Are you feeling the pain?

You just got word on a new corporate initiative to centralize company-wide data through the deployment of a large-scale enterprise software system—and the IT department wants the data from your plant floor devices to connect to the business servers in real-time. Not only that, they want data from the servers fed to your equipment.

09/01/2007


You just got word on a new corporate initiative to centralize company-wide data through the deployment of a large-scale enterprise software system—and the IT department wants the data from your plant floor devices to connect to the business servers in real-time. Not only that, they want data from the servers fed to your equipment. Somehow the control data from the plant floor must be translated into a language that the servers will accept, and vice-versa. Conventional wisdom says you’ll need a PC interface between the two running custom-written software to make the data exchange.

Pain-point one: Writing custom software to exchange data between plant floor devices and a business system is expensive and time consuming. Expect two days just to get the data to exchange between the two, and at least another two days for configuration. Even though your budget might be compensated for the initial program development, it probably won’t be when changes are made to control-system components down the road and the data exchange software will have to be modified.

Pain-point two: Connecting a business system server and PC to your control system can leave the door open to problems, especially if it’s Web-based. Of course, first on the list is the potential for software viruses. Next are hackers, or just unintended changes made by operators.

Pain-point three: If your control system relies on commands or reports from the business server, such as a confirmation that an action has been completed to perform its tasks, you’re not going to like what happens when the server crashes. Without that business server command, the performance of your equipment may be affected.

Pain-point four: Most PCs aren’t built for the rigors of the factory floor and those that are can be expensive. Temperature extremes, dust and vibration can shorten the life of a typical PC.

Pain-point five: Time and money. You probably don’t have much extra of either. Implementing business system data exchange takes valuable time away from you and your team’s normal tasks.

Pain-point six: After you and your team have data flowing seamlessly from the plant floor to the business system and back again, there will be a call asking for additional modifications to be added. See pain-point five.

The reality is that the flow of data between the plant floor and the business system can be the basis of a strategic edge for your company. It aids in increasing productivity, customer satisfaction, quality, and flexibility while minimizing inventory, downtime, and cycle times. So, this is something you must do. But how do you minimize or eliminate some of these pain points?

One idea is to use a PC module that installs into a PLC or PAC rack. These PCs can pull device data directly from the PLC or PAC’s backplane to make installation easier. Rack-mounted PCs are typically more robust than the normal PC for a longer service life and are not premium priced as some industrially-hardened PCs.

Software? Not much you can do here. If you are on a path to use a PC for data exchange, custom configured software will be your only choice to connect. What you can do to ease the pain is to choose a supplier that you believe will be there for you in the future.

A new alternative is the data exchange appliance. Unlike a PC, these appliances are limited in what they do, but they do it very well. They are specifically designed to exchange data between plant floor devices and business servers and can be configured to perform bi-directionally. Since these appliances are not PC-based, there is very little risk of viruses, hackers, or unintended operator errors affecting your control system or the business server.

Data exchange appliances are available with specific business system adapters (i.e., Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, etc.) to exchange data with plant floor devices connected to a PLC or PAC. The application-specific nature of these devices makes setup and configuration quick and easy, without any programming knowledge required.

Since these appliances are designed to install in a PLC or PAC rack, they are constructed to withstand the rigors of the plant floor. They connect to the business system via Ethernet and once all connections are made, there is instant connectivity between plant devices and the business server.


Author Information
Ron Monday is the president and CEO of Online Development Inc., maker of the xCoupler data exchange appliance. He can be reached at 865-251-5252 or rmonday@oldi.com .




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