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Where Are Control Architectures Heading? Main Street

Darren Allison is a pioneer in his profession. He has ventured into new territory and discovered a whole new world. He's not a scientist, an engineer, or an astronaut. He's an IT manager at Martinrea International Inc., and he's in charge of the shop floor.

 

As the person in charge of both enterprise and automation — two very different corporate realms — Allison wants one thing from the systems under his supervision: "We are looking for a generic language that crosses the boundaries between IT and the factory floor."

 

Allison may soon get his wish. Over the past few years, automation vendors have rebuilt their control architectures around some of the same de facto standards that exist in the enterprise: Cisco Ethernet switches, Intel processors, and Microsoft .NET Web services, to name a few.

 

A decade ago, while Ethernet, the Internet, and powerful multi-processing computers were exploding onto the enterprise scene, enabling application integration and corporate collaboration, the plant floor was humming along behind closed doors, using proprietary control technologies that kept production information isolated from the rest of the enterprise. As a result, the factory floor was a safe, reliable environment for production. But the information flowing through the shuttered systems was neither accessible nor easy to manage.

 

Today, however, a new generation of control has emerged based on the idea that integration, open industry standards, multi-discipline processing, and intuitive programming should be embraced, not shunned. Manufacturers want flexibility and choice; they no longer want to be held captive by their automation supplier. Rather, they want a trusted partner that helps solve their business problems.

 

Much of this shift has been influenced by IT departments, which are leading corporate integration efforts requiring visibility into production and across the supply chain. Automation vendors, seeing this developing trend, have had to respond. To that end, the 2008 automation world is very different than it was 10 years ago.

 

Over the past decade, Invensys introduced the first-of-its-kind enterprise control system (ECS), and Rockwell and Siemens gracefully shifted their focus away from rigid PLC technology to a more encompassing system, called programmable automation control (PAC), that combines discrete, process, motion, and safety control within the same architecture. GE Fanuc added "Intelligent Platforms" to its name and transformed itself from a components vendor into a turnkey hybrid control system supplier. Schneider Electric went through a similar shift last year.

 

ABB, which was one of the first vendors to introduce an integrated platform in the year 2000, is now fully focused on integrating with enterprise systems, such as ERP, as well as low-level mechanical and electrical equipment. And both Honeywell and Emerson Process Management tout wireless as the latest revolution in control systems architecture, saying the technology will allow manufacturers to go where they have never gone before.

 

While each vendor has taken a slightly different path toward technology transformation, they all have been moving at top speed toward the information superhighway where Allison and other IT pros already live. Now, however, the vendors' task is to create control transparency.

 

"What I'm hoping to get, in time, is more of a unified look ... where both worlds live under one unified network without a lot of conflicts between them," Martinrea's Allison says.

 

Allison believes the network infrastructure is a key ingredient for moving toward the unified IT-automation environment. That's why one of his first decisions was to rip out what he called "the blue hose network" that was the proprietary data highway for Rockwell Automation controllers used in Martinrea's factory. "As soon as we stepped in to take over the shop floor, we standardized on Ethernet," Allison says.

It's a good first step. But Ethernet is just the communications protocol and the pipe. There's much more work to be done to create a seamless integrated architecture that bridges the plant and the enterprise. And, Allison and others admit, there are reasons to keep some things industrial-strength.

 

 

Data Merge Ahead

 

Unifying control and enterprise systems under one management umbrella is a great goal, albeit a bit utopian, some industry experts say.

 

The real goal, says John Nesi, Rockwell Automation's vice president of market development, is "corporate transparency and the need for more companies to get more information out of their systems in order to help them identify quality issues, yield issues, and overruns on energy."

 

The emphasis right now and for the foreseeable future is on convergence — "merging data out of the control system and into an information layer that ties directly into an ERP system," Nesi says.

 

To do that, Rockwell Automation and most of its competitors are cruising along the same road. They are working to comply with industry standards, such as ISA-95, for lifting the language barrier between ERP and manufacturing execution systems, or with OPC, to enable disparate devices across the plant floor to communicate.

 

Many have also re-engineered the way their systems are programmed, using a global namespace format that calls a device by a plain English word or phrase rather than using a non-descript number as its tag, for example. That allows the device to be identified by a variety of applications.

 

Having the ability to present information in context provides a single window into the manufacturing environment, says Alicia DuBay, director of global marketing for control systems at ABB, which was one of the first automation vendors to roll out an open platform. ABB's Aspect Object technology, which is based on .NET and has been around since the introduction of ABB's 800xA DCS in the year 2000, offers lots of value-add in relation to integration and productivity. "There's less training, and all the information is at the operator's fingertips, as you can have a single sign-in for various applications," she says.

 

Meanwhile, the evolution of industry standards like ISA-95 has ABB and others developing modules and interfaces easing enterprise connectivity. "What's neat is that you don't have to write custom code to do the integration job," DuBay says. "It's all configurable."

 

All of this work is putting control platforms on an integration path similar to IT's. Yet, manufacturers know that IT hardware, software, and middleware technology doesn't cut it in the plant, where high reliability, security, and real-time access to information can't be compromised. There can be no rebooting of the PC when it comes to controlling a production process and downtime can cost a company millions of dollars. For that reason, automation vendors, acting responsibly, are wrapping industrial-strength layers around the commercial-off-the-shelf technology to ensure high availability.

 

For some vendors, such as Siemens, this may mean creating a demilitarized zone between special portions of the control architecture where all communication with the outside world is done. That means even the ERP system would not have direct access to the control system network, says Todd Stauffer, Siemens PCS 7 marketing manager. Though some may see that as defeating the purpose of integration, it actually is the best way to keep the control architecture safe, and it can bring IT and automation cultures together, Stauffer says.

The question is, who owns the quarantined area between the control and the enterprise network? The answer: no one at the moment. To make this integration work, IT and plant personnel need to talk and create a cross-functional team.

 

Integration is not just about technology; there is a culture shift that has to happen as well, Stauffer says. "It's a matter of creating a team focused on what the business needs to accomplish in order to make it work," Stauffer says.

 

Other vendors are creating their own variations on the collaborative team approach. For example, when Invensys struck up a partnership with Microsoft a few years ago to help design a service-oriented architecture for its Archestra integration architecture — which is the heart of InFusion, the enterprise control architecture released in April 2006 — it proposed 28 extra services that Microsoft needed to add to its core .NET infrastructure to convert it from its basic enterprise offering to an industrial offering.

 

"We formed a team of Microsoft and Foxboro architects to develop a wrapper around .NET, which would convert it to an industrial SOA," says Peter Martin, Invensys' vice president and general manager of performance management.

 

Similarly, Rockwell and Cisco have been in cahoots for a few years, designing a version of Cisco's Ethernet switch, called Catalyst, that is built for the factory floor and can be integrated as part of the production control suite. The Rockwell version of the Cisco Catalyst switch is scheduled to be available in July, officials say.

 

"What's really changed is that they are combining the best of both worlds," says Craig Resnick, a research analyst with ARC Advisory group. "They are using chips and componentry that are available in the enterprise world [and adding] the ruggedness, reliability, and durability that are needed on the factory floor."

 

Perhaps there's no better place to see how IT has influenced industrial automation than in wireless. Durable wireless chipsets, intelligent sensors, and industrial-strength wireless communications protocols, such as Wireless HART and the emerging ISA-100 standard, are providing automation vendors with the tools they need to finally build a cohesive, yet easy-to-use, and reliable wireless architecture for the plant.

 

"We see wireless as helping to change the game," says Jason Urso, Honeywell's director of marketing for Experion PKS, which now has a wireless aspect to it that the company calls OneWireless. "It will drive down costs and provide a new set of values that couldn't be achieved in the wired world," he says.

 

For example, Honeywell's OneWireless includes an equipment health monitoring application that feeds field instrumentation data back to the distributed control system (DCS) for predictive maintenance purposes. "There's a great opportunity in that space, but the bigger opportunity is in places where customers are doing things like writing manual measurements on a clipboard. Instead, they could be taking a tablet PC out to the field to do the measuring, and then take that [electronic information] back to the control system."

 

Wireless technology opens doors to applications that have been cost-prohibitive until now, and many customers are seeing a quick payback as a result.

 

Gary Borham, operations manager of the hot strip mill at a major steel manufacturer, put a Smart Wireless system from Emerson into his site last summer to monitor and measure water flow, bearing temperature, roll coolant water pressure, and grease system pressure throughout the mill. In that environment, which has overhead sprays and a 450'-long run-out table, running conduit and wiring throughout the plant was a costly proposition.

But with wireless transmitters — Borham says it took only a matter of hours to install four, along with a gateway that talks to a Pi server from OSIsoft Inc. — the company has increased product quality and reduced the mill's delay rate.

 

For example, in the hot mill, practices have been put in place to adjust and maintain proper cooling water on the Roughing mill work rolls using Emerson's Smart Wireless transmitters. "Now, during rolling campaigns, [the transmitters] monitor and alarm if there is not an efficient amount of roll coolant water on the rolls," Borham says. Since the installation, "cooling water issues have been avoided. That's money saved."

 

There is so much opportunity for wireless applications in the plant beyond measuring pressure and temperature, or feeding instrumentation data back for predictive maintenance. Honeywell, for instance, envisions the day when cameras are used in conjunction with analytic applications to sense changes in the video frames to detect flames, leaks, or spills in the plant, Urso says.

 

All of these areas, however, are new to plant managers and operators, which is why companies such as Honeywell, Emerson, and Invensys are providing new types of services to go with their wireless products.

 

 

At Your Service

 

Emerson and Cisco have teamed up to provide planning, design, and installation services of the Smart Wireless system and gateways at customer sites. Further building on its service portfolio, Emerson acquired The Automation Group (TAG) in January, a strategic move to serve its customers in the oil and gas market, specifically, with engineering and design expertise.

 

Other vendors, including Invensys, Rockwell, GE Fanuc, Siemens, and Schneider Electric, are also building out service offerings to complement their product offerings.

 

According to ARC Advisory Group, services is the fastest growing segment in the automation market, which, in 2006 was a $14 billion market and is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 12% through 2011. The ARC report points to a labor shortage as the primary reason for the service-based explosion, citing a major refining company that claims to have lost 2,500 years of experience when 100 of its operators retired at one site — each with 25 years on the job.

 

The vendors are stepping in to fill that void. But they realize they can't just offer up expertise; they have to couple it with new options for the end users.

 

GE Fanuc's new turnkey approach, for example, includes systems integrators as the company's implementation arm. With those solution partnerships comes freedom for the customer, says Craig Thorsland, marketing manager for GE Process Systems.

 

"They have the freedom to architect the system the way they want in order to scale or grow, and to not be forced to do things," Thorsland says. A good example might be as simple as buying the computer to run the system software. "One customer asked, 'Why do I have to buy the computer from GE Fanuc when I can get it for a lot less direct from Dell?' "

 

Well, why not? "Our answer is, you can have it either way. That's the freedom delivered by our contemporary architecture," Thorsland says.

 

Another integration option on the horizon is tying the control system together with electrical and mechanically embedded devices on machines. Both ABB and Rockwell are exploring the area of "mechatronics" — that is mechanics, electronics, and control system coming together within the same engineer design.

 

A good example, Rockwell's Nesi says, is in the packaging arena. A CPG company trying to fill bottles of shampoo will send the product down the line through a filler and a labeler that depend on motion controllers. But at the end of the line, when it's time to package the product, there's a robot arm to do that.

 

"That robot arm has traditionally been under separate control from a completely different vendor," Nesi explains. That setup could soon be changing. "We've done some development inside the architecture to leverage the emerging market of integrated robotics," he says.

 

Indeed, integrating down the production line is just as important as integrating up into the enterprise. In fact, Martinrea's Allison sees it as the final piece of the puzzle. "As convergence keeps going deeper, you start to see more agreement between groups ... That's when we'll see a good, unified system," Allison says.

Source:   Editorial from the March 2008 issue of Managing Automation, Where Are Control Architectures Heading? Main Street,


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