Design engineers confront an ever-expanding array of control-system choices. Reason: Industrial-software companies and machine-control companies struggle to keep up with IBM and Microsoft as they switch or upgrade their operating systems. Each change in Windows requires more investment in time and money to rewrite software so it remains compatible with the new version. As systems increase in complexity, engineers face hardware-integration nightmares and troublesome software patches that slow down machine configuration, setup, and delivery. And, ultimately, eat into the bottom line.
In this "Year of the Network," the cost and complexity of performing remote development, maintenance, and reporting on automated equipment has come down. Several vendors have developed options to support factories abroad. ORMEC (Rochester, NY), for example, has added features to its industrial PC-based motion controllers that build on industry-standard hardware and open TCP/IP communications for remote communications. And Ethernet modules are now available for certain high-end to mid-level PLCs from companies such as GE Fanuc (Charlottesville, VA) and Schneider Automation (North Andover, MA).
Engineers accustomed to using the Web as a research and communications tool now find that web-enabled controllers can help streamline worldwide support of their equipment. Benefits include reduced time and travel for system diagnostics and maintenance, continuous improvement, and software updates and enhancements. While many manufacturers may approach with skepticism the idea of running an entire manufacturing enterprise from a laptop computer, Control Technology Corp.'s model 2717 web-server module may soon make it a reality.
Control Technology (Hopkinton, MA) recently was awarded US Patent No. 5,805,442 for its new integrated communication system for controllers. Each controller is equipped to perform control functions, gather relevant data, store the data in the controller, and allow viewing of the data through a widely available user interface: the World Wide Web.
"To embed web technology in our controllers, we needed to add memory and increase processing power," explains Control Technology's President Ken Crater. Each controller contains extra computer storage in the form of memory, and an upgraded processor that increases processing power 10 times.
When you plug the controller into an Ethernet connection, the machine becomes a "node" on the network. A built-in web server lets a user with a standard computer running Internet Explorer bring up web pages that originate within the controller itself. An immediate bonus for users is eliminating the extra cost of operator-interface software. "Internet Explorer is essentially free. If you don't have it, you can download it from Microsoft's website," says Crater. "When users bring up a web page and see their entire plant open before their eyes, they begin to imagine the possibilities."
Having a standard web browser as the user interface provides live data feeds so that operators, maintenance people, or production-control personnel can monitor the efficiency of the equipment. They can measure overall behavior, perform diagnostic checks, or even effect certain maintenance operations--all without customized software on the computer running the browser, or using intermediary proxy servers.
Although Control Technology's web-enabled product family is packaged with a new identity, the company is not changing its name. Each Control Technology controller that uses standard Internet protocols for communicating factory-related information now comes with a new logo, Control Technology's Internet domain name control.com®.
Control plus communications. "To us, control.com means control plus communications," explains Crater. "So everything--from the hardware's architecture, the firmware, software, and topologies created for our networking--is focused around a sophisticated control and communications model. Both elements of this model are now vitally important, and the Internet is the most 'open' communications medium available. The patented control.com technology means our controllers manage and reduce complexity--a real benefit to customers trying to reach their own goals quickly and efficiently."
Documentation such as controller and machine manuals are just a mouse click away. These are either stored in the controller's memory, or on other websites that are accessible via hypertext links. Machine or plant parameters, such as production counts, percentage uptime, or reject rate vs. good product, are displayed dynamically with numbers or charts.
To overcome the static page appearance dictated by HTML (HyperText Markup Language), Control Technology uses Java-encoded "applets." These stand-alone programs are embedded within a web page and interact with the user locally to display moving animations and perform other functions on "Java-capable" browsers. The Java language is a machine-independent, interpreted computer language that facilitates dynamic display of information.
Many users are familiar with web browsers for moving from one site to another. Typically, to go to a site, a user types the name of the desired server and waits to be connected. The application sends a message requesting to connect to the location. Once a connection is open, data may be sent back and forth. Files may be copied, locations may be marked, and graphics may be saved. After connection is established, these actions are virtually transparent to the user.
QuickstepTM for Windows State Language isn't the only programming tool available to new users of control.com technology. Writing custom applications in other languages such as Visual Basic in addition to Quickstep will help users take full advantage of the Internet or intranet, says Crater.
"Our customers continually add value to their machines, improve performance, and reduce time-to-market," says Crater. "And, they do this without relying on outside consultants or investing a lot of time to bring their staff up to speed on the latest technology."
What this means to you
Streamlines OEM support for sophisticated automation systems at remote locations.
Overcomes language barriers and reduces travel costs associated with system maintenance, continuous process improvements, and software updates and enhancements.
Provides direct access to live data feeds from the plant floor to remote locations using standard web browsers rather than PC-based operator interfaces.
Offers an inexpensive way to keep up with rapid changes in operating systems, and open up programming language options.