Serving up asset management

Asset management is like pizza that comes in many flavors and styles. It can be cut into several pieces, cooked with ingredients from home, or ordered out. So, would you like yours thin crust or deep dish?

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Matrikon’s Shook, adds that, “Our asset management software is far more sophisticated than that available from the control vendors. We maintain our edge by staying ahead in the areas that really count.”

Can the smaller companies compete with the top tier of automation vendors? “Yes, this is nothing new,” says Heidi Schlinsog, sales and marketing coordinator at Eagle Technology. “Companies have come out with CMMS as part of their software, and give it away for free sometimes, which is hurting the industry because most of their CMMSes aren’t complete.”

Matt Langie, director of product marketing for Datastream, adds that, “The Datastream sales team rarely sees large process control vendors in deals. If companies are looking for best-of-breed technology, they typically don’t consider the larger vendors.”

“The dirty little secret of ERP software is that it’s used for financial functions instead of driving manufacturing decision making. In process manufacturing, ERP has been a pretty big bust.”

Langie reports that the competition is coming to an end anyway. “The ‘end-to-end’ packaged applications are likely to become an anachronism within five years,” he predicts. “As service-oriented architectures (SOAs) emerge as the standard IT infrastructure, web services will enable easy integration between applications.”

Roger Levin, product manager of integrated asset management at Rockwell Automation agrees with this projection. “At Rockwell Automation, we have the ability to manage plant assets, we have access to information supplied by our control systems, and we have an extensive offering around predictive technologies and machine health.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that integration is coming. “Many of the one-stop-shopping offerings are actually optimized for the supplier’s hardware, and therefore aren’t usable on the open market. As open standards in the process industry provide a way for all device manufacturers to participate on an open playing field, the best-of-breed applications will become ubiquitous.”

It’s already happening. Some of asset management ingredients offered by the process control companies actually come from best-of-breed vendors, says Patrick Holcomb, senior VP of business development at Intergraph. “Intergraph has announced integration and even reseller agreements with the major DCS vendors,” he says. “In some cases, they are reselling our software, so they can represent best-in-class engineering.”

Delivering the Pizza
All eight major ingredients of AM aren’t necessarily real-time functions. Only condition monitoring, which often is resident in the field devices, must be in the plant. The software to analyze condition monitoring data, plus software for all the other AM functions, can reside in a server 6,000 miles away at your corporate headquarters, a specialty supplier, or a process control vendor. If you use such a server, then you can access AM data via networks or web browsers.

“Where the software runs is not as important as where users can interface and gain access to critical information,” says Rockwell’s Levin. “AM data collection, storage and analysis functions don’t necessarily have to be at the production site. Where the actual software runs is more a function of the needs of a user.”

Putting AM software on a central server is one way to approach the problem, he says. “We have a contract where we manage 105 sites from a central server. This can be accessed securely from anywhere in the world, and users can view data, work orders, and machine health by facility, region or machine type.”

With a central server, you can buy “seats” for your plant, which allow access to the information from licensed terminals, or you can rent the software. “Indus offers its asset management solution on a ‘hosted’ basis, where the actual software resides on a server hosted and maintained by Indus,” explains Gary Frazier, director corporate communications of Indus International. “The solution accesses data from control systems, and provides access via a web server. The client pays a monthly subscription fee for the use of the application. One client, Smurfit-Stone Container Corp, estimates savings of $500,000 over five years using the hosted model.”

Prasad Raghavendra, product manager at Honeywell Process Solutions, reports that, “Honeywell doesn’t rent any of its software. However, there is software deployed as a pay-per-use service running on a central web server. The package gets its information from control systems via open standards like OPC.”

Shook adds that, “We’ve been offering this for years, with no takers so far. Part of the problem has been that operating companies are very protective of their data.”

Web-based delivery is a major trend in AM, says ExperTune’s Buckbee. “Detailed process information can be accessed by hundreds of users, directly from their desktops via their web browsers. When the local team needs help, they can call on experts from around the world to solve their problems. In one recent case, a control engineer at a plant in North Carolina called in a corporate engineer and an expert consultant to solve a process oscillation problem. In just two hours, with web connections and a conference call, they solved a problem that had plagued the plant for weeks.”

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