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Ethernet-Enabled Consumer Technologies Cross Over

Smart phone apps, tablet computers and cloud computing migrate to industrial environments.

Motoman’s robots communicate directly with a range of systems over Ethernet.
Motoman’s robots communicate directly with a range of systems over Ethernet.

There’s little similarity between industrial robots and the futuristic machines seen in movies and on TV. But the links are getting closer, as the ruggedized versions adopt some of the latest consumer technologies to enable access: smart phones, cloud computing and tablet computers. Though robots operate in extreme applications like welding, painting and in ultra-fast packaging applications, there’s little question that these new consumer trends are tough enough to operate in factories, giving industrial managers access to data no matter where they are.

“It’s easy to get status information using a smart phone app and cloud computing,” says Greg Garmann, software and controls technology leader at Yaskawa America’s Motoman Robotics Division (www.motoman.com) in Miamisburg, Ohio. “You can view the number of parts being produced from a Website.” 

The history of Ethernet, the enabler for the rapid adoption of these new technologies, highlights the dynamic changes that have occurred in industrial applications. Ethernet was initially derided as a weak technology that couldn’t perform in harsh environments. But its reach now includes a majority of many peripherals including as robots.  

“EtherNet/IP is a strong market leader for us now. DeviceNet was our leader in the past,” Garmann says. The company also supports a number of other Ethernet variants as well, he adds.  

While Ethernet’s adoption took several years, many related technologies are seeing quick adoption. Now that Ethernet is making TCP/IP a common communications protocol for industrial networking, for example, a growing number of programmers are extending networks to include the World Wide Web. Many companies now put many of their files on Internet servers, which allows them take advantage of new commercial technologies. These servers are part of the cloud computing that’s getting all sorts of attention, and this cloud can be accessed by Internet-enabled cell phone applications.  

“The availability and use of smart phone apps greatly extends the network to anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi connection, and thus greatly broadens the front office’s access to the factory floor,” says Selam Shimelash, application engineer at automation and controls supplier Opto 22 (www.opto22.com), based in Temecula, Calif.

Phone to the future

The quick adoption of these new technologies meshes well with ongoing trends like globalization and consolidation, which put more facilities under the control of fewer managers who can’t get to each site. When their needs are combined with Lean manufacturing, just in time deliveries and the push for custom and specialized products, managers at all levels often need to get up-to-date information whenever they have time to access it.

“The surge in mobile devices, such as Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android systems, has opened up the market to plenty of options in remote monitoring and supervisory control,” says Henry Loos, controls and application engineer at Applied Robotics Inc. (www.arobotics.com) of Glenville, N.Y. “Monitoring and control applications for mobile devices are emerging quickly. They allow plant engineers and managers to respond almost instantly to process concerns and downtime events.”

For smart phones and tablets to become useful, plant managers have to take advantage of another technology that is rapidly becoming commonplace on factory floors. Wireless technology is critical for tying these devices to the industrial Ethernet architecture.

Wi-Fi is beginning to gain a solid foothold in facilities that employ wireless networking. This standard, which is part of the IEEE 802.xx series of specifications that includes Ethernet, has been displacing proprietary industrial networks. Together, wireless and lightweight handheld devices are generating a lot of excitement with users and development engineers. “Speaking more generally, Wi-Fi networks used with smart phone apps are one of newest and best ways to improve efficiency on the factory floor,” Shimelash says. “They combine to provide a great way to improve efficiency in maintaining systems, commissioning and installing.”

Laptops seem bulky compared with these smaller devices. The portability of cell phones and tablets makes it much easier for managers and maintenance personnel to walk about the plant and check performance parameters while looking directly at the equipment. That’s much more efficient than making notes and going back to a fixed workstation.

“People want to be untethered,” says Steve McPherson, Rockwell Automation’s director of market development, visualization & information software, based in Mayfield Heights, Ohio (www.rockwellautomation.com). “When you’ve got larger devices like a tablet with a browser, you can render the same operator screen anywhere. That lets people walk around and make changes when they come up to a machine instead of going back to an HMI screen.”

Wi-fi and GPS

Wi-Fi isn’t the only wireless technology that’s being used to transform industrial sites. Some integrators and designers who have very large facilities are also leveraging global positioning satellite signals. GPS data can be used to alter the setup for personnel who work in different building, and they can even pinpoint equipment locations in sites where equipment is widely dispersed.

“In highly distributed environments like oil and gas, operators can do neat things when they go into the field,” McPherson says. “With location based services, it says you are at machine 123, so you don’t have to enter data to say which equipment you’re working on.”

Though smart phones and tablets are quickly gaining acceptance, they aren’t much of a threat to replace any technology except notebooks that are now carried around the worksite. When managers are doing complex work that involves a fair amount of data, most are expected to turn to their existing control system.

“Many of the apps we see for industry are for quick and dirty measurements,” says Rick Kuhlman, LabView embedded software product manager for National Instruments (www.ni.com) of Austin, Texas. “They help people make a decision right there based on a small subset of the available information. Smart phone apps usually aren’t for doing a detailed analysis that factors in many different parameters.”

There are a couple of other design concerns that come when these rapidly changing consumer products are integrated into industrial environments. One is security. Wireless networks offer greater potential for hackers and others to steal signals. At best, unauthorized users reduce available bandwidth; at worst, they make unauthorized changes. Network managers have to control how corporate personnel make handheld connections to prevent anyone with a smart phone from logging in.

Compatibility is yet another hurdle to overcome. Though the communication links are well set, software differences between Android devices, iPads and other gear can be an issue. “When people are using Apple, Android or other equipment, there are some challenges communicating with all the available variations,” McPherson says.

As more apps are developed for industrial and manufacturing operations, equipment suppliers will have to figure out how to help their customers find those that are effective and avoid those that have some problems. “We’ll do some apps, but the majority of them will come from creative system integrators,” McPherson says. Rockwell Automation is trying to figure out how to reference apps that are complementary, “kind of like what we do with third-party companies we work with now,” he adds.

Software hosting

Smart phone apps and tablet computers aren’t the only consumer technologies that are rapidly migrating to industrial environments. Cloud computing is also becoming an option for companies that don’t mind the idea that some of their data is being held on servers that aren’t under the corporation’s control. Many engineering types think the term “cloud” is nothing more than a lightweight, trendy name for remote servers and storage vaults. That’s largely true, but most manufacturing plants will gain more benefits by adopting cloud technology than by trying to turn back the throngs who are already embracing the technology. Designers of peripherals like robots are already making it simple to access data that’s made available to anyone with a smart phone and the necessary authorization access capability.

Many industrial engineering teams feel that extending the network to the World Wide Web is a logical extension of Ethernet. Moving away from field buses made it easier for people in the front office to see data. Migrating to the Web lets CEOs or maintenance managers access equipment from a hotel room in Asia or Europe.

“Just putting data on Ethernet is great but, once you get it on the network, the next step is to put it on the Web so people can use it from many areas with many different types of equipment,” says Todd Dobberstein, National Instruments’ group manager for embedded hardware. That’s prompted suppliers to develop and utilize programs that put data from many operations and machines online. Now that data can be examined by a widerange of users to help fine tune production, inventory handling and more.

“A lot of software tools have moved to Web-based clients that let people get better decision-making support,” says Mike Hannah, product development manager of Ethernet and infrastructure for Rockwell Automation. “You can get parts counts, production speeds and other information right from the controllers. It becomes very easy to compare actual production against expectations.”

When equipment in remote factories can be controlled from any site via the Web, managers who have similar equipment indifferent factories can use the same setup information for all of them. Setup for one robot or other equipment can be done in much less time than sending an operator onto the plant floor.

“In our tool changers, we have abandoned configuration software in favor of an HTML-based configuration,” says Loos from Applied Robotics. “Instead of finding a technician with a laptop with the required software, our customers can configure our changers as needed with only Microsoft Internet Explorer.”

Some companies are trimming their software costs and other expenses by employing the cloud. Applications packages for some equipment can be accessed via the cloud under leasing type arrangements, which can be cheaper than acquiring specialty programs.

At the same time, some companies are using a maintenance model similar to the one that’s been employed by automakers who monitor mileage and send owners updates when it’s time for maintenance. Maintenance firms or equipment manufacturers can monitor equipment in a facility so operators can focus on production rather than worrying about upkeep issues.

“We’re getting more requests from people who want us to host applications,” Hannah says. “There are also more projects where software is rented to folks by people who collect data and sell it back to the customer for maintenance purposes or other services. One vendor did an analysis of the number of hours used, then sent an e-mail to the customer when it was time to do maintenance.”

Such remote services can be used by equipment makers, system integrators and others to develop close ties to end users of equipment. If they lease software or provide maintenance contracts, they can add revenue. “The cloud brings an opportunity for companies to change their business models, going more to information-based services,” says Kuhlman.

Sidebar: Ethernet-Enabled Industrial Applications
To read the feature article, click here.

Terry Costlow, tcostlow@comcast.net, is a Contributing Editor for Automation World.

For more information:

Applied Robotics Inc. www.arobotics.com
National Instruments www.ni.com
Opto22 www.opto22.com
Rockwell Automation www.rockwellautomation.com
Yaskawa America www.motoman.com

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