PLC transaction module bridges IT, OT for system integrator

Connecting the programmable logic controllers (PLC) that run the plant floor operations with the structured query language (SQL) databases can be challenging. An example involving an automation systems integrator is highlighted.

By Deane Horn May 12, 2022
Courtesy: Softing

Bridging operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) systems has become an essential element of success for today’s data-driven manufacturing enterprises. From consumer-packaged goods to pharmaceuticals to food and beverage, there’s a growing need for plant floor control systems and enterprise computing systems in many industries to be able to exchange information with each other.

However, this data integration is easier said than done. Connecting the programmable logic controllers (PLC) that run the plant floor operations with the structured query language (SQL) databases that are typically the heart of enterprise IT systems has its share of challenges. For one, it may be unclear who’s taking ownership of the integration — whether the IT, production or engineering department. Compounding this challenge is the fact that IT and OT engineers don’t really talk to each other. And finally, this kind of data integration involves extensive custom software development, which can drive up engineering costs and delay production.

System integration company faces challenges

These were some of the issues ESCO Automation engineers encountered. As a total systems integrator, ESCO works on automation projects ranging from small logistics kiosks that check trucks in and out of plants, to automated material handling systems with miles of conveyor.

With locations in Iowa, Colorado and Indianapolis, ESCO offers services including electrical construction and engineering, safety training and analysis, arc flash analysis and automation. Depending on the project’s size and performance requirements, the company often uses Rockwell Automation ControlLogix and CompactLogix as its control platforms.

“Whether our customers require front-end engineering or innovative design builds, our goal is to deliver high-performing, reliable automation systems that can drive their success,” said Jon Johnson at ESCO.

The third element involves connecting customers’ PLCs to IT systems, typically in the form of SQL databases, to bridge the gap between connected enterprise systems and the shop floor. This had been driving up system complexity, time and cost.

“The traditional approaches to IT/OT data integration involve developing custom software or configuring the SQL databases,” said Mike McCuddin at ESCO. “These methods, which include log shipping, database mirroring and server clustering, have their pros and cons, as well as different levels of complexity that have many possible fault points. We wanted a simpler solution.”

Complexity makes availability challenging

These issues came to a head in a recent application that involved designing a custom track-and-trace automation system, which had several design challenges:

  • Downtime had to be avoided at all costs.
  • The system had to meet high throughput requirements — e.g. filling 240 containers per minute, adding up to 70,000 containers per day.
  • The system had to accurately track and control products through three migrations: supply, transport and destination.
  • The system had to minimize the layers of complexity between process and data, all while minimizing the amount of software development.
Figure 1: ControlLogix single-slot module (left) and CompactLogix double-wide module (right). Courtesy: Softing

Figure 1: ControlLogix single-slot module (left) and CompactLogix double-wide module (right). Courtesy: Softing

Enterprise transaction module bridges IT/OT gap

To meet the requirements of this application, as well as other applications requiring seamless enterprise-to-controller connectivity, ESCO consulted Softing, which recommended its tManager Enterprise Appliance Transaction Module. The module is designed to enable bidirectional data exchange between enterprise systems and PLCs. Once the device is inserted into the PLC rack, the in-chassis module automatically enumerates PLC and database tags and structures — no software coding or scripting required. With licensed access to the Rockwell backplane, the module eliminates the need for a separate computer or operating system.

Other benefits include:

  • High reliability for critical systems: The module maximizes data availability via store, forward (local buffering), failover and PLC status tags.
  • The ability to make edits without halting production: It supports advanced data structures, user-defined types, XML encoding and arrays.
  • Easy to install, operate and maintain: Because of the way the configuration software is designed, anyone familiar with Allen-Bradley PLCs can set up the module with ease. Once configured, the module handles all data transfer and transactions within the hardware.

ESCO’s track-and-trace automation system included 14 PLCs, six tManager cards, 100 barcode scanners, 1,000 connected devices, 100 tManager triggers and miles of conveyor track. As part of this full solution, the module downloads production recipes from the end-user’s manufacturing execution system (MES) to ControlLogix PLCs with a transaction speed of 4 ms. It also saves space and reduces maintenance needs. Unlike a PC, which can be a target for hacking and viruses, the module resists viruses and avoids antivirus updates and ongoing patches.

Figure 2: As an in-chassis module, tManager automatically enumerates PLC and database tags and structures. Courtesy: Softing

Figure 2: As an in-chassis module, tManager automatically enumerates PLC and database tags and structures. Courtesy: Softing

The end-user also reaped additional benefits such as:

  • The plant was fully automated, reducing the number of staff required.
  • It successfully met the application’s availability and performance requirements.
  • Tracking is now present throughout the entire material handling process.
  • There is a clear separation of duties between the IT and OT departments.
  • The automation system can move more material with greater visibility and fewer errors.

“tManager has successfully reduced the system’s complexity and simplified the lines of responsibility between IT and OT,” said Dillon Kepner at ESCO. “We’re excited to bring this innovative device to more automation projects in the future to take our customers’ performance to the next level.”

Deane Horn, director of product management at Softing. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Keywords: asset management, system integration

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Deane Horn
Author Bio: Deane Horn, director of product management at Softing.