Data Transport Utility (DTU): An Introduction and Overview

A Breakthrough in Connectivity

Most control engineers and system analysts are faced with the challenge of ensuring product quality and lowering manufacturing costs.  This challenge is complicated by: 1) the growing number of technologies and constantly evolving applications that need to work together but currently do not, 2) shortened development cycles in which programmers need to build and link applications in a compressed schedule environment, and 3) the organizational barriers typically found between IT (usually responsible for enterprise systems) and control engineers (responsible for shop-floor systems) that really don’t talk the same language or understand each other’s challenges.

 

Data Transport Utility (DTU) is an emerging technology that provides a backbone or infrastructure for building solutions in a seamless fashion, integrating best-of-class technologies with existing systems, while at the same time cutting development and support costs dramatically.  The DTU provides a foundation for building MES applications in a technology centric environment that enables omni-directional communication to take place between dissimilar shop floor technologies at high speed and volume rates.  The DTU makes the real-time stitching of technologies easy – enabling developers to focus their energies on the user requirements and presentation screens or reports not on back-end integration challenges. 

 

This document provides a general overview of an evolving market defined as the Data Transport Utility (DTU) market.  It also provides an overview of how this technology could be applied in various manufacturing applications.

 

Executive Summary

Today’s fast-paced, build-to-order manufacturing environment is heavily dependent on the free flow of information throughout the enterprise.  Not only do manufacturers need information to build products in an efficient manner, they also need to capture information critical to documenting quality in order to build an audit trail to satisfy customer and regulatory requirements.  Unfortunately, there are a growing number of technologies and software applications that do not speak the same language that often hinder the free flow of information.

 

Information and control technologies along with manufacturing software applications have long been used to improve manufacturing efficiency and drive continuous improvement.  For example, PLCs can be used to automate manufacturing processes.  Databases can be used to organize scheduling and product specification data needed to satisfy a customer order.  Business intelligence applications can provide insight as to how a work order was processed along with analysis on key performance indicators.

 

Over the past decade, manufacturers have made investments in two major categories: business system applications and shop-floor technology.  Business system applications include enterprise resource planning, business intelligence, customer service, maintenance management and other applications to drive the business.  To drive production, companies have invested in a wide range of shop-floor technologies including: PLCs, HMIs, barcode, vision, pagers, marquees, email, and databases to cite a few.  In both areas, companies have established corporate standards in efforts to achieve consistency and efficiency from a development and support perspective.

 

Looking forward, optimizing the investments manufacturers have made in business system applications and shop-floor controls will require the adoption of a data transport infrastructure that will likewise provide a standard for enterprise stitching – the connecting of business applications and shop-floor technologies in a seamless fashion.  The problem today is very few applications and technologies speak the same language – there is no common translator. 

 

The Data Transport Utility (DTU) is a translator, a middleware technology, that addresses two real-time data management functions within an enterprise stitching framework: 1) quick, transparent, reliable connectivity between technologies and applications, and 2) simplified logic processing – the triggers that define the details associated the movement of data between any two technologies or applications.  A DTU enables every application and technology in a manufacturing operation to operate as if they were designed to work together from the very beginning. 

 

A data transport utility architecture provides a number of benefits including the ability to:

  • Adapt to changes in business conditions more rapidly

  • Make minor changes to an application from a data transport perspective without having to burden engineers or system analysts

  • Reduce or eliminate the amount of time writing custom code and complex applications

  • Lower development costs over time and multiple integration projects as an organization’s existing and future investments in technologies and applications are leveraged versus replaced.

Enterprise Connectivity Trends

The DTU market has recently emerged in which companies are turning to dedicated data transport technologies because of the following reasons: 1) the immediate requirement to make improvements in product quality and overall productivity, 2) the growing number of applications and technologies that are being deployed today that require integration, 3) time to market which is forcing developers/engineers to build applications in a compressed or shortened time frame, and 4) the adoption of industry-accepted open standards by software and technology suppliers that enable DTUs to interface to a wide range of applications and technologies by creating links to these open standards, and 5) the costs associated with solving connectivity issues with traditional software approaches. 

 

To date, connectivity needs have been resolved via various methods including:

a) Custom Visual Basic and/or C++ code, b) Human Machine Interface (HMI) products – which essentially utilize custom VBA and scripting, and c) Manufacturing Execution System (MES) or business system application solutions that have limited data collection capabilities that address the minimal requirements of their specific software application. 

 

It is the ever-growing number of applications and technologies, that all share the fundamental need for real-time data, which has created the technology break point in which traditional approaches of integration are no longer feasible.  The following illustrates the growing number of connectivity possibilities and associated number of transactions that are the result of this trend.

 

Enterprise Stitching Drivers

Increased number Applications and Technologies Connections and Transactions

 

 

The Connectivity Challenge

As illustrated below, connecting a few applications to a few technologies through point-to-point custom programs or stand-alone drivers or interfaces is one thing. 

 

It is another thing, however, to connect a number of applications to a number of technologies. 

 

 

Conceptual DTU Architecture

DTUs provide programmers and developers a user-friendly way to build linkages to the wide range and growing number of applications and technologies.  At a very simplistic level, an information technology solution that recognizes the role of a data transport utility has three components including the; 1) business application or presentation layer, 2) data transport layer, and 3) technology layer.  The following illustrate this simple, yet more flexible architectural approach:

 

In addition to providing technology and application connectivity or translation functionality, the DTU incorporates advanced triggering logic for scheduling automatic data transfer based on time or events.   DTUs typically provide a simple, user-friendly interface to enable individuals who have a process-level understanding of the data flow requirements to configure the utility for the specific needs of a given application.   DTUs also allow developers to reformat or manipulate the data they are transporting. 

 

In a typical facility, the DTU provides plant floor technology integration as well as shop-floor to top-floor business application integration.  DTUs provide companies the option to select best of class software applications that are designed to address very specific needs versus the selection of a monolithic package that attempts to address a wide range of needs in a one-size fits all solution.

 

DTUs enable companies to pick best-of-class technologies – typically rich in product features and priced competitively – by the fact that DTUs stitch these applications and technologies together in a seamless and inexpensive fashion.   The diversity of needs dictate a software utility that can be configured to match the plant model and business rules.  The result is a more agile architecture that enables new applications and technologies to be quickly added in a non-disruptive fashion.

 

Essentials of Data Transport Utilities

DTUs provide developers a standard, reliable way to move data throughout their plant by providing connectivity to a wide range of technologies.  They act as an information hub that links applications and technologies.  Without a DTU, developers cannot readily connect the growing number of technologies and applications in their operation without writing a great deal of custom code or utilizing limited PLC, HMI and MES software products to handle data transport.  The following highlights the essential functionality necessary for a software tool that sets out to address the requirements of a data transport.

Ease of Use

A DTU should reduce development time and save customers money.  Plant personnel should be able to easily make connections, build linkages and apply business rules or triggering logic for data exchange at a fraction of the time it takes to write custom code or configure other less-focused software products like those that play in the MES space.  System integration costs should be greatly reduced by allowing developers to focus on creativity and innovation in building their solutions, rather than on building data transport utilities or infrastructure.  Intuitive, wizard-based screens should step the developer through even the most complex set of rules or logic for data exchange. 

Open Connectivity

A complicating factor in most plants is the wide range of technologies and applications that results in a patchwork of systems, each with its own logic, data structure, and communication mechanisms.  Because of the wide range of open standards, technologies, and application protocols, a DTU should interface openly with as many technologies or applications as possible, in an unbiased manner.  Moving from one technology or application to another should be transparent and consistent.  A DTU should be extensible – meaning it should easily accommodate or adapt to new technologies or industry adopted standards as well as interface with legacy systems.   

 

Reliable Connectivity

Reliability and data transport integrity is a must.  DTUs must reliably maintain connections and ensure data transfer integrity.  Advanced data queuing algorithms must guarantee the data transferred is valid at the instant in time a data transfer event occurs.  This ensures the data used within an application is valid.  The product should incorporate numerous system fault tolerance features.  For example, if a data transfer command fails to execute successfully (perhaps because the external device or system is not available) the command is placed in a failed command queue.  The technology should provide for automatic retries of any failed command queue items.  Hot fail-over features ensure applications keep on running in the event of hardware failure. 

 

Future Connectivity

In addition to the essentials of making today’s solutions work reliably, DTUs must also plan for future changes in communication technologies.  It is naïve to believe that a system that meets all of your needs today, will meet all of your needs in the future.  Solutions should be built with extensible tools that provide mechanisms for future expansion with minimal impact to existing systems.  A DTU should have a modular approach, allowing not only communication interface updates from the DTU vendor, but also the ability for the customer to create their own communication interfaces.

 

Business Benefits

A DTU is a plant-floor and enterprise stitching technology – focused on addressing the growing data transport requirements in control related businesses and facilities.   A DTU enables every technology in the chain of communication to interact with every other one in the chain, quickly and reliably.  It allows engineers and developers to focus on creativity and innovation in building solutions, rather than building integration code to connect dissimilar technologies and applications.  This results in solutions with greater functionality that are simpler to develop, less expensive, and easier to deploy and support.

 

DTUs provide a platform for improving overall planning, execution and reporting, operational excellence, and employee productivity.  DTUs provide companies the ability to pick or build best-of-class software applications while at the same time integrate easily with legacy business systems.  DTUs provide developers a standard or consistent infrastructure for moving data between technologies and applications throughout their enterprise.  They optimize the investments made in existing control and information systems by enabling seamless integration to become a reality at a low cost. 

 

A DTU strategy empowers developers and engineers to be creative and innovative.  For a typical application, over fifty percent of the code written will fall under the machine-to-machine or point-to-point integration umbrella.  This portion of code is typically difficult for others to troubleshoot and maintain.  Data Transport Utilities enable developers and engineers to focus on process-level concerns and business logic without having to worry about the behind-the-scenes, detailed connectivity piece of the equation.

 

A DTU approach is more robust and reliable than traditional approaches.  Custom VB code or HMI applications often times do not incorporate fail-safe or transactional integrity functionality.  As a result, the temporary loss of a network connection or the reconfiguration of an application can result in lost or unreliable data.

 

Some opponents to DTU strategies will argue that too much control of the application is relinquished to a third-party solution, but one should ask two questions to determine if this is a legitimate concern for the solution:

  • Where is the control needed?

  • Where is control relinquished?

 

For most information technology solutions, support personnel will need control over the logic that transfers the information critical to the business, not the transfer methods, but “when”, “where”, and “what” information is transferred.  In a competitive business climate, when, where, what, and even “how” will most likely change over time.  A strategy with an extensible DTU provides the ability to change all of these driving factors including how.  The layer of control that is relinquished is simply the implementation of defined open protocols.

 

In today’s tough economic times, with increasing competitive and regulatory pressures, DTUs provide companies a competitive weapon to connect their enterprise and deliver actionable data to decision makers from the plant floor to the board room.  With a DTU, everything in your facility communicates as one.

 

Data Transport Utility Sample Applications

Data Transport Utilities transcend individual industries as a whole, but each vertical industry has found their own way to apply these tools.  The following list describes a few ways in which a Data Transport Utility could be used to:

 

  • Download job specific build data to plant floor equipment on a job-by-job basis.

 

  • Scanning in barcode information from sub-assembly parts in order to compare to build data.  If sub-assembly parts match build ticket then enable tooling and allow advancement of the parts into the next workstation.

 

  • Capture nut runner torque data; marry this with a serial or VIN number in order to produce an audit trail.

 

  • Receive customer broadcast or order information and drive and advanced production line sequencing manufacturing process.

 

  • Plantwide data collection from PLCs and serial devices, generate operational efficiency calculations and distribute those to marquees throughout the plant.

 

  • Capture exception conditions and alert appropriate personnel in an advanced escalating fashion via email and pagers or a web front-end.

 

  • Integrate various Third-Party vendors’ material handling control system with a Parcel Handling company’s created sort management systems, eliminating the need for expensive custom changes by the Third-Party vendor(s), while giving the Parcel Handling Company control of future changes as well as allowing for greater mechanical integrator independence.

 

  • Integrate conveyor control PLCs to sort management systems, enabling business decisions to be independent of PLC manufacturer or platform.  The DTU allowed automation vendor neutrality and independence.

 

  • Eliminate the need for proprietary PLC communication modules, while at the same time enabling remote support of the application.  The DTU provides a software approach to handling high-speed data transactions as opposed to a PLC hardware module approach – which can result in substantial savings in hardware and support.  

 

  • Integrate various control and sort applications with the master control room Human Machine Interface (HMI) application, providing real-time visibility of the sort operation status to operations personnel.

 

  • Integrate the conveyor control systems with a database for high-level management reporting systems, providing essential utilization, downtime, and performance information to operations.

 

  • Seamlessly stitch all major technologies typically found within a parcel handling environment including, PLCs, HMIs, Dimensional Weigh Scanners, and Databases, enabling technologies to communicate as one.

 

  • Integrate the conveyor control system with e-mail, paging and other advanced notification systems, supplying timely notifications of equipment failures to maintenance and operations personnel.

 

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This article was written by Don Korfhage of I/Gear.  I/Gear Corporation has created a simple and effective data transport utility (DTU) software product to seamlessly integrate data throughout the plant operation and enterprise. The DTU provides a backbone or infrastructure for building solutions in a seamless fashion, integrating best-of-class technologies with existing systems, while at the same time cutting development and support costs dramatically.  Click here for an evaluation CD of I/Gear or for more information, please Contact I/Gear.