Finding a commonality among seemingly disparate enterprises is not always easy. This journalist recently interviewed eight distinct companies about technology, efficiency, and automation trends. The numerator was different, the technology solution selected by each company, the denominator, was remarkably consistent.
Here is the line-up:
#1: Jim Feeney is VP of F&A Data Systems, Inc., based in East Brunswick, New Jersey. The company produces Controls and Systems for Warehousing and Distribution.
#2: Tim McGuire is President & CEO of MicroCODE, Inc., based in Troy, Michigan. The company is best known for software development and control engineering.
#3: Laz Temimi, Automation and Control Engineer for Olympus Automation based in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom. The company adopted a lean approach to engineering to develop products and services that are more sustainable.
#4: Randal Boyd is a Software Engineer for Special Devices Inc., based in Mesa, Arizona. The company is solutions provider for precision engineered energetic devices.
#5: Rhett Spencer is the owner of Spencer Systems based in Heber City, Utah.
#6: Al Barnard is owner of True Logic Group, with a primary focus on the development of Data Collection & Control Systems for industrial equipment. The company is based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
#7: Jeff Zerr, Director of Engineering for United Sortation Solutions based in Owings Mills, Maryland brings together the best solutions for the material handling industry.
#8: Mike Sluz, Electrical Superintendant for Wynndel Box & Lumber based in Wynndel, British Columbia, Canada. The firm is a specialty wood product manufacturer.
So that is the team. Each of these individuals for each of these companies performed one act in common, regarding of industry sector, geography, title or function. Each Googled the phrase â€ś.NET PLC driverâ€ť will lead them to www.ingeardrivers.com
The INGEAR.NET software from CimQuest is a set of runtime free class libraries that simplify building, developing, and deploying connected systems for manufacturing applications using Visual Basic or Visual Studio .NET. It uses only three primary classes of .NET code:
one of which manages the PLC,
one manages the data that are read from or written to that PLC,
one manages groupings of methods, properties, and events to optimize read/write operations on a collection.
Interviewing each of these executives illustrated the challenges that each faced and what lead them to an initial conversation with INGEAR.
#1: F&A Data Systems develops Warehousing and Material Handling Control Solutions. Our primary clients are retailers. We have software that controls everything from small automated packaging lines to large-scale conveyor, sortation and monorail systems. Our software extends to the management of Shipping, Receiving, Packing, Storage and Retrieval, and e-Commerce Fulfillment operations. For some of our clients, everything that happens within their Distribution Center is controlled through our software. Historically weâ€™ve run on mid-scale UNIX machines like IBMâ€™s AIX based P-Series Servers. Within that platform, our software made use of Rockwellâ€™s Interchange Software product to provide communication between our server and the material handling systems under our control. The conveyor systems were controlled by Allen Bradley PLC, SLC, ControlLogix, and MicroLogix processors.
#2: Existing HMI products from Allen-Bradley, Siemens, and others, are closed systems. If you canâ€™t build your desired user interface with their canned controls youâ€™re basically out of luck. We envisioned a very comprehensive Error Proofing system for General Motors that would require five (5) things:
Complete control for the graphical interface
Independence from a proprietary controls system
#3: Olympus Automation detailed their needs:
Enterprise and shop floor ASP.NET application to communicate with various AB ControlLogix PLCs over an Ethernet network.
Window services to read and update data from various ControlLogix PLCs over an Ethernet network.
Window communication foundation services hosted in window services, IIS and console application to communicate with various ControlLogix PLCs over an Ethernet network. This enables outside of the application clients to connect and communicate with a number of PLCs over the network.
To formulate and design .NET classes that get data from a SQL server database using LINQ to SQL and download data to various ControlLogix PLCs over an Ethernet network.
To design and implement a â€śTags serverâ€ť service which update a tag table in a SQL server database; Data to be used by various clients.
To minimize the number of connections to the various PLCs over the network.
#4: Special Devices, Inc. faced several challenges including:
- Equipment control obsolescence. PLCs and PCs that no longer communicated with current systems, therefore impossible to upgrade.
- The crippling affect of PC cards and preparatory hardware. (Needed to break the links that bound proprietary hardware such as ISA cards.)
#5: Spencer Systems first project using INGEAR was to provide a simple user interface to operate a string of lights near the top of a mountain in Utah. The lights illuminated the large letter for the school below. In the past someone had to hike or take an off road vehicle up to the lights to turn them on and off. The proposal was to create a simple C# web application that anyone with the correct username and password could operate the lights using a computer or cell phone web browser.
INGEAR has just the technology we needed to communicate with Visual Studio and our MicroLogix 1100 controller located on the mountain side and connected via WiFi radios.
Our second challenge was the monitoring of a PLC network that was spread across hundreds of square miles of Utah mountains and valleys. Connected together via fiber optic cable, Wifi Radios, Cat5, Controlnet, Data Highway and numerous ethernet switches and patch panels, and making this data available via an OPC server that any HMI could utilize it.
The idea was to try to monitor as many devices and network paths as possible in order to speed up the troubleshooting time when a network problem arose.
We again chose INGEAR as one of our technology partners and utilized their NET.ABLINK and NET.LOGIX class libraries as we had a mixture of new and old PLCâ€™s to monitor. We were attempting to do this without adding programming to the existing PLCâ€™s. This was working great with the older PLC but when it came to the newer ControlLogix we were stuck, and it looked like we were going to have to add programming and would not be able to have the status we wanted when the PLC was in program or faulted. After talking to INGEAR they were off to solve the problem, and had an update to us with the needed functionality within a couple of weeks.
INGEARâ€™s .NET class libraries worked seamlessly with our OPC server and HMI systems, our project was finished and is working as advertised.
#6: True Logic Group reported the challenges were two-fold. Firstly we wanted a simple more flexible object model that would allow dynamic controller IP changes. Secondly, we were trying to overcome licensing issues associated with OPC communications.
The following few points were primary reasons for investigating the Ingear product:
Develop a next generation fully redundant system architecture that will allow the equipment to continue to operate after any single point of failure
Develop a system that will transfer to backup modes of operation automatically without user intervention and will transfer back automatically when the problem is corrected
Redundancy schemes must be predictable, repeatable and reliable
Develop or implement new communication drivers to eliminate problematic drivers
#7: United Sortation Solutions faced exchanging a wide variety of information between an Allen-Bradley ControlLogix PLC and a custom PC application. Along with that, we needed to minimize communication delays, as well as development time.
#8: Wynndel Box & Lumber faced the original challenge of displaying real time error messages and production data at various workstations around our plant. Realizing, through a bit of research, that we could use the INGEAR products to help gather data from numerous Allen Bradley PLCâ€™s in our plant, we created various programs that use the INGEAR NET.ABLINK, NET.LOGIXCF, and NET.LOGIX. INGEAR was used to replace the need to purchase and install multiple RSLinx licenses at greater than $1100.00 per workstation. Some of the challenges we face at our plant would definitely be characteristic to other plants in our industry and I believe other industries as well.
Chuck Karwoski, President of Cimquest INGEAR was not surprised as this journalist shared the eclectic nature of these responses. Karwoski suggested, â€śCompanies are not only turning to INGEAR but to Microsoft Visual Studio .NET as a real solution to fit their needs. Customers recognize the speed, power, flexibility and cost reducing benefits that INGEAR software adds to the manufacturing environment. At the same time, Visual Studio .NET is an open development platform that is the backbone of any IT department and is supported with thousands of books, college courses, web sites, third party add-ons and components. It means the customer is not boxed-in by the limitations of current automation software offers.â€ť
Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc, (www.trcutlerinc.com). Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium of three thousand five hundred journalists and editors writing about trends in manufacturing. Cutler is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Online News Association, American Society of Business Publication Editors, Committee of Concerned Journalists, as well as author of more than 300 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. Cutler is also the developer of lean technology C.E.O (Continuous Experiential Optimization). Cutler can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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