A Better View of the Plant

Jan. 23, 2008
Improved HMI visualization makes plant and enterprise data easy to share, and also easy to understand.

The Cucamonga Valley Water District, in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., manages 45,000 water connections and 35,000 sewer connections. The public corporation—long considered a regional leader in adopting innovative water technology—wanted to improve its human-machine interface/supervisory control and data acquisition (HMI/SCADA) system. Plant managers wanted to simultaneously bring Web-based functionality to the control system. They wanted a mobile component with comprehensive reporting abilities for employees in the field. They also wanted the solution to integrate with existing systems that included technology from AB Controls, Rockwell and others.

The plant turned to the engineering firm Black and Veatch Corp., Overland Park, Kan., for a Web solution that wasn’t processor-intensive. The company selected Genesis32 from Iconics Inc., in Foxborough, Mass., coupled with the vendor’s WebHMI and the PocketGenesis mobile Pocket PC industrial software. The choice was partly based on the multiple features of Web and mobile, but also for the software’s ease of use. “The Iconics products have helped us accomplish our control system goals,” says Ed Diggs, production supervisor at the Water District plant.

The demand for Web-based and mobile HMI systems has grown over the past couple of years. “We’re seeing a lot of companies that want to deploy their applications to the Web, to panels and to pocket devices,” says Tim Donaldson, product manager at Iconics. “They want to get away from traditional operating stations and deliver their information wirelessly to operators on tablet computers. Maintenance guys are now carrying those tablets and they want to get the operator’s view when they walk up to a piece of machinery.”

New HMI tools are taking data from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and displaying it throughout the enterprise via Web browsers. Likewise, HMI systems are sending intelligible information from the enterprise down to the shop floor. New systems from vendors such as Wonderware, Lake Forest, Calif., with its InTouch 10.0 HMI System Platform 3.0 software, and Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., with its FactoryTalk View Tools, are taking obscure information and displaying it in a comprehensible form. Plant operators, maintenance personnel and executives can view plant operations on thin client monitors or personal digital assistants (PDAs). Tools such as .Net from Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. are often the conduit for the data flow. And the new Microsoft Vista operating system offers enhanced graphics as well as security.

Share data

 Plants are implementing these new HMI tools in order to share real-time data effectively. The business office gets to know what the plant is producing. Plant operators get to see PLC data on the run, from mobile PDAs. Maintenance people get alerts from Web browsers that can access the data from anywhere. Manufacturers and process plants get to share information across multiple facilities. And all of these different parties get to see one version of the plant truth over thin clients that don’t need patches and updates.

Sending data across the Web in an HMI format that is easy to understand allows operators to view a number of machines from a single location. “In the past, maintenance engineers were dedicated to operating a single machine,” says Mark Hobbs, product manager for FactoryTalk, at Rockwell Automation. “Now those same operators are responsible for many machines. They’re using many devices and they’re not always in the same location.”

The move to emerging HMI technology also gets the HMI off the factory floor and gives it a new purpose—sharing information across the enterprise, instead of pointing it to the operator alone. “At one time, HMI was focused on the factory floor. It was temperature, pressure and level flows,” says Craig Resnick, research director, ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “Now the information is moving up in the enterprise and tons of data is being displayed in a way that helps the organization.” This data can include metrics, scrap rates, production rates, even machine condition.

While data displayed on HMIs is moving from the factory floor to the enterprise, information is also going the other direction, from the enterprise down to the factory on HMI systems. “One of the things we’re seeing is that shop-floor applications are moving from the plant to the enterprise, and HMI has become the visualization tool for the entire production space,” says Phil Couling, program manager for supervisory HMI at Wonderware. As well as using HMI to display plant data to the enterprise, the shop-floor managers are also viewing enterprise information through the HMI. The data from the enterprise can bring plant operators into the enterprise decision process. “The operator is more involved in the decision making and has access to information across the enterprise. That means HMI now has a different role.”

A number of industries are adopting new HMI systems for various different reasons. “The automotive industry is a big user. They use HMI visualization in different processes to make an automobile, sub-assemblies and in the tracking that goes along with the manufacturing,” says Chuck Karwoski, president of CimQuest Ingear, from Phoenixville, Pa., that provides vendor-specific HMI systems on the Microsoft .Net platform. “A lot of the automotive companies are tied to Microsoft and the .Net framework.”

Some industries seek HMI tools to support regulatory and security demands. “Industries such as food and pharmaceuticals need to be compliant with regulatory and security needs,” says Phil Aponte, product manager for HMI/SCADA and embedded products at Siemens Energy and Automation Systems Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga.
“We provide visualization that allows the customer to use a fully distributed control system. That provides compliance for the Tread Act or the Bioterrorism Act and the ability to store electronic documentation.”

Microsoft as enabler

 One of the big enablers for new HMI tools is Microsoft .Net. The recently released Vista platform also offers strong support for HMI tools. “One of the key technologies that allows the evolution of HMI is .Net from Microsoft,” says Wonderware’s Couling. “The principal benefit there is it runs on managed code. It pulls data and gives you a window into the production world at a minimal cost. Plus, if .Net should fail, it has no impact on the data or operations.”

.Net also offers access to information easily. “.Net gives you the ability to display the information in a fashion that makes it easier for the user to comprehend,” says ARC’s Resnick. “It gives you interoperability, advancement of deployment and service-oriented architecture.”

While the .Net tools have been adopted widely at plants, the implementation of Microsoft’s Vista platform will come later as plants upgrade their Windows applications. The advantages of Vista are meaningful for new HMI tools because of enhanced graphics capabilities and improved security tools. “Windows Vista brings a whole new level of security to the plant floor,” says Iconics’ Donaldson. “Companies are looking for security solutions. Plant operators are in the wild, wild west, and now information technology (IT) departments are coming to them, saying, ‘Hey guys, we can’t provide that patch through the firewall any more. You need security best practices.’ ”

Plants are not usually the first adopters of new technology, so there is some lag time between the introduction of new HMI tools and their implementation. “Folks are building HMI tools to Microsoft Vista. They’re also developing under .Net because Microsoft has done a good job with its core components,” says Alison Smith, director of research for manufacturing operations at AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “But there’s not great adoption in the field yet. The market is not going to run out and get it, since most plants only upgrade every four years.”

Some HMI producers have not been in a hurry to provide HMI tools developed specifically for Vista, because it has not been highly deployed. “There are early adopters and those who don’t shift to a new Windows platform for five years,” says Rami Al-Ashqar, product manager for automation vendor Bosch Rexroth Corp., in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “As far as our products, we still sell it on Windows XP, and our Vista software will be compatible with that.”

Whether the plant is running on legacy control systems from the ’70s and ’80s or newer technology, HMI tools can take the plant’s data and make it available to plant operators on the move or to executives up in the office. The same data can be shared with multiple plants, as well as with suppliers and customers along the supply chain. “You see a lot of different disciplines using the data,” says Mark Pease, president of Convergence Industrial Interactive LLC, a Grand Haven, Mich., firm that builds HMI applications using CimQuest tools.

“Operators get to see how the plant’s working. Maintenance gets to see what’s down, why it’s down and how long it’s been down and usually how to fix it. And process engineers get to see the process and what affects it.”

For an informative Webcast on integrating real-time information, visit www.automationworld.com/view-3592.

To see the accompanying sidebar to this story - "Thin Client Approach to HMI" - please visit http://www.automationworld.com/view-3861.

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