant computers. Customers can go to a secure site (via SSL with 128-bit encryption) over the Internet with a browser and view their data. They get all the capabilities of conventional SCADA with the bonus of not having to maintain plant-floor hardware and software. We can even provide an engineering team over the Internet to help customers with out-of-control processes.”

Still another company leveraging the power of the Internet with a hosted application is Indus International (Atlanta, Ga.). David Brown, chief architect of the company’s latest product, InSite, explains, “Because the application is hosted on our servers, clients have lower up-front expenses and capital outlay. They also have less training needs, since most people already know how to use a browser. We offer a hosted solution because customers don’t have a core competency as server administrators. Their core competency lies in what they offer their customers. The application leverages the true power of the Internet, which is the ability to get the right information to the right person at the right time on the right device. We encourage a free flow of information.”

Verticore Technologies (Salt Lake City, Utah) offers a hosted application and a version that can be located at the customer’s facility. Its emphasis is on operational effectiveness. Attached to its web-based environment are applications that reflect the best practices within a vertical industry. They manage tasks and act to institutionalize policies, procedures and optimal approaches. Employees have a “scorecard” on their “portals” that provide needed feedback on past and present performance.

Although some manufacturers would not wish to open their machine operations to the OEM who manufactured it, fearing loss of proprietary information, many companies don’t have enough engineers after 2001’s cutbacks. Into this situation step OEMs, who can prepare a machine for remote diagnostics, and become, in effect, a major part of their customers’ maintenance departments.

One industry that is rapidly adopting this model is semiconductors. George Heath, director of industry marketing for Axeda (Mansfield, Mass.), notes, “The semiconductor industry’s diagnostics initiative springs from a solution to the question of how suppliers and chipmakers can improve machinery availability and productivity. We provide a solution so that OEMs can reach into a semiconductor fab to control, calibrate and optimize their machinery at the customer’s site. The devices are only able to “send,” so they are firewall friendly. Only the information that is supposed to go out is sent. It’s like an intelligent agent in the machine. XML is the underlying technology.”

Plug and play

Another way of finding and listening to devices over an internet or intranet is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). This is another web service that can be used in conjunction with XML and related technologies.

Russ Agrusa, president of Iconics (Foxborough, Mass.), says, “In web-based applications, getting pages delivered is easy. The hard part is real-time alarms, trends and visualization. We offer two flavors. One uses Microsoft IIS or Apache with Windows 2000, while the other is embedded using Windows CE, NT Embedded or XP Embedded. This latter program can be installed right in the machine, and uses UPnP for discovery.”

Another useful application is document management for such things as PLC and HMI programs. Discovering that a technician has loaded an old version of a program into a PLC is a constant source of irritation for many engineers. MDT’s (Alpharetta, Ga.) president and ceo, Bill Bentley, relates, “One of the things we do is ‘stealth compares’ of running programs with our program library to detect differences. Those differences are sent to users via e-mail as HTML reports. We are currently using XML to deliver a variety of useful improvements to our system architecture.”

Trayton Jay, Mitsubishi Electric Automation’s (Vernon Hills, Ill.) director of marketing, notes that, after about a year of experience with Internet capabilities, “We have seen that OEMs benefit the most from these technologies so far. Remote maintenance is a popular use. Program upgrading, troubleshooting, monitoring and recipe manipulation from a remote location offer significant cost advantages.”

Don Holley, National Instruments’ (Austin, Tex.) industrial automation marketing manager, cites a number of additional benefits stemming from adoption of Internet and networking standards. Interoperable and interchangeable hardware and software components lead the way. Others advantages include software independence from hardware, easier and better information integration, and better development tools.

Alarms that trigger a pilot light, horn or change something on a display are all familiar forms of communication from a machine to a human. Dave Quebbemann, Omron Electronics’ (Schaumburg, Ill.) industrial automation marketing manager, points out that controllers using SMTP (simple mail transport protocol) send e-mails to a pre-defined list of engineers, managers and technicians according to specified event triggers. Further, using browsers to obtain plant-floor information ensures more efficient access than previous methods.

USDATA (Richardson, Tex.) has developed a portal that allows user customization of different factory information sites, plus providing access to outside sites, perhaps to check the weather.

Build your own

Jay Nick, applied technology engineer at WPS Energy Services (Green Bay, Wis.), shared how he built a real-time HMI system from Opto 22 and Echelon control equipment. What’s required is an internal web server (he used Microsoft IIS with XML parser); XSL stylesheet; XML configuration file for every screen that contains point tag Ids CSS stylesheet to configure color schemes; JavaScript to periodically request updated XML files and update SVG display data; ASP page to perform the XSL transformation turning XML to SVG; and an ASP page to insert real-time data into the XML file.

Mr. Nick notes, “The only difficult part is developing the Active Server Page that inserts the real-time data into the XML file. This requires writing the interface to the data. Embedded web servers, such as Opto 22 Snap I/O, provide methods to link the data to a file. In this case, the XML file is stored there, so no ASP for data is needed.”

There are many ways that Internet technologies are being applied to manufacturing problems. One thing is certain, they all will continue seeking to provide powerful tools to help manage manufacturing enterprises.

Microsoft.Net Framework offers tools for manufacturing

No company seems to stir up as much debate among computer users as Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.). Love it or not, there is no denying that its technologies are pervasive in manufacturing. Most computers are running one version of Windows or another. COM, OPC, Visual Basic, Visual C++, Visual Studio, Internet Explorer, and more are found in just about every location. Granted, there are competitors, but none seem to be making the same headway in manufacturing as Microsoft.

Microsoft’s newest initiative, .Net (pronounced “dot net”), is destined to be important for control engineers. This group of technologies has been years in the making. Bill Gates has long held a vision of information available anywhere on any device using the web as a medium. This is Microsoft’s answer.

As for applicability to manufacturing, Microsoft’s global director, manufacturing industry, automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment, Peter Wengert, says, “Microsoft is committed to helping manufacturers extend beyond their four walls to effectively communicate with other plants, partners and customers. Microsoft has built the platform and business tools to allow manufacturers to be more lean and agile in the digital economy.”

According to Rashesh Modi, Wonderware’s chief technology officer, there are four primary elements to the success of Net in creating web services:

XML is the universal data medium for message content;

HTTP is the communication pipeline;

UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration) director, serves as a B2B-based, Yellow Pages-style directory that allows companies to locate business partners; and

SOAP defines how each Web Service interacts with the others.

Web Services are a programmable application component that is accessible via standard Internet protocols. It combines aspects of software components and the web because it has a well-defined interface, reusable “black box” functionality, and no object-model specific infrastructure is needed.

A wizard that guides the programmer aids building a Web Service in Visual Studio.Net. The new &WebMethod()> directive is all that is needed to expose a method as an XML Web Service.

For more detail about XML and related web technologies, see Control Engineering January 2002 “Software Standards Propel Information Exchange.”

Great Dane runs with the web

Web-enabled motion control makes heroes out of engineers responsible for plant automation by paring operating and maintenance costs.

Web-enabled automation is a straightforward concept. Open-component hardware and software products allow integration using a variety of commercial third-party products. Our system at Great Dane Trailers grew out of Schneider Electric’s (Raleigh, N.C.) industrial automation architecture, involving Modbus over TCP/IP. Web-enabled plant-floor devices like PLCs and I/O modules publish data to which any client device can subscribe.

Our North American manufacturing plants are widely dispersed throughout the Southeast and Midwest. Motion engineering headquarters resides in Savannah, Ga., making for long flights to the outlying plants.

A motion-related problem at any of these facilities had a significant impact on operations, as downtime accumulated during hours of “blind” troubleshooting over the telephone. Particularly serious problems required emergency travel, all while unrecoverable manufacturing time slipped away.

The Great Dane team designed a motion system that’s a natural extension of the existing automation platform, rather than a separate device. With a Modicon SERCOS module added to the PLC, the servo drive system integrates motion control into the PLC architecture.

Web servers in the PLCs tie into Great Dane’s existing Ethernet-based Intranet. That interface allows us to diagnose causes of system failures at any plant, and get the plant running again in record time. The system allows us to monitor processes for red flags, preempt downtime, and adjust motion profiles and machine sequences easily and quickly.

Web-enabled motion control provided Great Dane with a wide-area engineering network that saves time and money. It’s a capability that’s relatively simple to implement.

Alan Whiten, corporate manufacturing engineer Great Dane Trailers Inc.

Intellution releases infoAgent

‘infoAgent” is a web-based historical analysis and viewing application for Intellution’s (Foxborough, Mass.) iHistorian. The product provides a personalized web environment where information from iHistorian can be analyzed, trended and reported. Typical infoAgent solutions consist of a collection of displays or reports that contain key analysis and display components.

Harry Merkin, Intellution’s vp, notes, “Every manufacturer has various activities like collecting and storing information, extracting to improve processes, ensure quality and regulatory compliance, and improve productivity. iHistorian is an enterprise historian gathering information from all over the infrastructure, scaling it and analyzing it. infoAgent is a web-based way for people to access and bring insight. It is browser-based, matching people’s needs and expectations.”

Key components include:

Data Links, enable simple reporting of process data;

Time-based Trending, supports string trends enables contextual data analysis and advanced visualization;

XY Plots, enables plotting and comparing values, as well as scrolling through time;

Event Trending, allows trends of process values to be assembled and displayed by criteria other than time; and

Pen Groups and Event Groups are used to apply generic pen lists and packaged event queries to trend objects.

Personalized settings allow for information customized to the user available anywhere, anytime.