Connecting the Plant to the Database

Tools that communicate directly from automation devices to enterprise databases and back help companies improve efficiency.

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Southwire Co., in Carrolton, Ga.—an electrical wire producer—had difficulty determining the causes of machine downtime in the plant. Without data from the machines, figuring out what went wrong and predicting future downtime was guesswork. Southwire turned to the xCoupler ControlLogix input/output module to send data directly from control devices to the company’s SQL database. “With the xCoupler, we have data coming directly from our lines that allows us to see exactly what went wrong, so we don’t have to guess,” says James Hill, electrical engineer at Southwire. “Before, we would have to do deductions to see what happened.”

Southwire is now using data from the lines to log and analyze machine downtime. “Now we can see what happened. With the data, we can see the part that failed, and we can look at trends,” says Hill. This data also helps Southwire predict failures ahead of time. Hill gets the data he needs from the database. “I can get the data through a database query,” says Hill. The system also monitors temperature readings and sends alerts when things go awry. “We can get a heads up on temperatures that are going away from where we want them,” says Hill. “We run the data through a single database and we can look at multiple machines at the same time.”

ImClone Systems Inc.a New York City company the produces cancer-fighting drugsgrabs data from its Rockwell Automation programmable automation controllers (PACs) for manipulation in an enterprise database. The company adopted the technology to meet regulatory requirements. “Data is more important than the drug itself. We can’t release the drug until we have the data,” says Steve Greguske, principal controls engineer at ImClone. “All the process data is extracted from the PACs and put into a SQL database,” explains Greguske. “That allows us to extract the information from the database.”

Most companies adopt plant-to-database connectivity to solve an individual problem, whether it’s asset management, maintenance or regulatory mandates. But once the data is flowing, the information can be used for other purposes such as process analysis or to meet track-and-trace requirements. “We also use the data for manufacturing analysis,” says Greguske. “The information is used by process engineers and manufacturing statisticians looking for process improvements.” And, like Southwire, the ImClone maintenance team also uses the data to reduce downtime.

Plants are using tools such as the xCoupler produced by Online Development Inc., of Knoxville, Tenn. ILS Technologies, of Boca Raton Fla.—an IBM spin-off—writes database connectivity software products that enable data communication directly from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or PACs directly to enterprise databases. Online Development licenses the technology from ILS and manufactures a module for the Rockwell ControlLogix PAC.

Working the connectivity

Plant-to-database connectivity is getting adopted quite quickly, partly because the connections are not difficult to deploy, and partly because companies are becoming increasingly interested in running data back and forth from the plant to the enterprise. “It’s early in the adoption curve, but almost all the major manufacturing companies are beginning to deploy xCoupler-type connectivity,” says Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “We’re close to full-scale deployment at Tier One manufacturers.”

Part of the popularity of the controller-to-database connectivity is the ease in making the connections. “In one deployment, we walked into the plant, plugged the module into the PLC, and 47 minutes later, we had live data moving from the plant floor into the enterprise system,” says John Keever, chief technology officer, ILS Technology. “And we never stopped production.”

One of the benefits of the PLC-to-database connectivity is that it requires no customization. “Back in the ’90s, all of the connectivity was customized, and there were no standards or off-the-shelf drivers,” says Laurie Wilson, director of product development for the xCoupler at Online Development. “With customized technology, you’re only as good as the person who customized it.”

While xCoupler-type technology is becoming widely adopted, it is not the only option. “There are a wide variety of ways to get data out of control systems and into databases,” says Michael Pantaleano, product manager for the software group at Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee. “There’s a product like FactoryTalk TransactionManager, which uses Java programming to get data out of the control system, or you can use an HMI (human-machine interface) to move into a corporate database.” Pantaleano notes that in most cases now, companies want the data to move in both directions, from plant to enterprise and enterprise to plant.

The absence of a middle software connection layer is viewed as a major benefit of these connectivity technologies. “Having something that takes the middle layer out of the connectivity eliminates the security issues, the abuse issues. That makes a lot of sense
to us,” says Trayton Jay, director of special projects at vendor Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc., in Vernon Hills, Ill. He notes that some of the connectivity technology based on translation standards has proved difficult. “There are more people having challenges with OPC (an open connectivity standard) than might meet the eye.” A direct connection from the PLC to the database eliminates much of this difficulty.

The need to exchange data between the plant and the enterprise is long standing, but tools for making it happen in the past were slow and problem-prone. Paper and batch reports ruled for decades. Personal computer (PC) connectivity followed, but that came with its own problems. “There has always been the desire for these two domains to be connected, but it has been done with brute force using PCs for compliance or management reporting,” says Fred Yentz, chief operating officer at ILS Technology. “The connectivity was done by writing code from Ethernet to cable to a laptop and it was done in batches.” He points to xCoupler as a move forward. “There has been a drive for a more elegant solution,” says Yentz. “This technology is more elegant and it’s real time.”

The xCoupler eliminates the need for a PC in between the plant data and the enterprise database. “Companies like ILS Technology provide a bridge solution that takes data directly from a Rockwell control system and feeds the data directly into an IBM server on WebSphere,” says ARC’s Resnick. “The bridge allows the server to communicate directly to the backbone of the control pack.”

Why connect?

There are a number of reasons companies seek greater data connectivity between the plant and the enterprise. Much of the drive comes from the changing competitive environment manufacturers face.

“As competition with foreign markets goes up, manufacturers want their downtime reduced,” says Wilson, of Online Development. “Manufacturers don’t want to warehouse finished goods, so they are building their products to order. That means they have to go through more configuration changes.” Plants are working to meet this increased demand on operations by using better data between the plant and the corporate office. “Our customers are using the xCoupler to eliminate downtime and increase throughput.”

Rockwell’s Pantaleano sees a wide range of uses for the data exchange between the plant and the enterprise. “In the food industry, you see data used for regulation. The manufacturer has to have information as to where the raw materials come from. That’s driving the data connection to the plant.” He notes that companies are also using plant data for total quality management programs, and to shift to build-to-order and just-in-time manufacturing. “People can’t afford to make products that sit on a shelf.”

ARC’s Resnick adds that manufacturers are using plant data to improve business decisions. “You can use the data to see what you’ve made—12,000 widgets at the factory in Shanghai—and you can compare that to your sales forecast,” says Resnick. “That also lets you know you need to purchase the raw materials for the Shanghai factory, and you know that in real time, rather than at the end of a shift or the end of the week.” He notes that the database is the right place to keep the data. “The database is important because it can be shared by the factory and the enterprise. It’s like a junction box.”

The bottom-line benefit of this technology is better manufacturing processes, as well as improved business practices. “You can really use this technology to make your business more responsive, more flexible and more competitive globally,” says Resnick. “You can cut down on inventory and come close to just-in-time production.”

The big attraction of xCoupler-type technology is its ease of use. It doesn’t require an integration team and it doesn’t need middleware to send data back and forth between the plant and the enterprise.


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