A New HMI Software Product. Why?

  • November 28, 2011
  • Feature
November 2011
By Bill Lydon, Editor
I was recently introduced to a new HMI software offering, Tatsoft FactoryStudio. My first reaction was - Why does the industry need another HMI software product?
I interviewed Tatsoft CEO and founder, Marcos Taccolini to learn more.
Tatsoft LLC was founded in Houston, Texas in early 2009 by Marcos Taccolini to develop an entirely new product "from a clean sheet of paper." Taccolini has a long history in the automation field as an Electrical Engineer who started working with programmable controllers and software systems in 1985 At that time, he launched his first software product for monitoring using DOS. The Tatsoft design team has development experience creating Windows CE-based SCADA software  for process controls, OEMs, brand-label, and source code technology licensing agreements for companies based in the United States, Canada, India, Germany, Brazil and China. The company released FactoryStudio 2010 as a new breed of HMI software.
Lydon: Why create an HMI software offering with so many established products available today?
Taccolini: Technology evolves, which creates opportunity for new generations of offerings. That applies to mobile phones, web tools and also to HMI software.  Ten years ago we didn’t even have iPods, the music player was a Discman, and most of the Internet connections were dial-up; that shows how fast technology is evolving.
Regarding software, the frameworks and languages had huge improvements over the last decade, so architectures created on top of the old paradigms cannot fully leverage all the new technologies.
Leveraging new technologies requires a clean new design based on new principals.  It was very clear that only an entirely new architecture would deliver our goal, which is to provide to HMI users and their operations the same level of evolution they have in their personal music players, iPads, and other modern devices. 
Tatsoft has created a 100% clean, pure design with the solid foundation of our teams’ experience of over 20 years. This design gives users more power in an easier to use software environment.
Think about it this way. What is safer, a car created with technology from fifteen years ago or the latest cars?   With software, that step is even bigger. Ten to fifteen years is an entire software generation. Not only do the architectures created that long ago not fully leverage the current hardware and software technologies, they do not have the same operational stability and performance you can achieve with today’s technologies.  Running older software tools on new 64-bit Operating Systems, with multi-core CPUs, hardware graphics acceleration and other new technologies provides no additional benefit; it just brings potential compatibility issues and security flaws.  What good is upgrading the computers and not truly evolving the application software?
Tatsoft FactoryStudio was created using 100% .NET code. But, by developing FactoryStudio using .NET, we also created a new internal architecture for all modules and real-time processing. We also renewed the terminology, the graphical features and the entire user interface concept. We take advantage of the Microsoft .NET runtime environment, Common Language Runtime (CLR). The "Common Language Runtime" is essentially the application virtual machine where the .NET application runs. That execution environment brings many technical advantages, such as memory and process protection, and version control on application components. But those benefits are only leveraged if the program code is completely created on top of .NET languages.
That completely new code, underlying technology, internal architecture and new intuitive user interface, are the "design principals" we discussed, which can only be achieved in a new software platform.
Lydon: What is different about Tatsoft FactoryStudio?
Taccolini: It embraces the concept of Design as a priority; we also extensively support all the traditional industrial automation requirements gathered from our previous products over the past 20 years, but the true effort to enhance the Design is a key differential.
It is impossible not to mention Steve Jobs and his comments on design. Jobs explained that Design is not in the appearance of the box, it is how the User interacts with it. Design is related to the functionality and how the Users can effectively use the maximum functionality in an easy and intuitive way.
When creating the Tatsoft FactoryStudio software family, from day one, we kept that concept of Design, so the entire User experience - from the application configuration tools to the execution and operation - besides being more enjoyable, is faster and safer by avoiding errors in the configuration. And it enables us to give more functionality to the Users, while keeping the system manageable and intuitive.
Lydon: What value does Tatsoft FactoryStudio provide users that they cannot achieve today with existing HMI products?
Taccolini: Enhanced security and intrinsically safe execution due to the 100% managed code environment, distributed multi-user engineering with Cloud-collaboration, built-in project version management, effective use of  64-bit multi-core CPUs and Direct-X graphics hardware acceleration - which delivers unmatched application performance and amazing user interfaces with easy multi-display and web support, native SQL embedded, Microsoft .NET Framework tied integration, side-by-side execution of testing and production runtimes, hot-swapping of running project version, native iPad apps, hot-standby server components and more.  Essentially, there is added value to the entire project cycle, from the configuration tools, to the modules functionality, to the deploying and field management tools.
Lydon: Who is using FactoryStudio today and why?
Taccolini: Applications that require high-availably, modification traceability and SQL integration, high-speed, advanced graphics or highly distributed systems are leading the adoption of the new technologies, and consequently, the FactoryStudio solutions.
With the continuous integration of IT and the factory floor, it’s getting clear to the Industrial Automation managers that buying new computers to run old generation software applications is a waste of resources and does not deliver the ROI, reliability and flexibility the current manufacturing scenarios demand.
Some verticals where Tatsoft FactoryStudio is already being applied include Water/Wastewater (100k Tag system with full hot-standby), OEMs for Oil and Gas pipelines, OSIsoft PI users for front-end and analysis on their data using our native PI interface, Automotive (Data consolidation from many production lines), Utilities (applications using 3D models from AutoCAD), Metals (Largest Steel company in South America with extensive integration of Databases), and Energy/Power (Smart Grid, Renewable Energy).
Lydon: Does FactoryStudio support Cloud computing and if so how?
Taccolini: We have native support for Cloud computing in two ways - during the project configuration and engineering phase as well in the product runtime environment. Tatsoft FactoryStudio was created so many engineers from different locations can work on the same project simultaneously, using a VPN or using our www.engineeringonthecloud.com internet service. This is also very useful if you have an end-user that wants an easier way to interact with the System Integrator during the project configuration. The user can have online access, rather than receiving emails with print-screens or spreading many copies of the configuration files in many locations.
On the production and runtime execution side, we have tools to easily enable remote Web users or iPad users to interact with applications; Internet-safe real-time access to process information can be created with our tools, or if you want to use shared resources, we also have a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution to host the server application that delivers the real-time data and rich graphics to the smart devices, such as iPhone and iPads.
Lydon: Cyber security is becoming a major issue, how does FactoryStudio address this?
Taccolini:  This is another reason we created a completely new software product.  Consider older software designs where the files in a project configuration are saved using standards created 10 or 15 ago that cannot face the current security threats. The recent threat of the SCADA Stuxnet virus is an example. The software tools created more than ten years ago were just not designed to be prepared for the current distributed environment security challenges.
Tatsoft FactoryStudio addresses this using the latest security standards, new protocols and enhanced file security.  Many recent SCADA viruses were due to legacy systems that were created on antiquated foundations, including no tracking verification on project configuration files and the remote displays used Active-X, which is not a safe technology. Those threats are completely blocked on the new systems, where the configuration remains on SQL databases with encryption and modification tracking. The protocol and communication interfaces follow the latest Internet security specifications.
Finally, we believe the FactoryStudio design enhances security by making the application configuration seamless while enforcing the use of modern security protections. Existing HMI software makes the application and configuration of security so complex that it is very likely someone will leave a door open. Many security issues reported were not related to the lack of necessary protections on the computing environment or on the SCADA or HMI software tool, but due to the fact that those protections were not being properly applied.
Lydon: Keeping any HMI software and software application up to date is a major cost, how does FactoryStudio address this?
Taccolini: For this new generation of software, we selected to use open and widely accepted standards in the applications. The database and the configuration tables are standard SQL. The graphics are XAML. The scripting is VB.NET and C#. The communication interfaces use WCF (Windows Communication Foundation) and JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). In this way, when we have new versions of our product line, or even when you move the data to other applications and product lines, the user is protected and cost is reduced by the use of those standards.
Lydon: What new skills do users need to develop to apply FactoryStudio?
Taccolini: As mentioned, the Tatsoft FactoryStudio is a fourth generation of product and the user interface is evolving on each generation.  The first one was back in DOS times. Within each software generation we tried to remove the complexities from configuration to enable the user to focus on their PROCESS, not on the software tool and adding enhanced validation during the engineering phase.  In this way, for most of the projects, any user which feels comfortable using standard Windows applications like text editors and spreadsheets will be able to use FactoryStudio to create and deploy complete running applications.  In fact, even the FactoryStudio software was created on Microsoft .NET, we also embraced many user concepts from the Apple Mac and the iPad iOS, so the interface is image oriented and self-explanatory. For more advanced and challenging applications, the knowledge of Microsoft .NET Framework is desired as FactoryStudio supports the entire .NET programming interface as its extension model.
Lydon: Can users import applications from other HMI software into FactoryStudio?
Taccolini: You can import some components of the application, but the extent varies according how closed or proprietary the other HMI software was. Fortunately, most recent HMI software packages are able to export the TAGS, Alarm definition, communication IO and other configuration properties to standard CSV or Text Tables files, so they can be easily imported to FactoryStudio.
Regarding the user Interface and displays, some HMI packages would not be compatible as they may be using old graphical APIs, but anyway it is likely you would prefer to use only the background images and recreate the user interface, so you can get the full advantage of the new vector graphics and enhanced objects and security. This is a very common strategy for competitive upgrades on legacy systems, where the screens are re-created and the remainder of the application is just imported. For example, we just concluded a startup replacing a 100k tag FactoryLink Water and Waster application which centralizes all the Utilities for a large Steel company. In order to help our customer make those upgrades economically viable, we offer licenses with competitive upgrade discount, so you can buy a new FactoryStudio system for the price of upgrading your legacy system. We also have a network of experienced system integrators who are able to migrate the applications.
It’s important to mention that even if the application configuration is kept the same, you have immediate advantages from upgrading to a new platform: as the runtime is running a new kernel, you have gains on performance, compatibility with new computers, operating systems and display resolutions, enhanced reliability and easier maintenance.
Lydon:  What drivers are supported for PLC and DCS?
Taccolini: We support the OPC standards by default, both client and server, but we also supply our own native communication drivers. We already have custom interfaces for Rockwell Automation Allen-Bradley, Siemens, GE Modbus, Schneider Electric, Omron, Mitsubishi, Opto 22 and many others.
Lydon: What interfaces are available for connecting to the enterprise?
Taccolini: Our software has a built-in embedded SQL database and we have easy and powerful integration to external databases, using ODBC, ADO.NET, OLE-DB, XML, WCF, SOAP and WEB SERVICES. We also have a native optimized interface to the OSIsoft PI database. Using those core components, many applications run with tied connection and real-time data exchange with ERP systems.  Furthermore, we created specific extension tools, in order to allow the FactoryStudio to be used as a Framework development tool to implement MES and BI solutions on top of the platform. In order to simplify the connection with the UNIX world we also implemented real time communication services based on JSON (JavaScript Object Notation).
Lydon: How can application engineers get the feel for FactoryStudio without having to load the software on their PC?
Taccolini: As we completely support the .NET and Cloud solutions, from any Windows computer running an Internet Explorer browser, you can go directly to www.tatsoft.com and select the “View Online Demos.”  This will give you access to a runtime example application as well as some configuration and drawing tools, without having to install the software.  Or you can fill the “Request Express Version” to download a free evaluation version.  As we use the new “partial trust” or “security sand-box” technology, you don’t need to install any Active-X to use our web solutions, nor do you need to elevate the security or have administrator privileges. Both runtime and configuration tools run out of the browser. For Apple users, we have the native versions for iPad and iPhone, which will be soon available at the Apple Store.
Thoughts and Observations
The business systems side of industry typically “retools” with new software at a faster rate than automation systems. Tatsoft is making the case for using a new HMI platform based on the latest software standards that leverage the latest 64-bit multi-core CPUs and graphics hardware.
After this interview I wonder if the growing use of virtualization to run older automation software with more performance is the best investment for companies to be more efficient. Cyber security and software maintenance issues still remain with these systems.
I think it is worth checking Tatsoft out and “kicking the tires.”
Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

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