Industrial Social Media: Is Your Coyote Calling?

July 9, 2012
Traditional dashboards are so last-week. The infrastructure that has evolved to give utterance to the ever-changing activities of the masses has begun to find its way into production, and it’s delivering new and useful ways for engineers, technicians and business managers to communicate.

Social, the inescapable ‘net and computer space phenomenon, is everywhere. And it has risen to become the most popular of popular culture. Humans seek out and connect with others with similar tastes, propensities, talents and lifestyles, and social networking platforms are designed to facilitate these connections. The numbers are strong:

  • Facebook recently claimed 901 million active accounts
  • Twitter, 140 million active accounts
  • MySpace, 25 million accounts (or maybe 100 million, depending on who is counting).

Although primarily found on the Internet and spawned in the days when computers were the focus, social networking quickly expanded onto any silicon highway you want to name, whether that be wired, wireless, computer-based, on a phone, displayed on electronic pads, you name it.

Social—or rather, the tools and environments of social networking—has even begun to make its way into business in general and manufacturing in particular. At the moment, to be sure, pure-bred industrial social apps are a fairly small point of light on the industrial horizon, but they repay close attention.

Wait… what?
Here we must pause to make an important distinction. The element of social networking that applies to industry is far removed from the content of consumer social. That content is for the most part trivial and it is certainly evanescent. One recent Facebook entry: “A coyote was spotted walking down my street tonight!” By now, you hope, the coyote is gone, but not your neighbor’s miniature schnauzer.

Consumer social content is fun and fashionable, a kind of homemade, microcosmic reality television focused on personal observations, feelings and actions. “What’s happening?” Twitter asks, right above the box where you can type up to 140 characters, including spaces, to explain it all. For most of the 900 million Facebook users, industrial production is far from fun or fashionable.

What can be important to us in industry is the infrastructure that has evolved to give utterance to the ever-changing, fun, fashionable activities that occupy hip people. It is an infrastructure that is, above all, easy to use, and it is characterized by some key attributes.

First, in the simplest terms, this is an environment that permits easy, direct yoking of graphics, video, sound, text, decoration, iconography—in short, any medium of communication that people find to be helpful for passing along messages or sharing interests.

Further, it is an environment in which people can easily become followers of everything a given communicator wants to say. In the old days, that would have been called ‘subscribing.’ But, unlike the old days, this type of subscription is more than a passive reception of one-way transmissions of messages. Instead, it encourages a rejoinder, an interactive response—that is, the subscriber can add to, argue against, or comment at will, using all the media avenues available to the original utterance.

Finally, mirroring Facebook, timelines map the past. This allows quick review of transactional history, allowing users to scroll back to earlier moments to review or recapture communications.

New avenues of interaction
All this adds up to a good thing, a presentation model that enables new avenues or modes of communication and project control. Advocates say that you can benefit when you apply social networking methodologies to the management of industrial tasks.

“We call it enterprise social networking,” says Tim Sharpe, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sabisu. Headquartered in Manchester, UK, Sabisu (Japanese loanword for “service”) has created software that in its own words “connects data and conversations” using a social network model. Development began in 2010 in cooperation with petrochemical and process manufacturers.

In traditional terms, Sabisu provides a dashboard for controls, enterprise, operations and database systems, but it moves beyond conventional dashboards. “We began with a concept for a dashboard,” Sharpe says, “but we quickly moved an overarching concept , a real-time collaboration interface, one that pulls information from any useful system and allows participants to work on a simple, uncluttered screen.”

The basic Sabisu screen is similar to a minimalist Facebook or Google user interface. Icons for tools are arrayed along the top. The primary information that the user wants to see is displayed in the large, tab-based central pane. Each tab provides quick access to a give “community” (an operational or project areas of interest to the user). Choose the tab you want and you are in the visualization area for that particular community, looking at a screen populated with “widget” displays (widgets being connectors to and/or translators from data sources) that make sense to that community.

The screen of an operations management community, for example, might include R-bar charts of process parameters, graphics of tank activity and levels, temperatures and so on. A capital program community might include Gantt charts, costing or other spreadsheet data, project team reports, and the like. 

More options along the bottom of the screen include a chat utility, shortcut or favorites selections, and so on.

Everything that is visible in the widgets on these tabs represents—again, in traditional terms—a middleware connection to a data source among the enterprise systems. These include enterprise requirements planning (ERP) systems, controls and control systems, databases and data management, homegrown operational utilities, anything that users determine can be tapped for good information.

“We wanted to put together a common, visual interface that is completely malleable by users,” Sharpe explains. “We can write widgets to the cloud, to specific software systems, even to specific intelligent controllers. The idea is for people to work as closely as possible to the actual data, and to have a consistent view of what’s happening.”

The base work for connectivity is in place for a broad array of systems common to process manufacturing, especially in the petrochemical arena. This includes AspenTech (InfoPlus.21, aspenOne), Emerson (DeltaV), Honeywell (Experion, Uniformance), IBM Maximo, Lotus Notes/Domino, Microsoft (Excel, Sharepoint, SQL Server) OAuth Cloud Solutions, Oracle, OSISoft, SAP and Wonderware.

The experience of one key customer, SABIC, exemplifies some of the parameters of Sabisu. SABIC is a global chemical, plastics and metals producer. “We began with a need to simplify our view of energy usage,” says Paul Ettridge, UK automation manager for SABIC. “Our first thought was for a conventional dashboard, but we found it to be too complex when we tried to tie in both process parameters and business data.”

“Aspen InfoPlus.21 has a great dashboard,” Ettridge explains, “but it cannot be used as-is with Honeywell. We tried a third-party developer to try to plug them together, but it turned out to be a huge amount of work.”

I can’t find that email
Email was one possible solution, but there was no way around typical email problems, primarily in finding earlier emails and in managing the integrity and timeliness of key spreadsheets as they were emailed around and saved off locally.

Sabisu seemed to offer key advantages. First, the modular widget approach made data gathering more feasible than hard-coded applications. Second was its ability to provide a single location where everyone involved in energy management could find real-time data from several systems. “We needed to allow users to pull it all together as simply as possible to see it on one page,” says Tony Porritt, UK applications manager for SABIC.

More importantly, there was no requirement for a massive installation. SABIC could begin with as narrow a scope as desired, with minimal system costs and user training.
In SABIC’s case, after the energy-related widgets were in place, the one-page view of information from various sources offered a more complete perspective on usage. The energy group was able to identify avenues for efficiency as the result of this better perspective. SABIC has since added a community for storage logistics that includes personnel from third-party suppliers, primarily to ensure that tanks neither back up nor run low. In addition, the company is now launching Six Sigma initiatives, adding communities for work tracking and management.

Social networking environments strive to make the creation of system extensions quick and painless. “At one meeting with IT, they said they would like a custom work process,” Porritt says. “While they were sitting there, I built a widget that mined data from the SQL server. After I set up their community, they were able to look at information right at the meeting.”

Ettridge points out, “The data-driven culture is the primary thing. People who have work to do want the information quickly and want the ability to connect with other teams members quickly as well. And they want the whole thing to work as simply as possible.”

Kenandy: Social ERP
A second company, Kenandy Inc. (Chicago), has brought the social networking model to enterprise requirements planning. Currently, in the production arena, Kenandy Social ERP is in use by discrete manufacturers, including electronics, capital equipment and clothing makers. Kenandy Social ERP is built on, an app building environment from (San Francisco).

Billed as “social ERP for the cloud,” Kenandy “brings together all transactional information associated with traditional ERP into one space,” says chief marketing officer Rod Butters. Kenandy handles product bills of material, procurement data, order entry, financial performance, inventory control, manufacturing planning, engineering, order entry—all the myriad of transactions to fit into the ERP world. All are brought into a single, consistent social networking environment.

“Without the flexibility of a social interface, it can be extremely difficult to keep track of all the separate emails, separate phone conversations and separate data systems that play a part in a given action,” Butters points out.

“Basically,” he continues, “Social networking starts with ability to capture information and conversations, making it easy to draw others into the conversations—and it becomes easy to keep and review all the data associated with transactions.”

Just scratching the surface
Again, mirroring consumer social, team members can follow information of interest to them. “The information comes to you,” Butters points out. “You can quickly see who can solve a given problem and who should be involved. The application of social networking patterns to business has just scratched the surface. It offers a lot of value in communicating both inside and outside of companies.”

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In the consumer world, social media carries mostly whimsical and transient conversations, Butters points out, “but it’s different when it’s tied into the context of business info, when it’s associated with something important to business or operations. It’s not just a chat board—social media and social networking directly associates people with the information models they need. Social tools allow you to connect all the communications to a given business object.”

“Don’t you just hate it when you get in your car and your fav song ends,” reads one Facebook post. Well, yes, but it does not compare to, say, running out of terephthalic acid in your PET resin plant.

Information around both disasters, the one personal, the other plant-wide, can reach like-minded people via social networking. The same kind of tools hammered out to allow you to share that you are having chili tonight (complete with one click to Skyline Chili’s menu) can be used to tell people that the digester is running too cool.

As Kenandy’s Butters says, social networking offers “a multi-tenant, elastic computing platform. Assembling and viewing complex data models used to be complicated. Social has ways of making it easy.

>> Wireless, Security, OEE and other topics were discussed at The Automation Conference. Click here for more details.

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