Once upon a time, life was simple. A company’s data processing activities were separated in two areas: the plant floor and the management office. Information from production equipment on the plant floor was used by operators and engineers. Business data, on the other hand, was controlled by the Information Technology (IT) department and used by management. Both groups depended on each other for results, but for the most part, each stayed on their own turf.
But times have changed. Cutthroat competition is forcing manufacturers to improve key performance indicators. As data collection systems have matured, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is great value in integrating them. To boost profits and cut costs, many decision makers are discovering a precious, untapped resource—their process data.
Process data was once tucked away out of sight, tied up in proprietary networks and hidden behind a multitude of incompatible protocols. But now, the OPC standard is making process data available as never before. With each passing month, the data from more and different kinds of process equipment is being made available through OPC servers. Plant engineers are seizing the opportunity to network and integrate manufacturing equipment and processes.
Business managers are finding ways to use this data to improve the bottom line for the enterprise. With a unified accounting and production data network, accountants can put live control data into spreadsheets to calculate costs in real time. Planners can incorporate actual historical production data in their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, along with shift and resource usage data. Executive boardroom presentations can include current, up-to-the-second production trends for making crucial decisions. Managers on the road can call up any facility on their Web browsers and view the current production figures, drilling down to any particular piece of equipment that needs their attention.
The enterprise has an abundance of tools to store, process and visualize data: databases, Web browsers, spreadsheets and graphing software, among others. OPC makes it possible to deliver production data into the existing IT infrastructure, and if necessary, even receive input from the top level and send it to the equipment working away on the shop floor. OPC’s single interface to a wide variety of machinery and instrumentation makes it the ideal choice for the job.
Using OPC, it is possible to connect a programmable logic controller (PLC) monitoring a control loop to a customized spreadsheet. This access allows users to run separate calculations to detect oscillation, as well as to calculate variability, error and output standard deviation from the loop. If a two-way connection is established, the spreadsheet can even be used to provide rudimentary feedback to the loop.
Many people in a company can benefit from having immediate access to shop-floor data. For example, by connecting a spreadsheet to live production data, and then incorporating that with real-time trading data for raw materials and energy, planners could create and view live “what-if” calculations and scenarios. This kind of access could cut resource planning cycles from months to minutes.
The OPC Historical Data Access (HDA) protocol creates a rich resource of data that can be analyzed by processes running at the management level. All that’s necessary is to make the connection. Or, if a company’s ERP software has its own database for archiving such information, data can be fed directly into the system using the standard OPC Data Access (DA) protocol.
Finally, certain key people in the company, from the engineer walking the production line to the busy executive on the road, need right-now, anytime access to plant data. Connecting an OPC server to a Web browser provides the data live to those people who really need it. Unheard of just a couple of years ago, this capability will soon be seen as a necessity.
Of course, all of this requires planning and structure. People on both sides of the divide have to realize the common benefits in making the connection. Those who provide the data, and those who use it, must each understand their roles in the process. The vision of benefits must be clear. The possibilities should be communicated to individuals in every area of the company, so that planning incorporates all possible needs.
For structure, OPC provides the production-level interface, but a link to the enterprise systems is necessary. Connectivity software, such as the OPC DataHub from Cogent Real-Time Systems (www.opcdatahub.com), based in Georgetown, Ontario, Canada, provides a conduit between OPC servers and the spreadsheets, Web browsers, and Open DataBase Connectivity (ODBC)-compliant databases running at the management level. The connectivity software should be flexible enough to connect to a wide variety of software and systems, yet reliable enough to meet the exacting standards of OPC and the process environment.
Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Nor, for that matter, is the present. Plant engineers and IT departments can maintain the separation between their worlds, but the company is likely to suffer. Those with a broader vision, those with an interest in maximizing profits, are looking at integration. OPC can play a pivotal role in making the connection, if businesses take advantage of the standards it sets, and use it to its full potential.
For more information on OPC solutions from Cogent Real-Time Systems, visit www.cogent.ca.