RSS finds pertinent manufacturing data

On many Web sites you may see a button labeled "RSS" or "XML feed." These small buttons represent a way of selecting and collecting Web accessible information. RSS is short for Really Simple Syndication and is an XML-based method for any Web site or FTP site to become an information publisher. It's not just for reading; applications include manufacturing production.

By Dennis Brandl, BR&L Consulting January 1, 2006

On many Web sites you may see a button labeled “RSS” or “XML feed.” These small buttons represent a way of selecting and collecting Web accessible information. RSS is short for Really Simple Syndication and is an XML-based method for any Web site or FTP site to become an information publisher. It’s not just for reading; applications include manufacturing production.

RSS solves the problem of having too much information in too many places. The typical Web user will browse from site to site, looking for new or changed information. RSS automatically retrieves new and changed information from multiple sites.

It’s important to realize that RSS is not a Web publishing system, it is the format for an XML file. The publisher puts information on an accessible Web or FTP site and updates one XML RSS file, called an RSS stream.

The top-level element in an RSS stream file is a channel , which defines an area of interest. Think of it as a TV or radio channel. Typical RSS stream channels are international news, politics, and local weather. Within a channel there are items . Think of these as news stories. Each item usually contains at least a title, description, publication date, and link. The link is a URL that points to the complete Web page, document, and audio or video file.

An RSS publisher places Web pages, documents, or other files in an accessible area and then updates the RSS stream with a new item pointing to the file. Most RSS sites also delete old items from the RSS stream file.

Clients subscribe to RSS streams using a dedicated RSS reader or a Web browser. RSS readers contain a list of RSS streams that they periodically retrieve—every hour, every day, or every 10 minutes.

Due to the lack of an agreed-upon RSS standard, RSS readers have different names on different systems. The RSS reader in the FireFox browser is called Live Bookmarks and in the Opera browser it is called Feeds . Most RSS readers provide a keyword search to pick up items that contain specific keywords. The RSS reader displays a list of any items that meet the match criteria with a flag to indicate if the reader has already looked at the item. There are at least four incompatible RSS standards: RSS 0.91, RSS 0.92, RSS 2.0, and IETF Atom 1.0. Fortunately, most readers will accept all standards, but the lack of a common standard has slowed RSS adoption.

Manufacturing systems can use RSS, despite the lack of an accepted standard. Today many engineers and manufacturing managers will browse HMI systems, flipping from screen to screen and looking at reports to find significant events. RSS provides a way to simplify searching for relevant information using standard browsers.

Most manufacturing report packages can generate XML files and formatted reports. Automatically generated reports can be saved in an accessible location, such as an FTP directory. The same report package can generate a summary XML document containing an “item” description of the report. The description may contain pertinent summary or exception data.

A simple application would then read the generated items and update the RSS stream file. Channels can be identified with production areas, such as separate RSS stream files for packaging, main production, dispensing, filling, and assembly. Channels may also be defined for specific report categories, such as variance, utilization, and throughput reports. If a report fits into multiple channels, then the different RSS streams can point to the same report.

RSS allows each manager to subscribe to streams important to them and setup key word filters to select only the data they need. RSS provides a way to change our patterns for finding important and pertinent information contained in manufacturing system reports.

Author Information
Dennis Brandl, dbrandl@brlconsulting.com , is the president of BR&L Consulting, a consulting firm focusing on manufacturing IT solutions, based in Cary, N.C.