Hope for Easy Data Exchange Among Engineering Tools

Sept. 26, 2012
Data exchange among mechanical plant engineering, electrical design, process engineering, process control engineering, HMI development, PLC programming and other engineering tools is difficult. A European initiative lets users exchange data by exporting it into a common AutomationML format.

While companies in the manufacturing industries face many challenges, reducing costs and time-to-market both appear near the top of the list for many CEOs. Since engineering speed and efficiency can reduce the time it takes to bring new products to market, and engineering and commissioning costs typically represent a considerable percentage of a manufacturing company’s overall cost structure, virtually all manufacturers today have invested in engineering tools.

Unfortunately, while modern engineering tools can help reduce engineering time and effort and increase productivity, tools for different engineering disciplines often lack interoperability due to incompatible data formats. This means that the same data must be entered multiple times into the different tools. These include mechanical plant engineering, electrical design, process engineering, process control engineering, HMI development, PLC programming and robotics programming. This increases time, cost and effort, and introduces the potential for errors.

The goal of the European-based Automation Markup Language (or AutomationML) interface initiative is to provide a common format for data exchange and interoperability among the disparate engineering tools.

A common solution has been to write custom export and import tools to transfer the data files using pairwise data exchange. The problem with pairwise data exchanges between engineering tools is that the file export/import between the different engineering tools gets confusing. This approach also consumes significant engineering time, since custom exporters and importers need to be written for each tool.

A successful solution must be easy, fast, scalable and backwards-traceable. One possible approach, a common database, would require that multiple vendors develop their engineering tools in a harmonized manner. While this would be very helpful for users, it would also tend to inhibit innovation.

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Another approach is to have a common data format for all engineering tools. This might be achieved through semantic standardization, but also has disadvantages. It would require feedback from users and tool vendors, but tool vendors prefer to wait for the standardization process to be completed by users.

The AutomationML interface enables data from different engineering tools to be exported and imported without confusing and time-consuming procedures.  AutomationML started in 2006 as an industry consortium led by automaker Daimler. The AutomationML association was founded in 2009 by Daimler, ABB, Siemens, the University of Magdeburg, the Fraunhofer IITB, NetAllied Systems and Zühlke Engineering. The association now has 25 member companies in Europe and is growing. 

AutomationML 2.01
In May 2012, the new engine, AutomationML 2.01, was released together with a new editor that simplifies the creation of exporters and importers. At a user conference held May 9-10 in Böblingen, Germany, the AutomationML association presented and explained its new tools and engine to generally favorable response.

AutomationML works as a common data format. Exchanging data between different engineering tools is accomplished by exporting the data into the common format. The private data of an engineering tool is exported to a neutral data format that other engineering tools can import and use. Users of AutomationML say that they were able to configure exports and imports within a few hours, depending on the amount of data.

ARC expects that companies that use a variety of different engineering tools and are currently using manual data exchange between these tools could potentially gain significant benefits from AutomationML.

Stefan Miksch, [email protected], is an analyst at ARC Advisory Group’s office in Germany.

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