Cambridge, England--Net 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 intranet.
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 web server.
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 PCs.
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.
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 lot.
"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 , 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 in China."
What this means to you
- Control system vendors are using web technology for internal factory communications
- Design engineers can quickly and easily share CAD data using web technology
- Machine tool OEMs can use the World Wide Web to remotely diagnose equipment
- Virtually any intelligent device can have its own web server