This month, data-acquisition and test specialist Capital Equipment Corp. (Billerica, Mass.) will start shipping a small box that does "what everybody in automated factories is trying to do," according to Sid Mayer, chief designer of that box, a data-acquisition Web appliance called WebDAQ/100. The "everybody" is this 17-year-old company's customer base of more than 8,000 corporations, including "all major auto, semiconductor, telecom and instrument manufacturers, and all major U.S. government entities," said Jack O'Brien, director of sales and marketing at the company. All of those customers are trying to use the Internet to tie factories to the rest of the world, according to Mayer.
In today's automated factory environment, "things are getting more and more networked, more and more central-database-oriented," Mayer said, "and everybody wants the ability to check factory status from different places and post it to different places." The Internet, he said, is a great vehicle for that job and it makes many spiffy real-world scenarios eminently doable: for example, the automated process that sends messages across the plant or across the world-to a phone, fax, e-mail address or pager. And even within the confines of a plant, the Internet is an attractive way to go, for all but the most finicky of real-time tasks, Mayer said.
The greatest benefit of the Internet in the automated factory, according to Mayer, is that it's all "off the shelf. You get huge leverage from using standards. Instead of confronting completely fresh and new problems, we can live off things that already exist for the Internet, and they drop right in."
A drop-in solution
Originally a player in GPIB (IEEE-488) interfaces for factory test, Capital has seen customers working to "tie things together" since the early 1980s. "In the early days, they were integrating a lot of different types of hardware out there and writing their own custom programs for a dedicated test station," Mayer said.
Internet-enabled data-acquisition appliances such as Capital Equipment's WebDAQ/100 can tie factories to the rest of the world.
Today's distributed environments greatly complicate the picture. "There are lots of different ways to get at things today, but everybody is trying to do the same thing-link the factory to wider areas, pulling data together from multiple places and looking at it from multiple places. People have wanted to do that, going way back, and they have done it in a non-real-time way-for example, with reports and checklists at the end of a shift," Mayer said.
The potential for tying things together via telephone lines has not been lost on customers of Capital's TestPoint software, introduced in 1993. "People have been asking us for years if TestPoint can talk to a modem," Mayer said, "and we always say, 'Yes.' But then we ask them what they're trying to get done, because writing their own modem commands and coming up with their own network protocols may not be the level they really want to be thinking about."
There are "lots of different things going on in the industry on ways to tie things together," Mayer said, and "it usually takes a number of different components from a number of different vendors and a lot of system integration. As things get more and more real-time as more things are done with computers, when you add the Internet protocols, it becomes simple and eliminates a huge amount of custom work," he said. "You just use a browser and build custom things on top because it's flexible."
"The way we see things moving is that there is a set of standards out there for sending information around, or at least getting to things remotely, and that's the Internet," Mayer said. "The ability to retrieve information like the status of what's been going on or a trend is exactly what people do with information sources on the Internet."
Off the shelf
The reason automated factories are migrating to the Internet standards, "even when we're talking within the factory and not Internetting to world, is that those things are everywhere-browsers are built into the computers; it's routable everywhere; and the cabling is standard," Mayer said. "If you want to jump from a factory to another factory across town, that's off-the-shelf. If you want to jump across the country to another factory or to your factory in Japan and have a virtual private network that's encrypted, that's all off-the-shelf. You don't have to keep growing different ways of doing things. That's why it's so attractive."
There is no downside to using the Internet for remote monitoring, Mayer said, but it's not appropriate as the communications medium for all in-plant processes. "Internets and routers and so on are okay when it's not a problem if things take a little longer at some times than other times," he said. "But there are some very tight real-time things you might need to do that they don't normally deal with.
"When you have a mission-critical thing or a life-critical thing that needs hard real-time control, you want a dedicated process-loop controller right there with its own CPU with battery backup, an independent smart node," Mayer said. "You don't want to be forwarding things, not even across the factory. Typically what you need over the wider area is data management and the next level of control over what's going on."
That's not to say the Internet can't be plenty quick enough for many remote-monitoring situations, "as long as you're not talking millisecond real-time," Mayer said. "If you want to see what's going on right now this minute in the factory-say, to check the status of a valve or something's temperature-that stuff can be going quite fast. There's plenty of transmission speed and capabilities and a whole variety of technologies to choose from-which, if anything, are getting faster and cheaper every day."
Capital claims the WebDAQ/100 is the first Web appliance for the data acquisition market. With its built-in Web server, "you just plug it into a network connection, fire up your Web browser and tell WebDAQ/100 what you want to do," said O'Brien, the sales and marketing director. After configuring acquisition parameters and so forth, "when you want your data, just click and download the file-you can even download directly into Excel."
Above all, "The solution is all off-the-shelf," said O'Brien.