Ask any automation expert what the future holds, and the word “integration” comes up every time. Usually it's preceded by “increased,” “greater,” “tighter” or “closer.” But what exactly does integration mean to the engineers who design machines? In automation circles, the word has become a catch-all that can describe everything from the physical combination of the simplest components to the unification of complex control and MES systems.
For engineers trying to make automation decisions with an eye to the future, what may matter most is the tightening integration among very different worlds of corporate information technology (IT) and factory floor automation.
Engineers and IT professionals have traditionally spoken different languages and still do to a large extent. But if anything will bring them closer over the next few years, it's a length of CAT 5 cable. “The most significant trend in factory automation is the connection of the factory floor with enterprise systems using Ethernet as the common network,” says Sujeet Chand, senior vice president and chief technical officer for Rockwell Automation.
And that connection only stands to grow. A report from the ARC Advisory Group, a firm that tracks industrial automation, has forecast that shipments of industrial Ethernet devices would grow from 840,000 units in 2004 to 6.7 million units in 2009 for a compound annual growth rate of 51.4 percent.
One reason these connections matter so much, according to Chand, is that factory floor data has simply become too valuable to leave on the factory floor. End-users are demanding the data be passed up to MES and ERP systems, where it can be used for supply chain optimization, improving asset utilization, capacity planning, product-tracking and other make-or-break business decisions. “End-use customers expect more data from the machines they buy. They're increasingly demanding 'dashboards' that let them drill down to the machine level,” he says.
Engineers who build and run machines will get something out of the integration with IT too. Enterprise systems can make machine performance and maintenance data more visible to engineers, according to Filomena Wardzel, manager of the automation systems business unit of Siemens Energy & Automation Inc.
An IT-friendly approach paves the way for technologies that could allow engineers to collect the data they want. Wardzel gives wireless (see sidebar below) and RFID as two examples. “RFID is not only for tracking big parts once they leave the factory, it also tracks the little pieces on the factory floor,” she says. That's good news for engineers responsible for troubleshooting manufacturing problems.
And while RFID is nothing new in more advanced manufacturing operations, the technology will become even more popular as companies try to integrate factory floor operations with supply chain and logistics systems.
To get an idea of just how far IT integration will go, consider that Web servers are increasingly being built into motion and pneumatics components. Numatics Inc., to take one example, has been shipping a valve manifold with a built-in Web server and wireless communications. Why does a manifold need its own Web server? Enrico De Carolis, director of technology development at Numatics, says it provides access to diagnostic information without disturbing control algorithms or real-time operating systems. “Everybody loves the idea of diagnostics, but they don't like the idea of programming it in, especially into real-time operating systems,” he says.
With valve manifolds, data on the number of valve shifts might be made available over the Internet. De Carolis believes a similar approach could be taken with a variety of motion components, opening in the way for a new preventive and predictive maintenance model. Rather than the OEM trying to program maintenance functionality, it could be handled by the component supplier or a third party.
Remote maintenance of high-level components and machines has taken place for years, but one debate in the coming years will be how far down to extend remote monitoring now that it's so easy to implement. “Does every component need its own Web server?” asks Chand. “I think that would be overkill.” He instead sees machine controls serving as “aggregation points” for component data.
And even De Carolis believes the jury is still out on whether component-based Web servers will be the way to go. “Sure, we have a valve manifold that will send you an e-mail. The question is does anybody want e-mail from their valve manifold,” he says. Still, he does add that the Web-enabled manifold has proven to have one of the fastest adoption rates of any Numatics product.
Software and Security Barriers Remain
For all the benefits Ethernet and IT integration could bring to the factory floor, there are some opposing forces at work here. Control engineers and IT guys may increasingly plug in the same kinds of wires, but they still have their differences to overcome. “You're already starting to see control engineers coexisting with IT personnel at larger companies. It's not always pleasant,” says Carolis.
In Chand's view, software is one thing that needs to change. “We can't assume everyone on the factory floor will be comfortable with Java and Web servers,” he says, and that lack of comfort makes it more difficult to move data off the factory floor. Chand says he would like to see easier ways to integrate data movement into the programming environment engineers use, and additions to the PLC programming methods spelled out in IEC 61131-3 would help. “I'd like to see IEC 61131 send data and information as a Java message. That's not there today,” he says, though he predicts it will be in the future.
Another thing that would help, according to Chand, is a move toward Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) — or software composed of loosely coupled, interoperable, preprogrammed services. A service could, for example, track material consumption. Or it could collect uptime data. “SOA exposes information from the factory floor domain in IT-speak,” Chand says. “We're looking at SOA very carefully and believe it has promise.” He predicts in three to five years SOA will be a much more common way of building software that ties the factory floor and front office together.
Security issues, or at least the perception of them, represent an even bigger source of friction between the IT and factory floor mind sets. “With the old proprietary networks, security on the factory floor wasn't really an issue,” says Wardzel. Open Ethernet networks make it an issue. “Simple firewalls can add a lot of security,” she says. But she acknowledges that engineers don't trust that firewalls won't interfere with their real-time systems.
Simply throwing up a firewall won't satisfy most engineers for another reason. “IT and the factory floor have fundamentally different approaches to security,” Chand says. He says IT generally works within a homogeneous environment — in which they work with one operating system. “The typical factory floor is IT's worst nightmare,” he says. “It's a dog's breakfast of multiple networks, fieldbuses and now Ethernet control.” He doesn't expect this heterogeneous environment to change anytime soon. As a result, IT's approach to security — firewalls and pushing patches — won't cut it on the shop floor. “IT doesn't usually have to worry about the effects of their security efforts on real-time operating systems.”
While plenty of automation vendors already offer factory-floor security products, Chand acknowledges that security still has to evolve before it addresses the needs of factory floor engineers. “The challenge will be integrating all these heterogeneous technologies and creating firewalls for real-time networks without impairing performance,” he says. “These are things we're all still working on.”