Information Synergy | Automation.com

Information Synergy

February 272012
Information Synergy

February 2012

As originally published by The Association for Manufacturing Technology (IMTS2012)

Bill Lydon, Editor

The automation industry is learning to go beyond simply providing business systems with data by synergistically using information to collaborate in new ways to make plants more profitable, responsive and efficient. Synergy may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable. In the natural world, for example, hydrogen and oxygen combined make water.

This takes teamwork between automation and business systems to produce an overall better result than could be accomplished with each working alone. Traditionally both groups have worked in isolation. But this is changing as evidenced by the 2011 Automation.com annual salary survey that asked automation professionals about convergence or cooperation of IT and automation groups within companies. Fifty-four percent responded that their IT and engineering groups operate separately and cooperate well, a 7% increase over 2010. Six percent of respondents reported that the IT and engineering groups have been combined.

Information Plumbing

Industry standards are helping to make it easier for automation and business systems to work together more efficiently. Automation and IT have been adopting the same computing “plumbing” including XML and web services. These standards initially developed for the internet are being used in private company networks since they are refined and proven. Web services are becoming a primary mechanism for interaction between automation and business systems. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines a web service as a software system designed to support interoperable machine-to-machine interaction over a network. Typically systems interact using a web service such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) to send messages conveyed using HTTP with XML. For example, when a job order on a production machine is completed, the automation controller generates a SOAP message sending it directly over the corporate IT network to the business system indicating the job is complete along with production and quality data. A good source to learn more about web services is the World Wide Web Consortium - W3C(www.w3.org).

The computer industry has been integrating web services into a wide range of devices to unite data from various sources to improve operations and achieve more efficiency. These are precisely the issues automation and business systems need to address. Examples of automation standards that leverage these computing standards include OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA www.opcfoundation.org), PLCopen OPC UA (www.plcopen.org), and MTConnect (www.MTConnect.org). OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) is a platform independent standard for data communication between automation and enterprise business systems that leverages Web services. Building on OPC UA the PLCopen organization defined OPC objects within the IEC 61131-3 open control programming standard. The result are OPC UA function blocks automation engineers use to link controller information directly to enterprise business systems without programming. A simple analogy, when sending a text message from a cell phone, you simply pick a destination address, type your text and send it without having to deal with any other details.

MTConnect is a manufacturing industry protocol that defines an open XML schema and definition to facilitate the organized retrieval of information from machine tools.

The only way companies could gain the benefits of integration in the past was to make significant investments in custom applications that were expensive and cumbersome. These and other emerging standards dramatically lower implementation cost, and improve reliability, quality and responsiveness of the systems.

Application

Automation systems provide a wealth of information for improving operating efficiency since they monitor a wide range of real-time data. These are some applications where information synergy is being used to improve overall performance.

Production Transparency

Traditionally ERP systems run on a batch basis and in the first phase create factory work orders, allocating materials, scheduling machine & labor, and creating production routes. After these are sent to the factory the ERP system is essentially blind until the information is reconciled at the end of a cycle, which may be one or many days. Customers' order status and many problems are not visible within a batch cycle resulted in delivery delays. Integration available now is easily possible and affordable to link real-time information throughout the organization to predict, identify and solve potential bottlenecks quickly as they occur.

Total Plant Optimization

The availability of real-time information, powerful low cost computers, wireless sensors, and more powerful analytical software is enabling the creation of total plant optimization leveraging an integration of automation and business systems moving beyond executive dashboards. These are sophisticated systems with models and algorithms to manage and optimize production in real-time using a range of factors including incoming sales orders, raw material quality and costs, energy cost and machine efficiencies. This is an exciting development only possible with collaboration of automation and business systems people.

Predictive Maintenance

Many companies have maintenance management systems that create work orders for preventative maintenance based on calendar time intervals, and break down maintenance orders are manually entered into the system when problems occur. By linking real-time information from automation systems, the actual status of equipment provides a direct linkage enabling predictive maintenance with analytic software to predict problems and avoid interruptions in production. In addition to lowering downtime, this also maximizes the use of skilled maintenance people who are in short supply.

The integration of automation and business systems, information synergy, is a journey to more efficient manufacturing operations that will continue to evolve and improve manufacturing efficiencies.

About the Author

Bill has more than 25 years of experience designing and applying technology in the automation and controls industry including computer-based machine tool controls, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and process control technology.

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