WITH ITS announcement last month of the InFusion “enterprise control system,” Invensys Process Systems (IPS) formalized its bid to finally fill industry’s longstanding need for a unified platform on which to truly integrate real-time controls with enterprise information systems. (Read "Invensys Launches First Enterprise Control System.”
Sound familiar? Well, it should. The editors of this magazine have spilled plenty of ink in the past on sensor-to-boardroom scenarios, starting with yours truly’s first feature article profiling leading implementers of computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM). Remember that acronym? It fell out of favor when we all realized just how hard it was to make it happen! Point-to-point integration of disparate systems proved expensive, time-consuming and fragile. And too often data was simply dumped into massive archives, and did little to improve our ability to align plant performance with business priorities.
“Most of those ideas never really got past Powerpoint,” confessed controls industry veteran Rick Bullotta, now of SAP Labs, on hand at InFusion’s launch to lend the enterprise software giant’s support to the initiative. “However, I think we’re finally there.”
So, just what has changed since the CIM days that might make this round anything but more marketing-speak? First, the key standards and technology enablers are finally mature enough to make integration relatively less painful and more robust. For example, our industry’s virtual standardization on SAP at the enterprise layer and Microsoft for IT infrastructure already has greatly simplified the task at hand.
In the case of InFusion, Microsoft’s .NET and BizTalk Server as well as SAP’s NetWeaver and xMII technologies are leveraged to streamline integration and visualization tasks. Consensus standards such as Open Operations & Maintenance (O&M)—the convergence of the OPC, ISA 95 and MIMOSA standards—also play a key role in reducing integration effort “by at least 50%,” says IPS president Mike Caliel.
At the plant-floor level, one way to think of InFusion is as an extension of the robustness of the Foxboro I/A distributed control system architecture to include legacy devices that once would have required point-to-point integration. The clever thing that Invensys has done is to take the industry-leading cadre of device drivers developed for its Wonderware InTouch platform, and then add a layer of object abstraction on top through which to implement more advanced performance management applications. In effect, non-Invensys systems can now be treated as objects within the distributed “ECS” environment. Not rocket science in concept; they’re simply making it much easier to do and maintain than it used to be.
Another reason for more widespread integration of controls and enterprise systems is an eminently practical one, having to do with market dynamics. Control itself has been for the most part commoditized, and the next battle for differentiation among the major automation suppliers will have to be engaged at the execution and integration level. At this level, token “openness,” which has long been the motherhood-and-apple-pie value of the automation community, will give way to vendor standardization at the integration and execution level, further improving the effectiveness of these efforts.
Just look at the enterprise software space. A scant few years ago, a multitude of best-of-breed application providers vied for dominance in narrow specializations. As the market matured, however, the advantages of best-of-breed gave way to application suites with built-in, cross-application integration.
Similarly, all the major global automation players will continue to develop their own integrated suites of tools designed to optimize overall manufacturing asset performance. It’s too early to tell the Visicalcs of today from the Microsoft Offices of tomorrow, but, for now, Invensys Process Systems appears headed in a positive direction.