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CIM connectivity: freeing the information flow.

A new wave is sweeping into computer-integrated manufacturing. It's already evident in some of the commercially available computer hardware and software you use for process control and information management. But more than just a collection of products, it's a whole different CIM strategy. System architectures--once predominantly "closed," or proprietary to a single vendor--have started to give way to a more "open" approach.

Ideally, these "open systems" allow users to pick and choose the best hardware and software offerings from a variety of vendors and then link them together seamlessly. Nowadays, a whole host of systems and devices that once stood alone can connect more freely thanks to their more open architectures. And though the technology that creates such open systems has evolved over the last decade, suppliers say this new wave has hit plastics manufacturing only recently. "It has only become affordable in the last year and a half or so," explains Syscon-PlantStar v.p. Steve Thomas.

The term "open systems" may mean different things to different people, especially to the various computer and controls vendors. Each, it seems, has its own definition. And since we're still far from a "plug-and-play" environment where everything connects freely through common communication standards, openness remains a matter of degree. If taken to its conclusion, open systems technology would completely eliminate the expensive custom software development work needed to bring disparate systems together. Yet as things stand now, openness may simply mean a juxtaposition of several proprietary systems. But the underlying concept is rooted in connectivity among the multiplicity of control and information systems required to run a high-quality manufacturing operation today. "Open-systems technology provides a playing field that makes it possible for third parties to complete a CIM system cooperatively," explains Tim Nicolaou, v.p. of U.S. Data Corp., which makes FactoryLink automation software.

To enable this multi-vendor cooperation, the open-systems approach rests on industry standards that govern the transportability of data between software applications and across different hardware platforms. "Open systems implies standards for everything from data structuring to hardware connectivity to software transportability," IBM process industry manager Jim O'Neil explains. These numerous protocols and interfaces, in turn, influence the design of equipment from central computers right down to shop-floor controllers and sensors. They also shape the software available for your manufacturing business.

But even experienced CIM vendors characterize the standards picture as "very confused." No one seems to know which ones have any staying power or whether universally accepted standards will emerge ever in the face of proprietary self-interest. But in the meantime, you probably can leave it to the experts and "system integrators" to wade through the current alphabet soup of standards for networks, controllers, and "field devices," such as temperature or pressure sensors.

At their best, the most open systems yield "a free flow of information across different domains," as O'Neil puts it. Information in the form of data can be transported from application to application--from the shop floor to the corporate business office. "The big issue has always been getting the real-time information from the plant floor into management information systems," says Spencer Harvey, director of marketing at Intec Controls Corp., the maker of Paragon automation software.

Indeed, the big excitement over open systems has less to do with improvements at the process-control level than with what happens to that information at the "macro" level. These more open systems are already beginning to supplant the traditional and more prevalent "islands" of computing for process control, front office tasks, MRP, and design engineering.


Perhaps the chief advantage stemming from all this enhanced connectivity comes down to an easier integration of CIM systems that span entire enterprises. Open architectures can spell an end to separate systems that stop at the doors to the plant floor and business office. Better integration, in turn, brings about intrinsic operating efficiencies, suppliers say.

For this very reason, BFGoodrich's Geon Vinyls Div. implemented a fully integrated CIM system for its compounding operation in Avon Lake, Ohio. The system principally ties together a business system based on Digital Equipment Corp. hardware and a Provox distributed control system from Fisher Controls. "We found we had islands of technology that we needed to bring together," says CIM manager Doug Grimm. "With a proprietary system, that would have been very difficult to accomplish." For example, rather than simply accepting the monitors that come with a proprietary system, the company could have chosen PCs. "Before, you bought what the vendor had to offer and that was it," Grimm adds. "Now you can take advantage of a wider spectrum of products."

By unifying once discrete systems, the company has eliminated one significant inefficiency--the all-too-common and error-prone manual keystroking that previously had passed information between the process control, business and MRP realms. "We used to do a lot of paperwork," Grimm recalls the old days. Now, the new efficiencies have paid off: since implementing the most recent system, the facility has seen manufacturing lead time plummet by 15%, says Grimm.

To this day, however, many processors who have bought into automation still have one or more stand-alone systems, notes Syscon-PlantStar's Thomas. One system might serve for shop-floor monitoring while another addresses front-office needs, and still another handles the computer-aided design (CAD). The list could go on and on. "You can still walk into many plants and find two or three computers on each desk," Thomas says. "The nice thing about systems today is that they have the ability to incorporate all of them into one computer network."

Open systems may also put enterprise-wide CIM within reach of a greater population. In the year that Syscon-PlantStar has been delivering such systems, the customers have been both large "Fortune 100" types and smaller processors with a few machines. So, adoption of more open architectures isn't strictly a matter of size. But those processors with open systems, are traditionally ahead of the curve when it comes to CIM. "With an open-systems environment, we're generally talking about someone who is leading-edge," Thomas says. "They're generally worldclass or heading in that direction."


Yet another benefit comes from the ability of relatively open systems to lend a degree of flexibility to a given CIM system through the years. BFGoodrich, for instance, does not currently need to integrate its CAD system with the bulk of its CIM network, Grimm says. But through the open-systems approach, the company has kept that door and others wide open for the future. "We wanted the ability down the road to couple and de-couple applications without a lot of work," Grimm says. This sort of flexibility was a driving force when the company moved away from single-vendor solutions. "We needed the added flexibility because we didn't know where the business would go," Grimm explains.

This flexibility springs from expanded inter-vendor communication abilities. In an open environment, you can pick and choose off-the-shelf pieces of your CIM structure from a variety of sources, each with its own strength. Grimm calls it an "a la carte" approach. This way, open architectures can provide a buffer against obsolescence. "With open systems you can continually manage and keep up with current technology," says Nicolaou. He contrasts this adaptability with proprietary, single-vendor solutions of the past. These monolithic systems were characterized by a "set-and-forget" philosophy that locked processors into the capabilities of the system as it came, leaving little room for change. Even something as basic as adding electronic mail after the bulk of a CIM system was in place often was precluded by incompatibility between technologies, says Nicolaou.

Thwarting obsolescence aids the human-resources side of the CIM equation as well. "Most plastics processors don't have the luxury of a huge computer staff, and they must deal with a multitude of systems," says IBM's O'Neil. Open architectures help by providing a more standard operating environment. "The more common a system is, and the more open it is, the less re-learning," O'Neil adds. And the use of off-the-shelf products makes training easier. In the past, the CIM vendors themselves provided all the highly specialized computer expertise needed to make systems work, and few skilled people resided at the user end. Now as systems evolve within a plant, staff can keep on top of the technology more easily through familiar technology than with entirely proprietary, single-vendor systems.


Open-systems technologies, then, exhibit an "empowering" aspect by letting you gain relatively more control over your computers. And once you define technology needed for an application, do-it-yourself techniques can come into play through so-called "technology enabling" software, like IBM's Plantworks or U.S. Data's FactoryLink (see PT, July '90, p. 21) These programs facilitate graphical, intuitive programming of automation systems. Much of it employs familiar point-and-click, cut-and-paste routines to configure process control and create the links to other levels of a CIM system.

Giving more power to the users doesn't mean that everyone will want to or be able to integrate their own CIM system, but it gives you "increased degrees of freedom," says Nicolaou. It means those who know the process best, the manufacturing engineers, can "configure automation to their own needs." They may not lay out the system, but they can better manipulate it.

Large companies, however, may see advantages in mastering the computer-integration technology themselves, Nicolaou says. These users can "institutionalize" CIM solutions rather than vesting that knowledge in just a few employees. Nicolaou cites a U.S. Data customer, Ford Motor Company's Automotive Components Group, as an example. Smaller companies, by contrast, oftentimes must rely on professional help to reap the benefits of a more integrated CIM solution. To use more general manufacturing software, there's typically a higher level of commitment required than with application-specific products, according to Thomas. "Typically, that higher level of commitment is out of reach of the smaller customer," he says.


Though open architectures may provide inherent benefits, CIM should nonetheless be seen as a reflection of a carefully planned business strategy and not just an end in itself. "Never buy technology unless you know exactly what it will do for your business," IBM's O'Neil warns. If you want to service the automotive industry, for instance, EDI and quality documentation are a must. "If you can't do them, you don't get the order," O'Neil points out. In this atmosphere, open systems help by allowing processors to emulate the capabilities of their customers, O'Neil says.

In fact much of the new openness, and the accompanying technology, has resulted from the strategic demands of "leading-edge" users--ones successfully facing down new manufacturing challenges. As business pressures in favor of maximum integration grow more and more compelling, these users realize that only a combination of CIM suppliers and business-systems vendors can best suit their needs. "It's definitely something the customers are driving," according to Ken Stewart, a senior application engineer at Fisher Controls. "Some of our biggest customers had been pushing us to become more open."

Growing manufacturing complexity and stringent quality requirements also come into play. Injection molding, for instance, was much simpler in the past than today. "I see the days of low-spec molders starting to wane," IBM's O'Neil says. "Molding has become a very complex business." Consider the rigors of ISO 9000 certification, with its requirements for materials traceability and procedure documentation, he says. Or how about the roughly 14,000 materials available, the microcomputer takeover of machine control, and the parallel increases in the sophistication of robots, chillers, dryers, blenders, and the like?

In fact, there may be little alternative but to go with more integrated CIM solutions. "You no longer have one vendor who can meet the suite of application requirements," says Nicolaou. "Open systems are an absolute necessity if you want to integrate control and information systems."

After all, your favorite supplier of injection machine controls probably doesn't write the accounting software you'd trust your books to. The same holds true for other processes as well. "We don't plan on making a thickness gauge for extrusion, so we must interface with gauging manufacturers," says Stewart of Fisher, which offers the RTM-1 open-architecture extrusion control system.

Beyond complexity in processing as a driving force, recent technological innovations have facilitated connectivity as well. For example, suppliers cite developments like Structured Query Language (SQL), which provides easy access to information from relational databases. "Relational databases have been a major advantage," says Hunkar Laboratories president Denes Hunkar. Now, he explains, any program can take information from any part of a common database.

Syscon-PlantStar's Thomas agrees: "Within the last 18 months, the tools have really started to appear." For instance, the Unix operating-system has begun to make inroads into plastics processing, thanks in part to the X Window System. This inherently open environment provides access to multiple software applications across different operating systems and platforms, Thomas notes. Measurex's new MXOpen extrusion control system also relies on the Unix operating system as a route to openness. "The most interesting technology today is coincidentally open," Measurex marketing manager Pat O'Neill says of Unix, praising its intrinsic networking capabilities.


All the marketing hoopla about openness, however, doesn't add up to unrestrained connectivity. Many barriers have yet to be overcome before all the available pieces can communicate. "The ultimate goal is plug-and-play," says Measurex's O'Neill. But he notes that "it will be a while before this technology becomes reality in a typical plant."

Nicolaou cites the lack of economic models for rationalizing enterprise-wide CIM as one limiting factor. "Users can't always economically justify what they know to be right, and that prevents them from doing as much as they could." Any type of information system is tougher to justify than the machines that make your product," agrees O'Neill.

And a fully integrated CIM approach is usually more expensive going in. Its value comes over its longer life cycle, suppliers say. "When interoperability is built in, you run into lower long-term costs," says Thomas, "because changes later are cheaper." He notes that the hardware for an open system may be more expensive than a proprietary control system, but far cheaper than the three stand-alone systems that would be needed with many single-vendor solutions.

On the liability front, it's also hard to develop communication protocols for machines that have the potential to maim or kill. The SPI protocol that could standardize connectivity between injection machines and other layers of CIM has been held back by such liability concerns, according to IBM's O'Neil, who is a member of that protocol's development committee.

More fundamentally, there's no real agreement on which standards should be used to foster communication between the multiplicity of hardware technologies, software packages, and field devices. The various vendors of CIM systems and related products all tend to espouse different routes to connectivity. Moreover, because the adoption of standards can bring technology down to a commodity level, creators of new technology sometimes resist common standards by pushing their own, Nicolaou explains. "Standards are not necessarily innovative and all innovations are proprietary in their early stages," he comments. "As long as there's free enterprise, standards will change."


With standards in a state of flux, choosing CIM solutions for the coming decade becomes a tricky business. Syscon-PlantStar's Thomas likens picking the most strategic standards to betting on horses: "It's a dangerous game even for experts." The first thing to consider, then, in picking CIM solutions for the long haul is which technologies most likely leave themselves open to future changes.

Some software products may serve as an insulation against shifting fashions in standards by supporting as many as possible. U.S. Data relies on something it calls its Open Software Bus Architecture, in which different "modules" provide individual hooks to various standards. "You can intermix these standards and platforms," says Nicolaou "You don't need a homogeneous operating system." This way, you might use Windows, AIX, or almost any mix of operating environments on different pieces of computer hardware, and they would "interoperate within the same system," he says.

Vendors can also hedge their bets against changing standards by offering more comparable functionality on different platforms. Syscon-PlantStar, for instance, may offer a relational database on its PC-based Focus 100 machine-monitoring network, something its higher end, Unix-based Focus 2000 already has. U.S. Data has just introduced a version of its FactoryLink for Microsoft Windows and expects it to rack up the largest sales volumes.

In the absence of universally accepted standards, "de facto standards" provide some common ground among third-party vendors. The Net-BIOS protocol for networking PCs and TCP/IP protocols for intersystem communication can be considered such standards because the products that support them have huge market shares, says Intec's Harvey. "We've taken the stance of supporting all the de facto standards we can."


The new "openness" is also asserting itself on the process-control side. Measurex's O'Neill calls attention to an increasingly common "interim step" taken by controls suppliers until agreements on standards become more pervasive on the machine level. He explains that many controls suppliers have paired up in partnerships and joint efforts to facilitate connectivity between their components. These architectures may not be truly open; they still rely on commercially available or custom bridges between systems rather than on industry standards. But they're not completely closed either, says O'Neill, because they do allow third-party vendors to offer compatible equipment.

At the level of machine monitoring and control networks, Hunkar Laboratories furnishes just one example of such a strategy. It recently established a partnership with Cincinnati Milacron to ensure that Hunkar's central network "command stations" interoperate with Cincinnati injection machine controllers. The link between individual machine control and the centralized control network remains "wide open," according to Hunkar. "There is no standard industry-wide protocol for communications between the machine and central computer, so the trend is for machine builders to align themselves with CIM vendors," he says.

The distributed control system vendors have also "opened up" in this manner. Fisher, for instance, has an agreement with IBM to ensure connectivity between their systems. And Fisher has a similar agreement with Measurex for their respective process control systems.

More evidence comes from Allen-Bradley. All its newest PLCs, like recently introduced PLC-5 upgrades, are now being built around multi-vendor communication and support abilities, says program manager George Anthony. And A-B just introduced a new interface module that uses a common standard, the HART protocol, for connections to field devices from a variety of vendors. Allen-Bradley also showed off the growing dimensions of open architecture technology by holding an Automation fair with its "Pyramid Partners," or companies whose products connect to and complement its own process control equipment.

More and more plastics processing equipment makers are making their equipment compatible with open-systems CIM hardware and software. Several extrusion system suppliers--Reifenhauser Inc. and Nokia-Maillefer, for instance--report that they've made use of FactoryLink in setting up the process control on individual extrusion lines. So even if full integration seems a long way off, open-systems technology may make for an easier transition later. "Once you have the infrastructure, you can take advantage of it anytime," says Nicolaou of U.S. Data.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Gardner Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:computer-integrated manufacturing
Author:Ogando, Joseph
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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