Maintaining your plant’s health

One of the best ways to conceptualize data acquisition software is to compare it to the human body's nervous system. Acquiring data is similar to the body's signaling process when it encounters stimuli. When a person goes from an air-conditioned room to 907 F heat and 80% humidity outdoors, nerve endings all over the body send electric impulses to the brain saying, "Hey, it's hot and mugg...

By Michael Drakulich, assistant editor September 1, 1999

Trends in Data Acquisition Software

PC-based acquisition

Windows NT

Ethernet networking

Ease of use, customization

One of the best ways to conceptualize data acquisition software is to compare it to the human body’s nervous system. Acquiring data is similar to the body’s signaling process when it encounters stimuli. When a person goes from an air-conditioned room to 907 F heat and 80% humidity outdoors, nerve endings all over the body send electric impulses to the brain saying, ‘Hey, it’s hot and muggy out here. Do something to cool off.’ Or if that person decides to stay in the air-conditioned room, electric impulses might transmit a message loosely translated as, ‘Don’t move, this is climatic Nirvana.’

Data acquisition software systems in manufacturing work similarly. Data collecting devices (e.g. sensors, valves) are spread all over manufacturing plants like nerves, connected by hardwired standalone systems, or by network. They monitor processes and collect hundreds, maybe thousands, of variables. The data, existing figuratively and literally in the form of impulses, is sent to a collection system, where it is analyzed by something or someone acting as the brain of the system. This brain, whether it’s an engineer, computer, or software, can then decide whether something needs to be corrected or if things are just as they should be.

Control Engineering ‘s 1999 Data Acquisition Study takes a look at the health of manufacturing ‘nervous systems.’ The study’s objective was to qualify respondents’ involvement in recommending, specifying, and/or purchasing data acquisition software; examine where data acquisition software is applied; learn what platforms and operating systems respondents use; and determine the importance of selected features in purchasing decisions.

Nearly all respondents, 99%, recommend, specify, and/or purchase data acquisition software, qualifying them for the survey. Eighty-six percent do it for in-plant requirements, while 18% do it for OEM (resale) requirements.

Platforms, operating systems

The leading primary application for data acquisition was continuous processing, which received 30% of the total responses. Test applications came in next with 26%. Discrete products, batch processing, and SCADA accounted for 16%, 15%, and 14%, respectively. Continuous and batch processing received 9% of the responses. Results exceeded 100% since many engineers require two or more of these functions.

Respondents use more than one platform; 71% use PCs as the platform for data acquisition software, 45% use PLCs, and 23% use distributed control systems (DCS). Results again exceeded 100% due to multiple responses.

Of the respondents that use PCs for data acquisition, 67% use Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system. Next is Windows 95, used by 56% of the respondents. Microsoft’s two other operating systems still in operation, DOS and Windows 3.x, received 23% and 14%, respectively (see graph). Nine percent say they use Unix.

David Potter, product marketing manager of networking, data acquisition, and I/O for National Instruments (Austin, Tex.), says what largely determines the operating systems users employ is company size and type of software they’re running. If a company uses Internet/ intranet protocols to monitor distributed, connected processes in separate locations, for instance, you would not likely see DOS or Windows 3.x systems, he says.

Mr. Potter’s colleague at National Instruments, Don Holley, industrial automation marketing manager, says DOS and Windows 3.x are still perfectly capable for a lot of applications. ‘As long as a computer running on the older systems is doing the job, there’s no need to replace it.’ Both agree once these older systems fail, most users upgrade to Windows NT to increase capabilities.

Respondents have decidedly mixed networking requirements. Thirty-six percent say they only work with networked data acquisition systems, while 33% say they only work with standalone systems. Yet nearly another third (29%) work with both types.

Of those that indicated they use a networked data acquisition system, 72% use Ethernet to connect everything. Tied for a distant second place are intranet and proprietary networking systems, each with 12% of responses.

What users need and want

Top vote-getter for features respondents want most in their data acquisition software is TCP/IP, a protocol for Ethernet and the Internet, with 60% of responses. This was followed by DDE (dynamic data exchange) with 39%. OLE (object linking and embedding) was third with 31%, while ODBC (open database connectivity) and ActiveX tied for fourth, each with 25%. OPC (OLE for process control) received 18% of the votes and Java received 13%.

For the process industries, expect OPC’s presence to increase over the next several years, and don’t be surprised to see DDE’s presence decrease says USDATA’s (Richardson, Tex.) Andrew Kerr. As product manager for USDATA’s FactoryLink software product, Mr. Kerr says OPC offers everything DDE does and more. He also says DDE is linked to legacy systems running DOS or Windows 3.x. Once those systems are replaced with Windows NT and the forthcoming Windows 2000, the new systems will most likely access data through OPC instead of the older DDE. Some companies, such as Wonderware (Irvine, Calif.), have products that support both OPC and DDE. Wonderware’s FactorySuite 2000 still supports DDE if it’s run on Microsoft Windows 3.x or even Windows 95/98, but that company recommends a Windows NT environment and OPC for high-end applications.

Collecting variables

Half of respondents (51%) collect fewer than 500 variables when gathering in-plant data. Thirty-six percent collect 500 to 5,000 variables, and 10% collect more than 5,000. That’s a lot of data, which to some may seem superfluous. Mr. Kerr says data collection has increased over the past decade and he expects that trend to continue. ‘The expectation around the industry is to acquire more data to remain competitive and implement best practices,’ he says.

Look for custom data acquisition packages (or at least more configurable off-the-shelf software) to start proliferating if users have anything to say about it. When asked what percentage of data acquisition software respondents bought off-the-shelf, compared to custom, the trend favors the customized versions. Five years ago, respondents bought each about half the time; 50% off-the-shelf vs. 46% custom. Today, the split shows 41% buying off-the-shelf compared to 54% custom. Respondents were then asked to project what they would buy in the next five years, and the trend continued to favor customization. Respondents say they’ll buy off-the-shelf data acquisition software 38% of the time in five years compared to 57% custom.

While gaining momentum, customized software placed fourth among most important characteristics respondents look for in data acquisition software. Ease of use ranked as the most important characteristic respondents seek, followed by technical support, availability, then customization.

Injuries or diseases that attack a body’s nervous system can literally have crippling effects. Ask any plant floor engineer how operations would go without proper functioning data acquisition and they might describe it the same way.

Data acquisition software products

For more information on data acquisition software products, visit .

Real-time DAC embedded on board series

Austin, Tex.- LabView RT is a real-time version of National Instruments’ LabView and has been released in conjunction with the new RT Series data acquisition boards for use with Microsoft Windows-based computers. LabView RT takes advantage of the standard LabView development paradigm and, through a pull-down menu command, embeds programs on the dedicated processor of the RT Series boards. Once embedded, LabView RT runs on the board’s processor, apart from the computer’s CPU. Said to be well-suited for such applications as machine control, process control, and engine simulation, LabView RT helps develop and deploy real-time applications without requiring in-depth knowledge of real-time techniques or nonstandard computer systems. National Instruments

Monitor valve performance over the Internet

Shrewsbury, Mass.- Field Browser from Neles Automation, formerly Neles Controls, provides an online Internet/intranet connection to valves and instrument products, collects data, systematically detects status changes, and sends priority warnings to plant personnel via web page, e-mail, or mobile phone before processes are disturbed. Field Browser monitors each field instrument connected to it via a HART multiplexer network. The system collects messages and converts them to an HTML document. The collected information is stored in a database, which serves as an information bank customers can use to evaluate and develop a current or historical perspective on an individual valve’s performance. Unauthorized access to this information is effectively prevented by firewalls in the user’s intranet system. In the event of a field instrument error or failure, a warning is immediately sent to a web page, e-mail, or one of many possible destinations. Neles Automation

OPC module added to SCADA

Richardson, Tex.- FactoryLink version 6.6 enables manufacturers to connect plant-floor devices, consolidate and process data, and communicate it to decisionmakers throughout a manufacturing enterprise. The new version incorporates OPC (OLE for process control) client and server support. The OPC client module provides standardized connectivity to plant floor devices, making integration significantly easier in a multivendor environment and providing users more choices with which to build automation systems. The OPC server allows data to be distributed in a standard format to clients, including low-end HMI products and higher-level business systems. Keeping track of all the data can be done with enhanced database support with interfaces to Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 as well as Oracle 8.0. USDATA

No-programming data access

Norwood, Mass.- VisiconX is an Intellution Dynamics tool that allows users to access real-time plant floor data with no programming. VisiconX allows companies to quickly run complex queries of any plant database, then implement the data for business reports in minutes rather than hours of development time. VisiconX is a set of ActiveX controls that enhance and extend the graphic and intuitive power of Intellution WorkSpace with the newest Microsoft technology called ADO, or Active Data Object, and Object Linking and Embedding for Databases (OLE DB). Everything in the tool is based on object-to-object connectivity rather than proprietary scripting. VisiconX is said to cut programming time by incorporating Microsoft’s ADO and OLE DB. ADO is a high interface to various types of data. OLE DB is a set of ActiveX interfaces that provide applications with uniform access to data stored in diverse information sources. Intellution

Cimplicity adds guardian tool

Albany, N.Y.- System Sentry is the newest feature added to GE Fanuc’s Cimplicity software. It’s a proactive monitoring tool designed to assure 24-hour-per-day system availability by providing real-time system information and alerting system managers to problems before they become critical. System Sentry monitors Cimplicity parameters to identify problems and locate resource bottlenecks. It can monitor one system or a network of Microsoft Windows NT systems from one Cimplicity application. System Sentry can also be integrated with Cimplicity Pager to alert personnel to critical conditions. With Cimplicity’s distributed architecture, system managers can access performance data from anywhere on a network, over the Internet, or with Cimplicity’s WebView. GE Fanuc

Support for OPC

Irvine, Calif.- OPCLink, as part of Wonderware’s FactorySuite 2000, allows it to act as an OPC client and enables communications with in-process and out-of-process OPC servers. OPCLink allows remote browsing of the name space of OPC servers, which facilitates setup of OPC communications, even over a network. It uses the OPC format for Value, Time stamp, and Quality (VTQ) data. OPCLink performs life checks periodically to verify that the OPC server is online, and will notify the user if it’s not. It also acts as a data monitor that can tell what items and topics are active in an application and provides values received from an OPC server. OPCLink allows the user to choose between running OPC/DCOM or Wonderware’s own TCP/IP-based SuiteLink over the network. Wonderware

Global access

Phoenix Ariz.- PlantScape Distributed Server Architecture is part of Honeywell’s new PlantScape Release 300 that will allow multiple PlantScape systems to operate as one integrated system, plant wide or across the world. Distributed Server Architecture is designed to handle demanding remote requirements over slower, wide-area networks. The new system is reportedly ideal for integrating multiple control rooms, or for segmenting control across units. Distributed Server Architecture provides global access to all point data and alarms in the Distributed Server system. In the past, integrating multiple processes and applications required significant engineering costs that didn’t add value. The product is also said to eliminate duplicate databases, nonintegrated alarming, and gate-way technology, providing clear communication. Honeywell IAC

Real-time visualization

Contributing Foxboro’s I/A Series Information Suite’s data acquisition capability is AIM Star Explorer, a PC desktop tool for visualizing and exploring real-time and historical process data served from I/A Series systems and from other data servers. AIM Star Explorer has three major components: a Data Object Tree Tool for visually selecting groups of data objects; a spreadsheet for viewing data in tabular format and defining data transforms; and a trend/chart area for viewing plots of the selected and transformed data. AIM Star Explorer runs on the Windows 95/98, and Windows NT operating systems. The I/A Series Information Suite is available for Unix or Windows NT platforms. Foxboro

Real-time data acquisition

Novi, Mich.- Version 6 of DIAdem, the PC Workshop, combines the user’s choice of soft or hard real-time data acquisition and control of test processes. The software works with a variety of conventional PC plug-in boards for data acquisition. Soft real-time is accomplished with standard Microsoft Windows NT, while an inexpensive timer plug-in board accomplishes hard real-time with a response time measured in microseconds. The software is icon-based and data acquisition, analysis, and report generation can be accomplished without programming. GfS Inc.

AOA technology enhances RSView32

Milwaukee, Wis.- Rockwell Software’s RSView32 software now benefits from Add-On Architecture (AOA). AOA features expand the visualization capabilities of RSView32 by using TrendX, Recipe Pro, and statistical process control (SPC) without altering core components of the HMI, allowing users to use these features only when they are required for an application. Recipe Pro enables users to create multiple recipe project files in each RSView32 project and configure multiple recipe files, each containing RSView32 tags and sets of data. The SPC add-on provides real-time analysis. With RSView32 SPC, users can configure multiple SPC products, each with its own characteristics. The SPC add-on consists of project and product editors, product activation control, Event Summary control, and SPC chart control. Rockwell Automation/Rockwell Software