March 23, 1998 Design News
Internet infiltrates the factory floor
World Wide Web offers new
communication possibilities for manufacturing control systems
by Michael Babb, Editor-at-Large, London
surfing on the factory floor? Given the current wave
of interest in blending Internet communication technology
with industrial control systems, the idea might not
be so far off.
The driving force behind this latest pursuit is the
desire to achieve what Product Manager Tony Ciardiello
of Schneider Automation (Rueil-Malmaison, France) calls
the "transparent factory." Manufacturing companies
have longed for the day they can easily gather production
data and freely distribute it across the enterprise,
keeping everyone informed of plant activity. New web-based
tools promise to do exactly that.
Besides the need to provide real-time production data,
most manufacturing plants are faced with the management
and distribution of a vast number of documents from
many different sources. These tend to be held in a multitude
of incompatible formats managed by proprietary systems.
"Many software vendors see a possible answer to
this impasse in the widespread incorporation of World
Wide Web standards into their systems," explains
Paul Elton, chief designer, Visual Systems of Cadcentre,
a Cambridge-based software firm that supplies computer-aided
design systems for process industries.
"If the existing information systems can present
their data in World Wide Web formats," says Elton,
"corporate intranets can be created to bring together
information held in these diverse systems and present
it via a web browser to every user's desktop."
His company has recently launched a software product
called HyperPlant, which allows desktop computers to
view plant design CAD drawings, including 3D virtual
reality models, with an ordinary web browser. "In
the design office, the widest possible range of staff
can be kept fully informed of project details and progress
without having to be trained in, and authorized to access,
the CAD system," Elton notes.
Fisher-Rosemount (Eden Prairie, MN) provides control
and instrumentation to large chemical processing plants.
The company now complements its systems with software
that allows standard PC-based web browsers to view pages
of virtually real-time production data over the plant's
In the Fisher-Rosemount arrangement, the web server
runs on a PC that is directly linked to the control
system. The server uses function calls from a new Microsoft-supported
standard called OPC (OLE for Process Control) to obtain
updates from the control system every few seconds. Those
with access to the company intranet can point their
browsers at this server to view "live" production
data and a wide range of associated operations, such
as diagnostic information of the instruments or the
condition of the production equipment.
Besides providing any technician or manager in the
company with a complete picture of the manufacturing
process, versatile web technology provides another breathtaking
possibility: Granted external access, the same data
can be viewed from any browser anywhere in the world.
'Embedded' web servers. If web technology
has a lower limit, it has not yet been reached. The
lowly programmable controller is an example of what
may soon become the next important trend: the embedded
Embedded web servers can reside anywhere there is a
computing intelligence and an Ethernet or a modem connection.
A "smart" valve, a machine tool, an HVAC unit,
a remote pumping station, or an oil well are all candidates
for embedded web servers.
To demonstrate this possibility, Schneider Automation
has directly connected one of its Quantum TSX programmable
controllers to the World Wide Web; surfers can "visit"
it by pointing their browsers at www.modicon.com. While
its home page isn't very exciting, the implications
are clear: Every machine tool on the factory floor is
potentially a web site.
For example, an OEM in the Detroit area could click
a mouse button and "visit" his production
equipment in an auto plant in Birmingham, England. A
valve manufacturer in Finland could observe diagnostic
data from valves installed in a hydroelectric plant
in Chile. Web technology opens up the possibility for
OEM design engineers to monitor the performance of new
equipment as it operates on the factory floor.
'Virtual' control panels. Some web-savvy
companies are already providing products and services
that leverage the vast communications capability of
Internet technology for factory floor applications.
Arcom Ltd., a Cambridge-based maker of printed circuit
cards, has combined with Cambridge-based software provider
Iosoft Ltd. to supply a tiny web server on one of Arcom's
embedded controller boards.
"Industrial controllers with lean real-time web
server capability can offer enormous value to OEM products,"
asserts Ian Clarke, marketing manager of Arcom. "It
gives machine builders and OEMs a very cost-effective
means of performing remote monitoring and diagnostics."
An early application, says Clarke, is to use the web
server to provide "virtual" control panels
which deliver animated views of machine status to remote
One of the more ambitious commercial Internet products
for machine tool monitoring is offered by Yellow Connection,
based in the Alsace region of France. Eric Lesage, founder
of the company, says his Submarine product offers a
way for machine tool builders to help end users solve
problems at remote locations.
Machine tool OEMs have three
options to connect with remotely located machine
tools via a diagnostic software service provider:c
1. By direct modem connection between the end
user and the OEM;c 2. By direct modem
connection to the web server;c 3. The
full Internet solution.
Suppose a manufacturer in Switzerland, under severe
time constraints, ships a machine tool to Korea but
is unsure the system is properly finished. No problem,
says Lesage. With Submarine, the OEM can check his machine
out as if it were still in his shop and make corrections.
The Submarine product consists of a modem connected
to the serial port of the machine tool's controller,
or CNC. The factory technician plugs the modem into
a standard telephone line and presses a button which
initiates the connection, through a local Internet service
provider, to Yellow Connection's web server. On the
other end, the machine builder points his browser at
Yellow Connection and has direct access to machine parameters,
axes information, tool values, I/O values, and parts
and PLC programs.
"In most cases, technicians using Submarine find
a solution quickly without having to send anyone to
the site," says Lesage. "The need to send
out a technician can be costly," he adds, "especially
when a large number of the requests are the result of
minor parameterization and programming problems."
Given the advantage of Internet technology, and the
low cost of web server implementation, will design engineers
in the future include embedded web servers in their
products? Will embedded web servers become built-in
features as ubiquitous as serial communication ports?
It's possible, but manufacturing engineers are a cautious
"The feedback we got from industry so far is that
Internet technology is a bit too new to be taken seriously,"
says Iosoft's Jeremy Bentham, who develops Java code
for web servers. "In a few years time, perhaps
it will be."
And, for the moment, the majority of Yellow Submarine's
customers prefer to bypass the Internet completely and
directly connect, via modem, to the machine tool OEMs.
"After all," says Lesage, "The Internet
isn't everywhere. It's hard to get a good connection
A world-class bearing research center
by Karen Auguston Field, Managing Editor
a drizzly winter day, I arrive for a tour of SKF's new
$10 million North American Technical Center. My guide
for the day is Director Dave Pine, who can barely contain
his eagerness to show me around this world-class bearing
lab and test facility.
As we don safety glasses, Pine explains that the center
provides support for a whole range of products, such
as precision bearings, seals, and bearing-related systems.
Our first stop on the tour is the noise and vibration
lab. Measurements are made by applying a small load
to the bearing and sensing the vibration of the outer
ring. Pine explains that noise is a hot issue these
The noise output of a bearing that is installed and
maintained correctly is of little consequence. People
typically run into noise problems, says Pine, when there
is a force imbalance or dirt and debris get into the
We briefly pause to peer into the window of a lab with
a new scanning electron microscope. Here, a mere sliver
of metal can be magnified over 10,000X and its surface
studied. In adjoining labs, bearings are shaken, sliced
open, diced apart, and analyzed.
The last stop on our tour is the test lab, which resembles
a sort of torture chamber for bearings. In row after
row of test r