Marriage of desktop and Web

Oct. 1, 2003
Applications developers and end users are already applying .Net to manage disparate applications to access, send and integrate data over the Internet.

At Nestles’ PowerBar plant in Boise, Idaho, it was a difficult chore to move recipes in and out of databases while also making alterations on controls and alarms that run and monitor the manufacturing process. “The recipe database has a lot of batching processes that pull ingredients, and there are a lot of parameters on temperature,” explains Travis Carlson, control engineer at PowerBar. “It’s difficult to do that on the plant floor.” To simplify this process, Carlson purchased Industrial Application Server with ArchestrA technology by WonderWare, a subsidiary of Invensys in Lake Forest, Calif.

ArchestrA, built on Microsoft’s .Net technology, trimmed PowerBar’s burdensome process. “This cut our development time into a tenth of what it had been,” says Carlson. “We were excited about having reusable objects, the ability to just check a few boxes, set up an object and not have to load our tags into four different systems.” Now, Carlson can simply drag-and-drop the objects. “You don’t have to have the technical programming abilities. It simplifies the process of developing automation.” The ArchestrA .Net infrastructure allows PowerBar to combine disparate applications and allows Carlson to access database recipes and set the manufacturing parameters via the Web. “Microsoft took a lot of the technologies and combined them into one system to make it easy to access the Web,” says Carlson. “It’s a bridge from Windows to the Web.”

ArchestrA uses .Net to help manufacturers manipulate individual applications that need to work in tandem. “Say you have a production line and you want to introduce the supervisory control systems on top of the real controls—that requires interfacing,” says Rashesh Mody, WonderWare’s chief technology officer and a key player in the development of ArchestrA. “At the supervisory control, you want to connect an alarm system. You have to visualize five product lines together, and you need to change parameters, speed up the motor and do interrelationship interlocking.” ArchestrA’s .Net allows the manufacturer to run this process from a Web site.

The same, but easier

For PowerBar, this was not new technology. But it was an easier way to use the company’s existing technology. “The technology was there before .Net, but it was more difficult to use,” explains Carlson. “Now we can do everything from a Web site. It created a common way of working with the information.”

ArchestrA also makes it easier for a manufacturer to deploy its system to a new plant. “If you have five lines of production and you want to add a new one, you don’t have to redesign it,” explains Mody. “Say you have 200 plants. You’re making coffee in Brazil and now you want to do it somewhere else. You can simply add the existing design to the new plant.” He notes that this simplified function will gain importance as companies add more plants through increased merger and acquisition activity.

Many software providers view .Net as a shortcut that allows disparate applications to work together. Others value its Web-friendliness. “Why is .Net important? It’s all about the Web,” says Russ Agrusa, president of Iconics Inc., an automation software company in Foxborough, Mass. “In the past you could make things work on the Internet, but you had to put in a lot of effort using Java.” Agrusa notes that manufacturers can now use .Net to enable Web Services very easily, making Web Services as easy as plug-and-play. “Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) has been around for 18 years, but eXtensible Markup Language (XML, which .Net uses) is the quantum leap. It’s HTML on steroids.”

Microsoft executives claim that part of .Net’s value is providing non-programmers with the ability to use sophisticated software tools. “It’s not enough to connect the applications,” says Scott Garvey, director of Web Services marketing, at Microsoft. “That’s powerful, but we’re also focused on providing a new experience. How does Sally have a better experience on Monday than she had on Friday?” Part of the improvement is to let Sally take the technology for a spin. “You don’t get knowledge workers for free,” says Garvey. “We want to bring the data into tools where they can plan and act.”

Microsoft’s introduction of .Net may look like a new version of the company’s familiar strategy of dominating emerging technology. Yet many software vendors say, “Who cares—it works.”

“The key reason we’re using .Net, and the reason it will win over Java is the fact that Bill Gates is investing $5 billion per year and he has committed 15,000 engineers to .Net,” says Agrusa, of the Microsoft co-founder and chairman. “You put in that much investment and you’re going to have a hit.” Part of Argusa’s enthusiasm stems from the ease with which Iconics was able to develop and introduce its ReportWorx.net tool. Microsoft won’t reveal the company’s investment in .Net, but Garvey doesn’t squelch Argusa’s estimate. He acknowledges that Microsoft has invested considerable resources and time in developing .Net. “We’ve spent the last three or four years re-architecting and re-plumbing for Web Services,” says Garvey. “I can now talk to any system, provide productivity, reduce total cost of ownership and provide ease-of-use.”

One of the benefits of a Web-friendly programming language is that you can extend it easily outside the four walls of the manufacturing company. “Our software contains point solutions that come together to solve a problem in one place, controlling a plant or part of a process,” explains Ed Moore, director of development at Aspen Technology Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that produces software for manufacturers. “We’re now developing enterprise solutions that manufacturers can use to optimize the plant or supply chain. We use .Net to support those enterprise solutions.”

Besides bringing savings to their customers, vendors are also benefiting from .Net’s ease-of-use. “One of our developers believes his productivity has increased 100 percent,” says Moore. “It also helps the more junior engineers by protecting them from going down the wrong path. We don’t have to worry about memory leaks or de-bugging.“ There are some drawbacks to using a managed language such as .Net, Moore notes, but he believes the positives outweigh the negatives. “There are all kinds of considerations in programming with a managed language. Security concerns are one,” says Moore. “But Microsoft has embedded security into the fundamental language. One of the fundamental things we could not do before was have a secure digital signature. Now we can.”

Microsoft executives are hopeful that manufacturers will be able to use the efficiencies gained from .Net to shift some of their information technology budgets away from maintenance to new software purchases. “If you ask IT what percentage of the budget goes to maintenance, you’ll find out it’s 60 to 70 percent,” says Microsoft’s Garvey. “We hope to see manufacturers shift 20 to 30 percent of that to new programs,” says Garvey. “That’s a big deal, since no one is increasing their IT budgets by those percentages.”

See sidebar to this article: Driving collaboration @ Parker Aerospace